ORLANDO — A SeaWorld killer whale seized a trainer in its jaws Wednesday and thrashed the woman around underwater, killing her in front of a horrified audience. It marked the third time the animal had been involved in a human death.
Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was one of the park's most experienced. She drowned after the noontime Dine with Shamu show with Tilikum, the largest whale in SeaWorld's collection and its only mature male. At least two dozen tourists looked on from above the tank and from an underwater viewing area.
Distraught audience members were hustled out of the stadium.
SeaWorld executive Chuck Tompkins confirmed what witnesses saw, that Brancheau was pulled into the water by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound male killer whale.
"We're in the process of investigating all of the people and the animals," Tompkins said.
Witnesses said the whale 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 on Wednesday the whales appeared agitated before the incident.
"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.
Tilikum has been involved in two deaths before. Nicknamed Tilly, he was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.
Tilikum was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld security was found draped over him. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by Tilikum.
A former contractor with SeaWorld told the Orlando Sentinel that the whale 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.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration dispatched an investigator from Tampa to investigate, an OSHA spokesman said
Brancheau, who lived in St. Cloud, had worked at the park since February 1994.
According to a profile of Brancheau in the Sentinel in 2006, she was one of SeaWorld Orlando's leading trainers. It was apparently a trip to SeaWorld at age 9 that made her want to follow that career path.
"I remember walking down the aisle (of Shamu Stadium) and telling my mom, 'This is what I want to do,' " she said in the article.
Brancheau worked her way into a leadership role at Shamu Stadium during her career with SeaWorld, starting at the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium before spending 10 years working with killer whales.
She also addressed the dangers of the job.
"You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you," Brancheau said.
Brancheau's older sister Diane Gross of Indiana said the trainer "would not want anything done to that whale." Gross said her sister loved working at the park and thought of the animals like she would her own children.
Brancheau had more experience with the 30-year-old whale than most.
"We recognized he was different," Tompkins said. He said no decision has been made yet about what will happen to Tilikum, such as transferring him to another facility.
Steve McCulloch, founder and program manager at the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program at Harbor Branch/Florida Atlantic University, said the whale may have been playing, but it is too early to tell.
"I wouldn't jump to conclusions," he said.
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."
Spectator Eldon Skaggs said Brancheau was on a platform with the whale and was massaging it. He said the interaction appeared leisurely and informal.
Then, Skaggs said, the whale "pulled her under and started swimming around with her."
Skaggs said an alarm sounded and staff rushed the audience out of the stadium as workers scrambled around with nets.
Several people who attended the 12:30 show at Shamu Stadium said the whales weren't performing like normal. Brad Sultan, visiting from Tampa, said one of the three whales that was supposed to make a triangle with three trainers didn't do what it was supposed to.
The show, Sultan said, "abruptly ended."
Wednesday's attack was the second time in two months that an orca trainer was killed at a marine park. On Dec. 24, Alexis Martinez Hernandez, 29, fell from a whale and was crushed at Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Officials said the whale, named Keto, made an unusual move as the two practiced a trick in which the whale lifts the trainer and leaps into the air.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.