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SeaWorld Orlando trainer dies in orca incident

February 24, 2010 |  2:53 pm

An incident involving an orca left a SeaWorld Orlando marine mammal trainer dead Wednesday. The identity of the victim has not been released, although SeaWorld president Dan Brown confirmed during a news conference that it was a senior female trainer at the park.

A witness, Victoria Biniak, told Florida news source WKMG that the trainer was grabbed by an orca shortly after delivering a speech to an audience gathered for a public whale show. But a spokesperson for the Orlando County Sheriff's Office, Jim Solomons, said that it appeared the trainer had slipped or fallen into the tank, apparently contradicting Biniak's description. "This appears to be an accidental death, a tragic death," Solomons said. 

The trainer was already dead when emergency personnel arrived, Orange County Fire Rescue spokesperson John Mulhall told WKMG. An investigation into her death is underway, and Brown said that "all of [SeaWorld's] standard operating procedures will be under review" in light of the incident.

The whale, identified by WKMG as a very large adult male named Tilikum, "took off really fast in the tank, and then he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing around, and one of her shoes flew off," Biniak told the station.

Another witness, David Dalton, told the WFTV news station that "out of nowhere, two of the bigger whales just kind of flipped out, going as fast as they could in the water." After the incident, SeaWorld Orlando staff "cut off the show ... quickly," Dalton said. Although park guests were evacuated from the Shamu Stadium area where the incident occurred and the whale show was canceled, SeaWorld Orlando has not been fully evacuated, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

SeaWorld in San Diego canceled its Shamu show, at least for Wednesday, after the fatal Florida incident.

Tilikum is apparently a wild-captured, rather than captive-bred, orca who also had some degree of involvement in the earlier deaths of two other humans.

In 1991, when he occupied a Canadian park called Sealand of the Pacific, a young female trainer named Keltie Byrne apparently slipped and fell into the orca tank in which Tilikum and other whales were swimming. Another trainer, Karen McGee, recalled later that she tried to help Byrne out of the tank, but the whales made her rescue impossible. McGee said she thought the whales believed the incident "was a play session, and she was in the water."

Later, in a move apparently unrelated to the Sealand incident, Tilikum was sent to SeaWorld Orlando. (He went on to father numerous offspring.) But at the Florida park, another bizarre incident ended with a man's death in 1999. The man, later identified as 27-year-old David Dukes of South Carolina, was found dead in Tilikum's tank. From the Orlando Sentinel:

Authorities later 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.

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

The Sentinel reported that the park remained crowded after Wednesday's tragic incident, in part because of a private event being held there. The Shamu Stadium area has been cordoned off, and park staff are explaining to visitors that that section of the park has been closed for the remainder of the day.

In an interview with the Sentinel, former dolphin trainer Russ Rector said he believes the act of confining animals like orcas 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.

Another marine mammal expert, Nancy Black, hypothesized in an interview with WKMG that Tilikum might have been playing rather than trying to hurt the trainer. "They are very intelligent creatures. They have emotions, and feelings," Black told the station. "Maybe it was unhappy in the situation, maybe it was bored."

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video: Tilikum in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2007. Credit: Savie4lf

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