ORLANDO, Fla. – SeaWorld Orlando and its sister parks in San Diego and San Antonio will resume performances with their killer whales today, though trainers will not swim with the animals as the company works to understand what led one of its orcas to grab and kill a trainer this week.
SeaWorld Orlando also said it intends to continue using in its performances Tilikum, the 6-ton orca that pulled veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau to her death Wednesday, though the animal will not be used today.
“He’s been a part of our team, and he will remain a part of our team,” SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment President Jim Atchison told reporters during an afternoon news conference at the Orlando theme park.
Staring into a phalanx of television cameras while a group of orcas swam in an aquarium behind him, Atchison said removing Tilikum from the park’s marquee shows “would be a shame.”
“This is really a wonderful animal, and his participation in our shows, his engagement in our interactions and so forth, is very important to his overall health and husbandry,” he said.
The wide-ranging news conference came approximately 72 hours after the killer whale nicknamed “Tilly” snatched Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer with more than a decade of experience, into the water by her ponytail and drowned her in front of some park onlookers.
The tragedy has stirred renewed criticism from some animal-rights activists and orca experts who contend that killer whales should not be held in captivity. It has also prompted questions about whether it is safe for trainers to work with Tilikum, an adult male roughly twice the size of SeaWorld Orlando’s next-largest orca.
In 1991, while being held at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific aquarium in British Columbia, Tilikum and two other whales drowned a trainer who had fallen into their tank. And in 1999, seven years after being acquired by SeaWorld, Tilikum was found with a man’s dead body draped across his back; authorities said the man had sneaked into SeaWorld after hours to swim in the park’s orca tank, suffered hypothermia in the 55-degree water and drowned, though Tilikum also bit him at some point during the night.
SeaWorld itself has long acknowledged that the whale is particularly dangerous. Trainers were forbidden from swimming with him, and only the most experienced ones – including Brancheau – were permitted to work with him from the water’s edge. Tilikum is the only orca among the 26 in SeaWorld’s companywide collection that has unique handling protocols.