SeaWorld trainer's harrowing last moments as whale did 'deep dive' with body in mouth


The gory details of Dawn Brancheau’s death in the jaws of a killer whale are not for the faint of heart.

Dawn, an experienced SeaWorld trainer, died of ‘drowning and traumatic injuries’ on after she was mauled by Tilikum, a 5.4 tonne orca measuring more than 22ft in length.

The 41-year-old was snatched and dragged into the water during a live show so quickly that no one saw it happening – not even the trainer working as her ‘spotter’.

A police report written after the horrifying incident in February 2010 paints a truly harrowing picture.

Jan Topoleski told investigators that “Dawn was lying on her stomach… Tilikum was interacting with her nose to nose. Dawn’s long hair floated on the water in to Tilikum’s mouth.”

He added that he watched as she struggled to free her hair from the orca’s mouth. This was cause enough for him to turn around to push the alarm button.

But when he looked back, 5ft 1ins Dawn was nowhere to be seen.

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Dawn Brancheau was an experienced marine trainer at SeaWorld, pictured here in 2005
Dawn Brancheau was an experienced marine trainer at SeaWorld, pictured here in 2005

As the emergency siren echoed through the enormous marine park, employees raced to the pool and tried to corral the agitated creature with nets, throwing food into the pool in an attempt to distract him.

Tilikum, now 28, had already been responsible for the deaths of two people since he was captured as a two-year-old whale, so no trainers were allowed to swim with him as he was considered so dangerous.

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CCTV from the park showed Dawn entering the water at 13:38. By 13:43 Tilikum was seen swimming with her lifeless body in his mouth. Twenty minutes later, her body was retrieved from the pool.

However, the horror wasn’t just caught on camera. Below the surface, terrified tourists and staffers were witnessing the final moments of Dawn Brancheau.



Dawn was pulled in to the pool from a concrete ledge, similar to this
Dawn was pulled in to the pool from a concrete ledge, similar to this

At the bottom of the pool was the Dine with Shamu area, where people could eat lunch and watch the orca show.

Usually a SeaWorld staffer would signal that they were “ready” for the huge marine beast to dive down so that tourists could snap photos through the glass.

But as Lynne Schaber waited for the whale to come to the window, she saw “him pull her in.”

Through the reinforced glass, Dawn’s peril played out like a real time horror film as the 5.4 tonne whale began to drown her.

Lynne told cops that she knew Dawn was in trouble as Tilikum was a ‘possessive’ animal, and once he had things in his mouth he would not release them.



Dawn Brancheau with a killer whale called Nalani, a year before her death
Dawn Brancheau with a killer whale called Nalani, a year before her death

She added that from her viewpoint, he never let Dawn come to the surface, despite the petite trainer at one point appearing to do her best to escape his jaws, and frantically swimming up for air.

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Stacy Nichols was working on the Dine with Shamu show when she observed Tilikum do a “deep dive” to the bottom of the tank with a trainer in his mouth.

One of the horrified tourists noted that the whale was violently shaking her body.



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Other witnesses claimed they saw Tilikum “hit her” as she tried to escape, and that at points he was carrying her around by her arm, and torso.

One witness said she saw Dawn “scrambling” to get out of the water, and Tilikum swim straight towards her and “impact her squarely in the chest”.

Next, she claimed he “looped around and came back towards Dawn Brancheau with his mouth open”.



The body of Dawn Brancheau can be seen under a black sheet - Tilkum is in the pool next to her
The body of Dawn Brancheau can be seen under a black sheet – Tilikum is in the pool next to her

He was swimming manically, only coming to the surface long enough to breathe before diving again.

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When the incident happened, there were seven other smaller whales in the pool with Tilikum, but they were quickly moved to neighbouring pools while staff battled to save their friend.

Staff “asked for control” by slapping the water, but Tilikum ignored them, and became more agitated the more people tried to get Dawn from his jaws, “thrashing violently back and forth”.

SeaWorld paramedic Thomas Tobin was quick to arrive at the sea, and was there for “three to four minutes” without seeing Dawn reach the surface.

Thirty minutes later, and after being isolated in a special medical pool with a hydraulic base, Dawn was finally freed from Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity and the animal she had worked with for 16 years.



Dawn rides on th back of a whale during one SeaWorld show
Dawn rides on th back of a whale during one SeaWorld show

Thomas said it was when she was removed from the water and he observed that she had been scalped that he realised that she had died. He added that he believed that she had a broken neck.

The police report also states that SeaWorld employees had to dive to the bottom of the pool to retrieve her scalp.

Even after her body had been retrieved from the water, Tilikum was antagonistic and appeared to keep attempting to get it.

Her body was placed under a black sheet five feet away from the wall of ‘D’ pool. The report claims “Tilikum the whale could clearly be seen at the edge of ‘D’ pool. He would periodically lift himself above the pool wall.”

The incident is the subject of Blackfish, a documentary film available to watch on Netflix.

It is still not known what triggered Tilikum to attack that day. Some people questioned if he had mistaken her ponytail for a toy.

Perhaps the most likely explanation is that after 26 years being confined to a concrete tank, this magnificent wild animal had simply snapped.





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