Family of SeaWorld Trainer Killed by Orca Speaks Out for First Time

Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer killed in an accident with a killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando, in Florida in 2010. Photograph By Julie Fletcher, Orlando Sentinel via Getty Images

After months of silence, the family of Dawn Brancheau—the trainer killed by the orca Tilikum during a show at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010—has released a statement about the documentary Blackfish.

Since the film’s debut in 2013, family members say they have continually been asked how they felt about the movie. Although the family appreciates the focus Blackfish has brought to bear on the treatment of animals, they go on to distance themselves from the film. (See “Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer.”)

“First and foremost, we are not affiliated with this movie in any way,” the statement begins. “We did not assist with its creation and were unaware of its content until the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival.”

“The film has brought a great deal of attention to the welfare of animals, and for that we are grateful,” the family says in the release. “However, Blackfish is not Dawn’s story. Dawn Brancheau believed in the ethical treatment of animals.”

The statement goes on to note that Brancheau “thrived on introducing the whales to the audience and educating them about the animals in her care.” Brancheau would not have remained at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt the killer whales were not well cared for, the statement adds.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune on January 21, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite stated that she was initially trying to make a movie about the relationship between humans and animals that focused on the bond between Brancheau and the killer whales at SeaWorld.

“That was not the film I made because as I did my research, I found out so much about SeaWorld, and it became a controversial movie,” Cowperthwaite said in the interview. “But ultimately, I think the trainers and the animals are safer as a result of this film. I can only hope [Brancheau] would be happy about that.”

A Human Life

Since the film’s release last year, controversy has swirled around its portrayal of how SeaWorld treats its captive killer whales.

The company has mounted a campaign to combat the less-than-flattering image presented in Blackfish, but states that revenues remain unharmed by the bad publicity. (See also “First Person: How Far Will the Blackfish Effect Go?”)

In fact, according to reports, SeaWorld stands to post record earnings for 2013, with an estimated $1.46 billion in revenue.

Bridgette Pirtle, one of the former SeaWorld trainers involved with Blackfish, has since condemned the movie for its portrayal of Brancheau, although Pirtle believes that killer whales should no longer be kept for entertainment purposes.

For now, it seems that Brancheau’s family has had its say. The family members note that this is the only statement they will be making, and ask that their privacy be respected.

“Since Dawn’s death nearly four years ago, the media has focused mainly on the whales. A human life was lost that day and it feels as though some believe her death was only a footnote,” the statement says. “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

Jane J. Lee is a news writer and editor at National Geographic.
  • Calesuar

    I don’t expect the word of a family to speak honestly or truthfully necessarily for their deceased daughter’s true reasons why she remained for 15 years…in her famous and necessary employment. AND/OR assume she would have spoken against her employer while remaining employed. Note that a good chunck of her colleagues did just that but AFTER they left SeaWorld. IN order to speak against your employer and loose the security of that paycheck you need more than courage. So, some spoke against it, some decided to stay and not rock the boat. Some others we can assume that they have been paid by SeaWorld in large court settlements and that usually means SILENCE about negative disclosures against the company, that is expected.

  • CJM

    I fully respect the statement that the Brancheau family has made. Dawn is a major part of this story/controversy because of what happened. However, I think some people may miss the point that it’s not only about the safety and care of the whales, it’s also about the safety and well being of the trainers. Not only is the film trying to create awareness for the whales, it’s also trying to prevent anymore trainers being hurt or fatally wounded. It’s an extremely touchy subject no doubt.

  • Andrew Booth

    There is a fine, yet definite line between a film and a documentary. A film is fiction – a story – written by scriptwriters seeking purely to tell as good yarn. A film is never a true representation of the facts, nor does it seek to be or is claimed to be. For example, there were never squeaky-clean marshals like John Wayne in the Wild West – westerns are fiction and just good tales.

    Unfortunately, too many people lose sight of the dividing line between a film and a documentary. They watch a film, then think they’ve seen an accurate portrayal of an event, events or a subject. It seems that’s what’s happened again here. The film ‘Blackfish’ is just a film – a good yarn that’s been dreamed up by a writer. If people want to understand the true facts of this tragic story (or learn about killer whales) they should read the published literature or watch a documentary on the subject. Let’s re-emphasise the line between true facts and a film.

  • ellie

    @andrew booth. The film is a documentary.

    I for one am extremely against sea world and hope to see its animals released to their homes where they belong.

  • ceci

    I believe that the reality and truth behind the scenes is worse than what we saw In the film. Just the fact that the trainers manually sexually stimulate Tilly repeatedly to the point of ejaculation is most distasteful. The Court should rule that has to be an act in the Show.. Let’s see where their revenue goes then..

  • Bill Powers

    Look people, OBVIOUSLY most of the trainers at Sea World have drank the kool-aid… else how could they live with themselves? In other words, this observer believes most killer whale trainers at Sea World really do believe they’re caring for their animals in an appropriate manner. (And that the animals are housed adequately.) Trainers believe they’re engaged in excellent animal husbandry.

    AND THEY’RE FLAT OUT WRONG. Most un-biased observers looking from the outside in come to understand very quickly that housing these large, incredibly-intelligent creatures in what is tantamount to a bathtub is inherently, outrageously wrong. Certainly after viewing Blackfish people “get it”. It’s not hard.

    Sorry that Dawn’s family feels like the film went off-message about their baby girl, but as the director stated, the true, important message was found during the due diligence phase. Killer whales (and cetaceans in general) do not belong in bathtubs!

    Dolphin trainer Ric O-Barry was at the top of his profession when he trained Flipper the Dolphin for the TV show of the same name. Now, years later, Ric has come to realize what a terrible thing it is to keep such intelligent, free-roaming life in a small pen for our amusement. Ric is now perhaps the most well known activist against the captivity (and slaughter) of dolphins.

    My bet is that Dawn Brancheau, had she lived, would have evolved in time to speak out against the captivity of the animals she clearly loved.

    My other bet is that, even now, many killer whale and dolphin trainers have the beginning of a nagging tickle at the base of their brain. A tickle that’s telling them what they’re doing is wrong.

    That tickle is only gonna get bigger.

  • swahl

    I have not seen Blackfish, nor will I. But I have read the book Death at Sea World, which is a history of sea parks around the world and the terrible means by which they “take” orcas for their marine parks. Many Sea World trainers are/were marine biologists hoping to study and serve their profession. As others stated in their comments above, these biologists began to speak out only after realizing their job was merely to train orcas for shows. Many left their jobs, jobs they were at first passionate about and loved, because they could no longer in good conscience do the job for an employer who was strictly in the entertainment business. Yes, the whales needed to be kept healthy in order to keep them alive; they are a huge investment for Sea World. It is a tragic story for all these animals, who are taken from their families, violently, at very young ages, and thrown into tanks with others who are not at all from their same family. They often are unable to communicate with each other, and some have developed poor and destructive relationships among the whale populations in their parks. Not so different than throwing people together in a prison cell and expecting them to get along and deal well with their circumstances.
    I’ve been to Sea World parks and have seen Tilikum in Orlando. He is a giant, in a small tank, isolated because he can not be trusted. What a terribly sad life he will have. I would expect his demeanor to deteriorate over time, since he is deprived of the natural stimulation of his pod’s peers. He is a magnificent creature; I will never forget spending time just observing him; while feeling heartbroken for his circumstances. I will never return to Sea World despite my fierce love of orcas. When given the opportunity, I speak to anyone willing to listen about the “backstage” life of captive orcas. Read Death at Sea World; while I initially thought it was about the trainer and her very unfortunate death, it really spoke of the many, many deaths of orcas over the history of marine parks around the world.

  • Greensleeves

    Brancheau’s family probably received a big, fat check when their daughter was killed and so it comes as absolutely no surprise that they wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them.

  • Jeanette Tippington

    I just finished watching Blackfish. I will never go to an amusement park with an orca show ever again. There is truth and “hype” to the movie. Orcas do not belong in these parks for our amusement. They belong in the wild and should only be in contact with human when we help them to recover before releasing them. I believe that the trainers stayed with the orcas doing their best for them believing that they can speak for them against the amusement park corporation. If Dawn’s parents saw all the reports regarding orca’s bad behavior that were not shown to the trainers, then they might be upset at these employers for putting their daughter at risk. They know their daughter best and while they think their daughter would not stay with the park for so many years only they can answer how much she would have prized and appreciated freedom for the orcas.

  • Marty H Rud

    It is time to address what can be done about these whale parks regarding finding a way to get them closed, permanently. The animals are not meant for a cramped, circus-factory life. The whales must be returned to the sea, and we must have the courage to learn from the guilt that many people will feel about what may happen to the animals after that. I think the whole “gosh, look aren’t they cute?” act is unseemly, grossly unnatural and extremely creepy. They have got to be released and we must find a way to get that done, no ifs, ands or buts. Shut this down!

  • Mel C

    I have always been suspicious about these types of parks as well as zoos. The movie Blackfish, nailed it for me. I am sorry for Dawn Brancheau’s family’s loss but looking at the bigger picture, it was bound to happen. I don’t feel that the movie portrayed her unfairly; I am sure she cared about the animals in her care and that she believed she was doing a good thing. But sometimes when one is passionate about something, one can lose sight of the big picture. The idea of taking a killer whale (the key word is ‘killer’ here) and putting it in a concrete bathtub and making it to silly tricks is truly ridiculous. As a young girl, I used to marvel at these huge fish doing jumps and bows and how the trainers were able to communicate with them. And how I wanted a wet kiss from a killer whale! I remember going to Marineland when it just had the whale show and nothing else and the trainers asked the audience who wanted to be kissed bya whale. Of course, I stood up. The trainer said I was too small. Too small? The little girl in the commercial getting kissed by Shamu was smaller than me! Bitterness aside, I went to Marineland when I was older. This time, there were belugas, sea lions, deer and bears (who were fed Corn Pops-how crazy is that?) I went to the underground viewing area and was immediately saddened by what I saw. The killer whale that we had just seen do amazing tricks and splash us with water was just swimming back and forth upside down. All alone. In this tiny pool ( relative to the whale’s size). Was this whale a son of a mother who is out in the ocean wondering where her long lost son is? Is this whale lonely? Does the companionship of the trainers adequately compensate for the loss of the close-knit pod of which he used to be a member? Are the tricks he is trained to do provide any enjoyment for him? Does he get enough food? Why am I here? I began to see the big picture. Theexploitation of thes animals and of other animals must stop.While the owners of these parks are swimming in money, these whales and dolphins are swimming in loneliness, boredom and in an endless circle of stupid tricks that are contradicting their natural instincts. The simple fact that the dorsal fins are curled over is a clear indication of the mistreatment of these amazing animals. I can’t blame them for being frustrated and stressed out. What I liked about the movie Blackfish, was that they described the killer whale’s brain as having an extra part of the brain that humans don’t have. This part of the brain processes emotions in a more complex manner than humans. So if whales can feel intense emotions more thanhumans can, imagine how a mother and baby killer whale feel when they are ripped apart by Seaworld? Can we even understand that?

  • Stefanie

    It floors me how many people say release the whales back to the sea! Its all fluffy clouds and rainbows if we do that…right? Like somehow we can right any wrongs if we just do that. Just release the whales and everything will be alright then, justice is served. What an ignorant statement. The orcas, which i adore passionately have become our monsters. We have hand fed them their entire lives, we have drilled their bad teeth out, that must be sprayed out after every meal to prevent infection. We have our own ball and chain now people. These orcas are our responsibility. We can not just toss them in the ocean and wash our hands clean of our mistakes. I’m sorry but we are these orcas family. We tried this with kieko. He did ok….but he didn’t gain a family he didn’t live a wonderful long life in the wild he didn’t live to be everything every body dreamed a released orca would be. So. This sounds great people. Toss them out……wash our hands clean…….Its the most ignorant uncaring statement one can make at this point. Thats all I have to say. These are the most beautiful amazing monsters we could have created that i love, they deserve nothing but respect, love, and the best care we can provide for the rest of their lives.

  • Rowan


    I agree with your statement that these orcas are now our responsibility and that we can’t wash our hands of our. However, I am strongly against the use of orcas for entertainment and performance purposes. They are far too large to be kept in the conditions they are kept in. SeaWorld gets away with keeping orcas in their care because they claim what they are doing is for “educational” purposes. Ric O’Barry has spent most of his life with dolphins and aided in the capture of many dolphins until he realized that what he was doing was wrong. After spending three years in captivity, three dolphins in his care were re-released into the wild after being rehabilitated. They were reunited with their pods and accepted by their old families very quickly. It is plausible and logical for killer whales to be released back into the wild. However, you make a strong point, and I can understand the logic and reasoning behind your argument. I found it a bit difficult to disagree with you. But I am a strong supporter of my side of the debate, and I know people are entitled to their own opinions. So I respect yours.

  • Rowan

    “of our wrongdoings.”

    I realize that somehow I neglected to finish the first sentence.

  • Lori

    It’s impossible to “release” the captice orcas back to the open ocean because they won’t survive without their family groups, and no one can positively identify which family group each of them were kidnapped from. Those born in captivity have no family group to even find. The only answer is to let them live out their lives in much larger open water pens so they can at least interact with with ocean they belong in and not with concrete swimming pools. For a species that considers itself the “top of the food chain” we are a stupid species without the interest or capacity to understand the other “big brained” creatures who share this planet … the orca, the elephant, the other dolphins, the great apes, so many others … none of whom go to war against their kind, none of whom torture, none of whom kidnap or entrap other creatures for their own enjoyment.

  • Leo

    I am a birth mom.. one of my children was adopted. It was increadibly hard to give someone else my child – even though it was my choice, and i know for a fact he is doing increadibly well. She and i are friends and i can see him when i want. It still increadibly hard. So seeing Blackfish was heartbreaking. Ive walked a mile in these shoes. i know for a fact what they do to those mother whales is absolutely terrible. Its truly mindblowing , in the worst possible way, what these soulless corporate shills do for money.

  • sue mccoy

    Would someone please do something about this situation rather than just talking about it. I took my two children to sea world around 10years ago and if i had known what they were actually doing for entertainment i would never have gone. The visit turned out to be one of the most upsetting days ever. Not only the whales but seeing a tormented bear in a very small area rocking from side to side. My daughter wrote to them with her concerns and no reply was received. This has got to stop. You people in sea world making billions of dollars how do you justyfy this. I just hope theses orcas will be rescued soon.

  • Veronica Daze

    I saw the “documentary” that was made on the treatment of the Orcas at the sea parks. They didn’t speak only about Sea World. This is not a film as someone put it to differentiate it from non fiction. Anything you watch that is recorded on film logically is a film but this particular one is a documentary. They all have scripts or at least outlines of what they want to impart. If you think National Geographic documentaries don’t have a script you are fooling yourself. Blackfish is a good documentary but it is only one side of the story. If you have ever been to any of these parks you can plainly see their pens are too small. To fix this problem it must be a federal law that applies to all states. Other countries must make laws to outlaw these types of abuses. These places won’t like it because it’s all about money. The whales are impressive but Sea World and other such places have imprisoned them against their will. They are NOT Blackfish, they are aquatic mammals. They should have rights and that would be to not be used for our entertainment. I see no problem with aquariums for viewing if they are large enough to accommodate these giants. Just like there are rules for anyone who works and these mammals are working they need to have strict protections for them. Sea World isn’t just about whales, so suggesting closing them down is ludicrous. There has to be a compromise and that would be rulings on how these animals must be cared for. They are our responsibility since we share the same planet. The person who said they would never watch Blackfish isn’t being rational. This is a very good documentary from a certain perspective. I’m afraid I have a problem believing a large business that makes millions off of captive animals. The fact they separate their young from the mothers bothered me a lot. If you consider the number of shows and years that have passed against deaths I don’t think it’s that high, but I don’t think they should have happened. It wasn’t necessary for the trainers to get in the water with them. They can be dangerous animals when mistreated and it’s very clear that they are mistreated, not necessarily by the trainers that perform with them but the policies of the businesses the house them.

  • Tanesha

    I think that this is so sad and not right

  • Chris

    As well done as Blackfish is it is only one side of the story and not all are exact or true. Everyone is up in arms about Blackfish and its not like its the bible. There is a lot of bias in this documentary, yes some facts are true but NOT ALL. I do agree that these “pools” are too small but at this point there is no way they can release these whales back into the open ocean and expect them to survive. also Sea World does not capture any whales from the ocean any longer. they will either get animals that were born in captivity or buy whales from other parks and as you all saw Sea World has a much better facility then some/most.

  • Sophia

    After watching blackish I don’t understand how people can say it’s bias whether or not the documentary is scripted, it’s plain to see that the amount of stress and life span of the whales isn’t acceptable no matter how you dress it up, the whales aren’t meant to be in a pool torn apart from its family. It doesn’t make it right that they don’t capture them they get the babies from other places there still tearing them apart from there family. There so much more I could say but it’s people that are going to these places and not realising how there contributing to this disgusting and awful places that are making those Wales life he’ll and benefitng those people running them they don’t care about the animals they just care about how much money is going in there pocket.

  • etemad

    sea world : gladiator shows

  • Grace

    I have never seen orcas except in movies and documentaries. I started off not really liking them because they kill other whales and dolphins. But as I started to get to know them through documentaries, I will tell you right now that Orcas are my absolute favourite animals on earth! I see documentaries on them almost everyday and every time I am awestruck by their beauty, grace and intelligence. I have not visited any abusement parks and never will. To be kidnapped from your family, seeing some of them die needlessly, put into a miserable tank and made to perform cheap tricks to amuse people by withholding food is not education. People only learn that exploiting animals for our own profits is ok. Having said this, I can also say very confidentaly that many good people work in such places because of their love for these animals and this does not make them bad people or they condone mistreatment of the animals. Sometimes, it is these good people who bring to light the bad things that are done to these animals. I can only hope that like Keiko, all other captive orcas and dolphins can be put in an ocean pen or if possible reintroduced back to their families to live out the rest of their lives in dignity. We owe it to them. And teach our future generation that exploiting animals and nature for our own profits and entertainment is wrong.

  • ZDF

    I’m just shocked a place like SeaWorld still exists…and people are STILL going to watch captive whales do tricks for treats. This is entertainment, everyone wants to see a giant orca or a group of dolphins perform but what kind of life is that to be taken from the vast ocean to a limited size tank. I dont care if the atmosphere changed since the movie, or if the trainers actually know about the creature they are training with OR if they are safe. Nothing is gained from this experience except human greediness.

  • Bob Hulecky

    I think that is is cruel for these animals to live depressed there whole life. Tili’s flopped over dorsal fin is a pure sign of depression. I feel bad for dawn’s family and i think it is rediculus when people say it was her fault, it was clearly Tilikum’s fault. I am all about animals and i dont agree that keeping wild animals in captivity for our human entertainment is plaine wrong.

  • JazzBoneDaddy

    From what I understand Sea World has not captured orcas from the wild in over 35 years and all of their performing animals (the orcas) were born at Sea World. Furthermore they have announced that they are committed to significantly expanding the orca facilities.

    There’s no nice way to display animals I suppose, but the bulk of the Sea World message is of conservation and respect for all of the creatures under their care.

  • steve

    In every debate you have two sides: The side that uses emotion and the side that uses reason. Reason always wins out against emotion b/c emotion is stupid. Take a guess which side the hypercompassionate animal ethics groups are. BTW, hypercompassionate is not a good thing. Reason it out.

  • Kady

    Honestly, it is really sad and tragic that dawn died and condolences to her family. However, i feel that dawn’s incident will always be teaching us that the lives of both the whales and their trainers are at stake every single day just by keeping these magnificent creatures in captivity. Furthermore, dawn’s life might not have been a foot note, but do you really consider the lives of these whales any less than our lives as humans? Do the deaths of all the whales at Seaworld mean nothing as compared to the tragedy of dawn’s dead? In my opinion, the death of all Seaworld whales are as tragic, if not more and their whole existence at Seaworld only leads to their early deaths.

  • Unknown

    I watched Blackfish and I was truly heartbroken. How can someone do this, and not feel like, Oh we did something wrong. I understand that these animals can NEVER go back to the wild, but that just makes it more depressing. Because of SeaWorld, these animals can never know how animals like them should be living. This is pure torture, and I hope SeaWorld closes down. I have learned that the remaining killer whales at SeaWorld are the last generation, and I am glad. No more of these poor whales will have to suffer in SeaWorld. Dawn’s death was very tragic, but seriously, do you think that putting an animal like Tilly in a BATHTUB was a good idea? No! It’s clear he is depressed! Even though some people think Blackfish isn’t true, it is still clear that these whales suffer.

  • sean marron

    I am doing the project for killer whale because I am doing a new killer whale in the water my job is in the I.T. Class.

    Sean Marion.
    Tk you

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