Wednesday, February 24, 2010

....SeaWorld Orlando trainer killed in whale attack....

File photo of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed during an accident at the park Wednesday, February 24, 2010. (ORLANDO SENTINEL FILE / December 30, 2005)

A SeaWorld Orlando animal trainer was killed this afternoon 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, following a Dine with Shamu show.

"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 her 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 this 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. "We know panic because we see."

About 20 visitors also were escorted out of the dining area, several diners told the Sentinel.

Dine with Shamu is held twice a day, according to the park. The early show is at 12:30 p.m. The second show is held at 6:30 p.m.

"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."

Brancheau worked at the park since February 1994. An Osceola County Sheriff's Deputy was parked outside her home in St. Cloud and turned away any visitors.

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.

"This is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld parks and our team members. Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the animals entrusted to our care," Brown said, his voice breaking slightly. "We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the trainer and will do everything possible to assist them in this difficult time."

Whale involved in other incidents

Whale involved in other incidents

Orange County Fire Rescue personnel arrived on scene within five minutes of receiving a 911 call for an unknown medical condition just prior to 2 p.m., a spokesman said. Brancheau was dead when rescue officials arrived.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration dispatched an investigator from Tampa to investigate, an OSHA spokesman said.

Tilikum has been involved in two deaths before. Nicknamed Tilly, he was blamed for a 1991 drowning of a trainer while he performing at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia.

In 1999, authorities discovered the dead body of a naked man lying across his back. Authorities concluded the man, who had either snuck into SeaWorld after hours or hidden in the park until it closed, most likely drowned after suffering hypothermia in the 55-degree water.

They also said it appeared Tilikum had bit the man and tore off his swimming trunks, likely believing he was a toy to play with.

A former SeaWorld contractor told the Sentinel that Tilikum is typically kept isolated from SeaWorld's other killer whales and that trainers were not allowed to get in the water with him because of his violent history.

SeaWorld has had incidents with its killer whales in the past. In 2005, a trainer was injured by what park officials called an "overly excited" whale that bumped the trainer during a live performance. The injuries were minor.


At Sea World San Diego, park officials cancelled their afternoon Shamu show out, park spokesman David Koontz said.

"We're terribly saddened by the loss of the member of our Sea World family, it doesn't matter what park," Koontz said. Park said park officials had yet to make a decision as to whether to cancel tomorrow's show.

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 the size of a bathtub," it said in a statement.

"It's not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out."

Many animal-rights activists have long criticized SeaWorld and other marine parks for keeping orcas and other wildlife in captivity. Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer in Fort Lauderdale, said keeping the animals captive makes them dangerous.

"Captivity is abusive to these animals. And the abuse mounts up. And when these animals snap — just for a minute — they're so big and can be so dangerous that it's like a shotgun," Rector said. "It does an incredible amount of damage in just a moment."

At SeaWorld this afternoon, park guests are being turned away from the walkways that lead to Shamu stadium. They are being told that part of the park is closed for the night.

A person just made an intercom announcement, telling visitors the 5:30 p.m. show at Shamu stadium had been cancelled.

The park remains crowded, despite the drizzle, partly in part to a private event being on site.

Some guests didn't seem to know why they were turned around from going to the stadium area.

Outside the park and at the entrance, people were talking about the news — calling it "crazy."