Marine mammal trainer Dawn Brancheau, age 40, was on February 24, 2010 killed at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, toward the end of a lunchtime show with Tilikum, known to most of the world these days as an orca, but still called a ”killer whale” by SeaWorld.
Tilikum “had Dawn Brancheau in his mouth,” writes Death at Seaworld author David Kirby. ”The orca would not release his trophy. Ten minutes later, workers pried the trainer’s lifeless body from the whale’s mouth. How could this happen despite corporate training and safety measures?”
A decade of controversy over keeping orcas in captivity, sparked by the 1993 hit film Free Willy!, had subsided after Keiko, the whale star, left human care in September 2002 and died 15 months later. ”Dawn Brancheau’s death changed everything,” Kirby says.
Media descended on Seaworld, seeking answers and reviving the questions raised by the Free Willy! episode. Seeking to satisfy an anxious public and to protect the image of an enterprise sold in 2009 for $2.7 billion, SeaWorld revamped training procedures for all employees.
SeaWorld also announced “spending tens of millions of dollars on new safety equipment, including rising pool floors that can quickly lift people and whales from the water, underwater vehicles to distract the animals in emergencies and portable oxygen bottles for trainers,” summarized Mitch Stacy of Associated Press.