Orca shows will resume, SeaWorld announces
ORLANDO, Fla. — SeaWorld will restart its killer whale shows this weekend after Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, dragged a trainer to her death in the water at the Orlando park.
SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Jim Atchison said Friday trainers won't get in the water with the killer whales for now until officials finish reviewing what happened to veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40.
"We will make improvements and changes, and we will move forward," Atchison said at a news conference at the Florida park, one of three SeaWorld locations. The others are in San Antonio and San Diego.
The trainer was dragged into the water Wednesday by Tilikum. The medical examiner says she likely died of traumatic injuries and drowning.
Atchison says Tilikum will remain an "active, contributing member of the team" at SeaWorld.
Atchison says whale shows will resume Saturday. He says he's not sure how long it will be before trainers are allowed to get back in the water with the animals.
Tilikum is the only killer whale in the SeaWorld chain for which the park has special handling rules, Atchison said. The 22-foot, 12,000-pound male was involved in two earlier deaths at SeaWorld and a park in Canada.
Atchison wouldn't speak to specific protocols or whether any had been violated, saying it's too soon to come to any conclusions.
"It's far too early to get to that point," he said. He added, "We are evaluating every policy, every procedure we have."
The issue of protocols was raised by the former head of animal training at SeaWorld, Thad Lacinak, who said earlier Friday that the rules in place when he left the park in 2008 would not have allowed Brancheau to lie down on a submerged shelf next to the whale, where the animal was able to grab her ponytail.
"She laid completely down, which is a very vulnerable position to be in with an animal like Tilikum. And apparently her ponytail drifted into the water, he just opened his mouth, sucked it in and pulled her in the water," Lacinak, who left SeaWorld in 2008 to start a consultancy, told the Associated Press.
Lacinak said he'd been told how the attack happened by other trainers who were at the scene. Based on their description, he said the rules for handling Tilikum that were in place during his tenure had either been broken or changed.
Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 at a theme park near Victoria, Canada. In 1999, the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld. Officials said the man had stayed in the park after closing, apparently fell into the whale tank and died of hypothermia, but was also bitten by Tilikum.
Lacinak said Brancheau's ponytail was merely a "novelty item" to the whale, who was not trained to be in the water with people.
"It was a novel item in the water, and he grabbed hold of it, not necessarily in an aggressive way," he said.
Lacinak said the whale dragged the trainer into the water in more of a playful, investigative manner. Once the whale had her in the water, it likely became a game.
"It was more novelty, he's like, 'Hey look, you're in the water, I'm going to play with you,'" Lacinak said.
-- Associated Press
Photo: SeaWorld President and Chief Executive Jim Atchison speaks in an underwater viewing area during a news conference on Friday. Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press