For one and a half decades, Dawn Brancheau was one of the stars of SeaWorld Orlando. Her career at SeaWorld ended tragically as the park’s largest orca, Tilikum, killed her. The incident happened as Dawn and Tilikum performed a Dine with Shamu show. As the routine wound down, Dawn lay next to Tilikum, rubbing his head.
It’s unclear how Tilikum grabbed Dawn, as it happened very quickly. SeaWorld employees attempted to distract the 12000-pound beast using food and nets, but Tilikum refused to let go of Dawn’s body. After about 45 minutes, Tilikum released Dawn’s lifeless body.
Tilikum drowned Dawn, tearing away her scalp and left arm
Tilikum’s drowning of Dawn was quite brutal. The orca grabbed Dawn and performed a rapid, deep dive. Jan Topoleski told investigators that Dawn’s hair drifted into Tilikum’s mouth. As Dawn tried to free her hair from Tilikum’s mouth, Jan pressed the alarm button.
However, when he looked back, Tilikum and Dawn were gone. Attempts to distract Tilikum failed as he refused to let Jan go.
Witnesses report that Dawn wrestled free and tried to get to the surface, but Tilikum pulled her down. Tilikum not only drowned her but also violently shook and hit her body.
Tilikum surfaced long enough to breathe before diving to continue his assault on Dawn. Tilikum released Dawn 45 minutes after he grabbed and drowned her.
Authorities concluded that Dawn died due to ‘drowning and traumatic injuries.’ Tilikum severed her spinal cord, fractured her ribs and jawbone, and tore her scalp and left arm.
Some SeaWorld visitors witnessed Dawn’s struggle with Tilikum, including a boy who reportedly locked eyes with Dawn as she tried to swim to the surface. “He then saw Tilikum violently yank her down again to the depths of the pool,” the boys’ family’s lawsuit against SeaWorld read.
Dawn’s family didn’t sue SeaWorld for Dawn’s death; they focused on celebrating Dawn’s life. Her sister, Debbie, told The Sun:
“From the moment Dawn began performing with the whales, she reached a new level of happiness. Seeing her interact with the whales during a show was like watching a well-choreographed dance. There was no doubting how much she loved what she did. Dawn radiated joy and truly wanted to make the world a better place.”
After Dawn’s death, her family started The Dawn Brancheau Foundation. Per the Foundation’s website, its goal is to ‘continue Dawn’s legacy of helping other, animals, and the environment. The Foundation strives to make a difference in our world that surpasses what Dawn could have accomplished on her own.’
SeaWorld was found guilty of concealing incidents about orcas
SeaWorld avoided a lawsuit from Dawn Brancheau’s family, but her death sparked investigations into the park’s practices.
An investigation found that Tilikum was separated from his mother at just two years old. He joined a marine park named Sealand, which denied him food and housed him alongside violent orcas.
After years of mistreatment, Tilikum took out his frustration on trainer Keltie Byrne, who drowned after Tilikum dragged her to the pool’s bottom. Sealand closed after the death, selling its orcas to SeaWorld, including Tilikum.
Tilikum would go on to kill two other trainers, including Dawn. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation into SeaWorld’s practices. It found that SeaWorld had concealed 100 reports of orca aggression towards trainers, 12 of which resulted in death or injury.
SeaWorld appealed findings that it had violated federal workplace safety laws, but the court dismissed the appeal.
Tim Zimmerman’s The Killer in the Pool perhaps did the most damage to SeaWorld’s operations. The report spawned the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which detailed the experiences of orcas in captivity.
SeaWorld’s attendance plummeted after the release of Blackfish, prompting investors to sue the park’s executives. Per The Orlando Sentinel, the park’s executives blamed everything other than Blackfish for the park’s decline.
In February 2020, the park agreed to pay $65 million to settle the suit out of court.
Tilikum passed away in 2017 due to a bacterial lung infection, one of the many conditions captive orcas contract. He killed three trainers, including Dawn Brancheau, but helped save many other orcas by drawing attention to their plight.
“He did not choose the world he lived in, but he survived long enough to change it,” Tom Zimmerman wrote in an obituary for Tilikum.