ORLANDO, Fla. – Employees wept and audience members grew silent Saturday at SeaWorld as the theme park’s popular killer whale show resumed with a photo montage memorial for a trainer who was killed by one of the orcas in front of horrified spectators three days ago.
The show had been shut down since veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, died Wednesday after rubbing a 22-foot, 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum. The animal grabbed her ponytail and pulled her into the water in front of about 20 spectators. The medical examiner says she likely died of traumatic injuries and drowning.
More than 2,000 people packed the park’s stadium Saturday for the first show since Brancheau’s death.
The whale trainers received a standing ovation as they approached the platform before the show, part of the multimillion-dollar enterprise centered around “Shamu” – the stage name given to all the performing orcas.
Several SeaWorld employees wept as the photo montage set to music was shown.
“It was very moving,” said Molly Geislinger, 33, who came from Minneapolis with her husband and 21-month-old child. However, she noticed a difference in how the trainers acted.
“They looked like they were being very careful,” she said. “They looked very cautious today.”
Indeed, the trainers weren’t allowed in the water, meaning the whales’ handlers did not surf on top of the marine mammals or fly into the air. Instead, the trainers – wearing orca-like black-and-white wetsuits – directed the whales from outside the huge tank’s acrylic walls.
SeaWorld officials have said trainers won’t swim with the orcas until they finish reviewing what happened to Brancheau.