Screaming in horror behind a glass screen, SeaWorld tourists watched helplessly as Dawn Brancheau was dragged underwater and tossed about like a rag doll.
When the 40-year-old’s lifeless body was finally released from the jaws of a “psychotic” orca weighing more than five tonnes, her head was found scalped – while part of her arm was missing.
The experienced trainer is one of three people to have been killed by Tilikum, once the world’s largest killer whale in captivity, who continued to be housed at the park in Orlando until his death in 2017.
This week, sickening details of the incident have emerged from a police report which recounts how the beast performed a “deep dive” during its deadly game.
Dawn’s horrendous death sparked widespread outrage, as former staff members and activists railed against SeaWorld’s treatment of animals – allegedly driving them to the point of madness.
Captured when he was just two years old and allegedly fed drugs to stave off grim injuries, here is the tragic story of Tilikum’s victims and his own heartbreaking life.
Student killed by ‘excited’ orca trio
Two decades before Dawn’s death, a 20-year-old student was also killed by Tilikum and two other whales at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada.
On February 20, 1991, just as the final killer whale show finished for the day, Keltie Byrne – who worked part-time at the public aquarium – was tidying up when she slipped and fell into the pool.
Before she could haul herself back on to dry land, one of the whales had pulled her in.
Steve Huxter, head of animal training at Sealand at the time, said: “They never had a plaything in the pool that was so interactive. They just got incredibly excited and stimulated.”
As trainers desperately tried to help from the pool side, throwing a life ring into the water, they couldn’t determine which of the killer whales had hold of Keltie.
She managed to reach the surface twice – her terrified screams for help echoing around the pool.
After 10 minutes of being thrown around by Tilikum and the two other whales – Haida II and Nookta IV – Keltie bobbed to the surface for a final time. This time, she was silent – the student had drowned.
Eyewitness Nadine Kallen said at the time: “She went up and down three times. [The trainers] almost got her once with the hook pole, but they couldn’t – the whales were moving so fast.”
An inquest found that the orcas had prevented Keltie from getting out of the pool and ruled her drowning death an accident.
Little more than 18 months after Keltie’s tragic death, Sealand closed its doors for good. SeaWorld bought all three of the orcas, with Tilikum and Nookta moving to Orlando, while Haida and her calf, Kyuquot, were shipped to San Antonio.
Eight years later, Tilikum killed again. Daniel Dukes was found dead on the orca’s back while he was in his sleeping pool.
The 27-year-old had visited SeaWorld earlier that day and managed to avoid security cameras to stay until after dark.
He got into Tilikum’s tank, naked, and when his body was found the following morning, he was covered in cuts and bruises. An inquest ruled he had drowned.
SeaWorld ‘poster girl’ scalped and mutilated
Dawn Brancheau had worked at SeaWorld for 15 years – quite literally becoming the park’s poster girl as one of its star killer whale trainers.
A dedicated professional, she worked hard on her health and fitness to cope with the rigours of swimming up and down with the beasts in her care.
In particular, she had a special relationship with Tilikum, also known as Blackfish, who had by now been in captivity for more than 30 years.
Those who worked with her said their bond was strong and based on love and trust.
John Hargrove, a senior trainer at SeaWorld at the time of Dawn’s death, said: “We’ll never know why Tilikum made that choice to grab Dawn and pull her into the pool.
“He had a great relationship with her, and she had a great relationship with him. I do believe that he loved her, and I know that she loved him.”
It was after one of the park’s Dine With Shamu shows on February 24, 2010, that Tilikum carried out his brutal act.
Tourists could watch the action from screens beneath the water as they ate and saw Dawn climb out of the pool.
She was lying with her face next to Tilikum’s – the orca she had spent countless hours with and who had always treated her as a trusted companion.
Suddenly, Dawn was dragged into the water. Initially it was claimed she had been pulled into the pool by her ponytail, but there were later suggestions Tilikum had grabbed her by her shoulder.
What came next was truly gruesome. Tilikum didn’t just kill his trainer – the attack was prolonged and incredibly violent.
As Dawn drowned, her left arm was torn from its socket, her head was scalped, and her hair and skin were found at the bottom of the pool.
Horrifically, her spinal cord was severed, while she also suffered from broken ribs and a broken jaw. A post-mortem revealed she died from both drowning and blunt force injury.
Chillingly, the captive whale killed his trainer and then refused to release her body.
For 45 minutes, he kept Dawn’s broken body in the pool with him, despite attempts from the other trainers to distract him with nets and food.
Eventually, they managed to get him into a smaller, medical pool, where he was easier to calm and he finally released the body of the trainer.
Following Dawn’s death, Tilikum was sent to spend most of his days in a pool rarely seen by the public.
There are reports that he would spend hours on end just lying on the surface of the water. Tilikum died at the Florida attraction in January 2017.
Whales ‘self-harmed and were given Valium’
Six years after Dawn’s death, SeaWorld announced it would end its programme of breeding the orcas in captivity.
However, animal rights campaigners have long called for a ban on the animal shows altogether, with former staff members claiming the creatures have been starved, drugged and put under so much stress that they self-harm.
Jeffrey Ventre, who joined SeaWorld as a trainer in 1987, told The Sun that the killer whales were subject to intense psychological trauma and even given Valium.
“There was a lot of self-mutilation. Jaw popping was regularly seen – it’s a threat display between two orcas,” he said.
“The whales and dolphins were stressed and this caused stomach ulcers. They got meds for that.
“They also got chronic infections, so they got antibiotics. They were also sometimes aggressive or hard to control, so they could be given Valium to calm their aggression.
“All whales were getting vitamins packed in their fish. Several got daily antibiotics, including Tilikum, for chronic teeth infections.”
Since SeaWorld – which has four parks across San Diego, Orlando, San Antonio and Abu Dhabi – first opened in 1964, at least 49 orcas have died at its US sites, according to the UK charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
In the wild, the average life-span of a male orca is 30 years, while a female usually lives to at least 50. In theme parks, however, most of the whales die in their teens and twenties.
Tilikum’s decades of trauma
Experts told the landmark 2013 documentary Blackfish that they believed Tilikum’s capture and captivity had rendered the intelligent, sensitive animal “psychotic” – claims SeaWorld has denied.
He was just two years old when he was torn away from his family off the coast of Iceland and taken to a concrete holding tank at Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo near Reykjavík.
There, he reportedly spent close to a year either swimming in circles or floating still on the surface before being shipped to Sealand of the Pacific in 1984.
The documentary heard how he was housed with the two older female orcas, Haida II and Nootka IV, who sought dominance, with females being at the top of the social structure in the wild.
For 14 hours a day, the incompatible trio were allegedly forced into a 26ft-wide enclosed metal-sided pool known as ‘The Module’, where the females raked Tilikum with their teeth in the darkness.
He is said to have started suffering from stomach ulcers and was eventually isolated in a medical pool to protect him from the bloody attacks.
Former SeaWorld trainer Sam Berg told the documentary: “There has not been a single incident of killer whales harming humans in the wild. In captivity, it’s happened more than 70 times.
“Someone said if you put a human in a bathtub for 25 years they’d be psychotic too, and it began to fall into place. I wasn’t training killer whales – I was messing with their minds.”