Details are just beginning to surface about the tragic events at Orlando Sea World in which Tilikum, a 30 year old, 12,000 pound bull Orca, killed Dawn Brancheau, 40, a trainer at the facility. Although Sea World officials initially made statements that it was an “accidental drowning involving an orca”, detailed eyewitness descriptions suggest a more violent event, and the history of the particular whale includes previous deaths that call into question why Tilikum was not considered potentially dangerous by Sea World.
According to witnesses, Brancheau was standing on a platform near the large orca tank and had been explaining the show that was about to begin. Tilikum swam up next to her, turned on his back, and she rubbed his belly while explaining that the while was quite fond of this behavior. Witness Victoria Biniak saw the event from the viewing area and gave this description. Witness Victoria Biniak said she saw the deadly incident from a viewing area. “The trainer was explaining different things about the whale and then the trainer that was down there walked away from the window. Then Telly (the whale) took off really fast in the tank and he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing (her) around,” Biniak said. “He was thrashing her around pretty good. It was violent.”
Spectators were forced to leave the area immediately amidst clanging sirens and an “all hands on deck” response from all Sea World Orlando employees. However, when paramedics arrived, Brancheau was still in the tank and, upon being retrieved, was pronounced dead.
Tilikum was one of three whales blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.
A man’s body was also found draped over Tilikum at Orlando SeaWorld in July 1999. Daniel Dukes reportedly made his way past security at SeaWorld and either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water of Tilikum’s huge tank. An autopsy ruled that he died of hypothermia, but authorities said it appeared Tilikum bit the man and tore off his swimming trunks. In 1999, a 27-year-old South Carolina man somehow entered a whale tank at SeaWorld Orlando after park hours and drowned. Daniel Dukes, who was carrying false identification, was found dead with a bite below his waist, according to autopsy results. He was bitten by Tilikum.
(I will update this was more info becomes available. As many of you know, I’ve been involved in underwater work with dolphins when I directed Eye of the Dolphin and Beneath the Blue, and have become friends with many trainers as well as with many on the opposite side of the captivity issue. This is a tragic incident which calls into mind larger questions concerning the handling of marine mammals in dolphinariums and facilities like the one where this happened.)