Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum And The Death Of Dawn Brancheau

My effort to trace the marine park experience of Tilikum the orca, in order to try and understand how his life life led to the death of Dawn Brancheau, his trainer, is now out in the July issue of Outside. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Tilikum as
Image via Wikipedia

Tilikum kept dragging Brancheau through the water, shaking her violently. Finally—now holding Brancheau by her arm—he was guided onto the medical lift. The floor was quickly raised. Even now, Tilikum refused to give her up. Trainers were forced to pry his jaws open. When they pulled Brancheau free, part of her arm came off in his mouth. Brancheau’s colleagues carried her to the pool deck and cut her wetsuit away. She had no heartbeat. The paramedics went to work, attaching a defibrillator, but it was obvious she was gone. A sheet was pulled over her body. Tilikum, who’d been involved in two marine-park deaths in the past, had killed her.

“Every safety protocol that we have failed,” SeaWorld director of animal training Kelly Flaherty Clark told me a month after the incident, her voice still tight with emotion. “That’s why we don’t have our friend anymore, and that’s why we are taking a step back.”

Dawn Brancheau’s death was a tragedy for her family and for SeaWorld, which had never lost a trainer before. Letters of sympathy poured in, many with pictures of Bran­cheau and the grinning kids she’d spent time with after shows. The incident was a shock to Americans accustomed to thinking of Shamu as a lovable national icon, with an extensive line of plush dolls and a relentlessly cheerful Twitter account. The news media went into full frenzy, chasing Brancheau’s family and flying helicopters over Shamu Stadium. Congress piled on with a call for hearings on marine mammals at entertainment parks, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened an investigation. It was the most intense national killer whale mania since 1996, when Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was rescued from a shabby marine park in Mexico City in an attempt to return him to the sea. Killer whales have never been known to attack a human in the wild, and everyone wanted to know one thing: Why did Dawn Brancheau die?

The story tries to answer that question. Hope it succeeds, at least in part.

There are a number of elements to the tragedy that I did not have space to fully explore. In the coming weeks, I’ll get into some of them right here, with the help of some of my expert sources. So please stay tuned…

In the course of reporting the story I developed enormous respect for the intelligence and complexity of orcas. Here’s a beautiful video that captures some of their majesty:

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9 thoughts on “Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum And The Death Of Dawn Brancheau”

  1. TZ – you’ve produced a benchmark piece. Thank you for reproducing the entire timeline, as well as leaving the ending open-ended. Jeff V.

  2. One of the first pieces to present the ugly side of this industry; the side Sea World doesn’t want us to know. Sea World has always been very good at spinning their circus in the most positive light – it is how they get away with this appalling enterprise. Your article goes a long way in opening the door to the reality of life in a tank. While I feel for Dawn and her family, she chose to be there. Tili?

  3. You’ve written the most complete story of the capture era leading up to Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death. Some patterns emerge, like how SeaWorld frames orca shows as spectacular entertainment, with the claim of education and conservation to fend off critics, and the instant reflex to hide unpleasant facts with delay, distraction and fabrication. Thanks for looking behind the curtain.

  4. I just read your wonderfully researched and written article titled “Diary of a Killer Whale…”
    Ever since this happened, I have wondered about it. Having studied inter-species
    communication and also knowing the intelligence of the killer whale, I have been curious about
    how and why this tragedy happened. Your extensive interviews offer an insight – especially into
    the lives of “caged” species, although we’ll never really know the reason behind the actions of Tilikum – (or should we now call the whale Kilikum). Perhaps humans need to be more respectful about the lives of those who share this planet with us. –Lea Parker, Professor Emeritus, Environmental Communication

    1. Thanks for all the great and supportive comments. I am preparing to publish a series of posts that digs much deeper into Tilikum and the death of Dawn Brancheau, so I hope you will stay tuned and add your thoughts and insights in the comments.

  5. Tim,

    Thanks for stopping by and perusing my series about killer whales and my comments on the Tilikum incident.

    Your story in Outdoors is stunning with good background facts woven with story and I appreciate the effort and research you put into it.

    I’ve been in the industry a long time–since whaling was allowed and even turned down an offer to go to Orlando to train killer whales for SW early in my career.

    The corporate family model has always been super strong within the SW organization–no matter who owns it.

    When I worked on “Resources for Crisis Management for Zoos & Other Animal Career Facilities” they would not contribute.

    I’ve not seen their protocols but what they used was not effective and the backup trainer I saw in footage prior to the incident was not attentive.

    Usually, you see body posture shifts and other subtle changes in the marine animal prior to any escalation.

    One of my theories in the captive animal scene is that instability in the housing and management (including training and trainers) escalates situations that eventually result in a predisposition toward aggressive display or incidents.

    From the inside I’ve heard that there were disruptions within the orca group earlier in the day. (I’d love for you to confirm if you found this in your interviews.)

    Agitation within a group impacts the behavior of the individuals whether or not they are in the same environment or enclosure.

    Also, despite what management often says, there is underlying pressure to “go on with the show.”

    One of my colleagues talks about “captivity sickness” in some animals and I would equate that statement to the recent theory that capture trauma affects some animals in the same way that post-traumatic stress syndrome impacts some humans. (NY Times article on elephants a link can be found on my site.)

    If you look at the records and background of the animals it can reveal a lot–but the problem is that captive animals are not good candidates for release, the humane industry has their own agenda which is not always in the best interest of the animal, and reducing mental stimulation, task challenges and interactions for Tilikum is not the solution either.

    It is a big, sad and ugly mess. I’ve been around since people didn’t care and now see that they care but don’t really understand the REAL animal or the larger issues.

    Hoping that we can morph into something a bit better for both captive wildlife and the wild ones in environments that we are slowly destroying as well.

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