A veteran trainer at Orlando’s SeaWorld was dragged under water to her death Wednesday in the jaws of Tilikum, the oldest and largest killer whale in captivity, as horrified onlookers watched.
Tourists eating poolside at a daily event called “Dining With Shamu” watched the whale drown 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau.
Tourists in an underwater viewing area saw the whale swim by, flipping the bleeding trainer over and over in his mouth.
“It was terrible. It’s very difficult to see the image,” Brazilian tourist Joao Lucio DeCosta Sobrinho, 28, told reporters.
SeaWorld suspended its famous water shows as officials tried to figure out what had happened.
Witnesses described vastly different events: One said Brancheau was patting the whale when he grabbed her arm and dragged her into the water. Another said the big bull orca leaped up out of nowhere and began shaking her.
The whale “shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing [her] around,” witness Victoria Biniak told Orlando’s WKMG-TV. “It was violent.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Jim Solomons said Brancheau slipped and fell into the water with the 30-year-old, 6-ton Tilikum, who is not accustomed to people in his tank.
A number of park visitors said several of the whales had appeared unsettled earlier in the day and were not responding to trainers.
Tilikum, whose name means “friend” in the Native American language Chinook, has killed before – always unwittingly.
In 1991, a marine biology student and part-time trainer fell into his tank in Canada and was dragged under by Tilikum. The whale and two females blocked her from getting out of the pool and tossed her back and forth in the air between them like a toy.
In 1999, there was a case so bizarre it made headlines around the world: A man sneaked into Tilikum’s pool at SeaWorld and his naked corpse was found the next day splayed on the whale’s back.
Experts chalked up both incidents to the orca’s misguided attempts at playing. The huge, scary-looking mammals do not generally attack humans.
Brancheau was aware of the dangers posed by the giant marine mammals.
“You can’t put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you,” she told The Orlando Sentinel for a profile published four years ago.
The water park was closed until the weekend. Officials said they did not yet know when the orca show would resume.
“All of our standard operating procedures will be under review,” park President Dan Brown said.
Experts said they weren’t sure what set off the whale.
“What he did in the previous two incidents were not attacks – to him, the people were toys, and to a whale, being under water for 20 minutes is nothing. This sounds a little more like an attack,” said Naomi Rose, a senior scientist at the Humane Society of the United States.
It was unclear what will happen to Tilikum.
Brancheau’s sister Diana Gross said last night that her sibling “would not want anything done to that whale..”She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them,” said Gross, of Indiana.
Rose suggested Tilikum be retired to a sea pen in Iceland, like Keiko, the killer whale Hollywood made famous in 1993’s “Free Willy.”
Rose said such tragedies prove that wild animals should not be kept in pens to perform for tourists. Killer whales are social and intelligent creatures but get stressed in pens, she said.
The orca show is SeaWorld’s biggest draw, and crowds line up far ahead of the performances at Shamu Stadium, which seats 5,500.