ORLANDO — A SeaWorld Orlando animal trainer was killed Wednesday during an accident at SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium, park and law enforcement officials said.
Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old with extensive training experience, drowned following a popular Dine with Shamu show as at least two dozen tourists looked on from above a whale tank and from an underwater viewing area.
SeaWorld executive Chuck Tompkins confirmed what witnesses saw, that Brancheau was pulled into the water by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound male killer whale.
Brancheau was finishing up a session with Tilikum, the largest whale in SeaWorld’s collection and its only mature male.
“We’re in the process of investigating all of the people and the animals,” Tompkins said.
Witnesses told The Orlando Sentinel that one of the park’s whales grabbed the trainer by the upper arm, disappeared underwater and swam to the other side of the tank. Tilikum thrashed Brancheau around in the water as he swam rapidly around in the whale pool.
Brazilian tourist Joao Lucio DeCosta Sobrinho, 28, and girlfriend Talita Oliveira, 20, were at an underwater viewing area when they suddenly saw a whale with someone in its mouth.
The couple said they watched the whale show at the park two days earlier and came back to take pictures. But Wednesday afternoon the whales appeared agitated before the incident occurred.
“It was terrible. It’s very difficult to see the image,” Sobrinho said.
Brancheau was bleeding from the face or mouth, they said, and the whale turned her over and over as it swam.
Within minutes, an alarm in the viewing area sounded and security personnel arrived to escort tourists out.
“No panic, no panic” is what they said, Oliveira said in broken English.
About 20 visitors also were escorted out of the dining area, several diners told The Sentinel.“It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon,” SeaWorld President Dan Brown said in a brief statement to reporters. “We’ve initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred.”
Brown said no SeaWorld park had ever before experienced a similar incident and pledged a thorough review of all of the park’s standard operating procedures.
Officials at PETA, long critical of SeaWorld’s practices, again called on the park “to stop confining oceangoing mammals to an area that to them is like te size of a bathtub,” it said in a statement.
“It’s not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out.”