Yesterday afternoon, experienced whale trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, was attacked and killed by 30-year-old male orca [killer whale], Tillikum, during the afternoon show at SeaWorld, in Orlando, Florida. The 12,000 pound male orca, Orcinus orca, apparently grabbed his trainer and thrashed her to death in front of the horrified audience. This animal has killed two other humans during his lifetime.
Two newsreports with the Orange County (Florida) Sheriff’s Department reveals the homicide department is conducting a “death investigation”. It appeared to be an accident, not foul play. Dan Brown, spokesperson for SeaWorld Orlando explained that they also are conducting an investigation. “We have never in the history of our parks experienced an incident like this and all of our standard operating procedures will come under review.”
A witness to the event, Eldon Skaggs, tells a different story from that stated by SeaWorld officials, saying that the “trainer was massaging the whale on his belly, then the whale took off really fast, came around, right up to the glass, popped up and started thrashing, grabbed the trainer by the waist, started thrashing, and her shoe came off. The sirens went off.”
The orcas were apparently agitated and misbehaved during the noon show, which eventually was ended early. Yet the afternoon show went on, despite this unusual behavior. Orca expert, Janet Mann of Georgetown, says it’s impossible to tell if an orca is in an aggressive mood:
Here is a 2007 video by “Rose” (who also goes by the YouTube handle, “TillikmTrainer“) that tells her version of Tillikum’s life story:
“GrrlScientist” is the blog pseudonym for a female evolutionary biologist/ornithologist and freelance science and nature writer who lives in Frankurt am Main, Germany.