SeaWorld to give more details Friday in trainer’s death

SeaWorld has scheduled a Friday news conference to discuss an accident that left a trainer dead after she was attacked by a whale, a spokesman said

Dawn Brancheau, 40, died Wednesday from multiple injuries and drowning after a 12,000-pound whale grabbed her ponytail and pulled her underwater in front of shocked onlookers at Shamu Stadium, the Orange County Sheriff’s office said Thursday.

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She was “pulled underwater for an extended period of time,” Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s curator of zoological operations, told CNN’s “American Morning.”

Tompkins said Brancheau was interacting with the whale, Tilikum, in knee-deep water when the animal grabbed her hair. Rescuers were not immediately able to reach her because the whale was too aggressive, the sheriff’s office said.

She was recovered by SeaWorld staff members after Tilikum was coaxed into a smaller pool and lifted out of the water by a large platform on the bottom of the smaller tank, authorities said.

“While this incident remains the subject of an ongoing death investigation, there are no signs of foul play,” the sheriff’s statement said. “All evidence and witness statements indicate that the death was a tragic accident.”

SeaWorld said the 1 p.m. Friday news conference will give more details.

Brancheau wanted to be an animal trainer from the time she visited SeaWorld as a 9-year-old, her sister Diane Gross said.

“It was her dream job,” Gross said. “She loved the animals like they were her own children … She loved what she did.”

The incident occurred about 2 p.m. Wednesday. Tompkins said the whale had just finished a session with Brancheau, who was leaning over and rubbing his head.

“She had a long ponytail that brushed in front of her and apparently got in front of his nose,” Tompkins said. “He probably felt it.”

Tilikum grabbed the ponytail and pulled Brancheau into the water, he said.

The same whale has been linked previously to two other deaths. Tilikum and two other whales also were involved in the drowning of a trainer at a Victoria, British Columbia, marine park in 1991. The trainer fell into the whale tank at the Sea Land Marine Park Victoria and was dragged underwater as park visitors watched.

iReport: Photo taken moments before attack

In 1999, Tilikum was blamed for the death of a 27-year-old man whose body was found floating on his back in a tank at SeaWorld, the apparent victim of a whale’s “horseplay,” authorities said then.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office said the man apparently hid in the park until after it closed, then climbed into the tank.

Because of Tilikum’s history, as well as his size, trainers did not get into the water with him, Tompkins said. Specific procedures were in place for working with him, he said, although “obviously, we need to evaluate those protocols.”

“He’s just a really, really large animal,” Tompkins said, noting that female killer whales weigh 6,000 pounds — half of Tilikum’s weight.

“Just because of his size alone, it would be dangerous to get in the water with him.”

Tilikum could have been trying to play with Brancheau or get her attention or companionship, said Nancy Black, a marine biologist who has studied whales for 20 years.

Such whales play with seals and sea lions in the wild, tossing them in the air, she said, but do not kill them and end up letting them go.

But, she noted, the whale could also have been frustrated for some reason.

The incident raises larger questions about captivity of wild animals.

A spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called the death “a tragedy that didn’t have to happen.”

Jaime Zalac said the organization had called on SeaWorld “to stop confining oceangoing mammals to an area that to them is like the size of a bathtub, and we have also been asking the park to stop forcing the animals to perform silly tricks over and over again. It’s not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out.”

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