Page last updated at 18:32 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

SeaWorld killer whale 'went for trainer's ponytail'

Killer whales swim in tanks at SeaWorld Orlando, shortly after Dawn Brancheau's death, 24 February
The park is reviewing security procedures

A killer whale which pulled its trainer to her death at a Florida marine park was probably attracted by her long ponytail, SeaWorld Orlando says.

Dawn Brancheau's hair swung out in front of the orca as she ended a training session at the park on Wednesday and the whale grabbed it.

Her former coach, Thad Lacinak, said she would have agreed with him it was a simple mistake had she lived.

SeaWorld is to resume whale shows on Saturday without trainers in the water.

It said it was reviewing its procedures for the whales and trainers to interact.

Tourists using the viewing glass could see the 12,000lb (5.9tn) whale attack Ms Brancheau.

The park is to keep the animal despite its part in this and two other deaths, and calls either to release or destroy it.

Ms Brancheau's sister, Diane Gross, said her sister, 40, had loved the park's whales as though they were her children.

"It was her dream job since she was nine years old," she added, speaking of her sister's ambition to work at SeaWorld.

'After a good session'

The president of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Jim Atchison, told a news conference that, while it was too early to conclude what had happened exactly, the park believed the whale had grabbed its trainer by her hair.

Trainer Dawn Brancheau stands on an unidentified whale while performing at SeaWorld Orlando (image from December 2005)
Dawn Brancheau had been working with whales for years

Earlier, Mr Lacinak, the former head trainer at SeaWorld who coached Ms Brancheau, said after viewing video of the attack that he believed she had made a simple mistake.

"She wasn't, obviously, watching what she was doing with her ponytail and the ponytail drifted into the water," he told ABC.

"Dawn, if she was standing here with me right now, would tell you that it was her mistake in allowing that to happen," he added.

Speaking separately to the Associated Press news agency, Mr Lacinak said: "It was a novel item in the water, and he [the whale] grabbed hold of it, not necessarily in an aggressive way."

An eyewitness, Sue Nichols, spoke earlier of seeing Ms Brancheau petting the whale and talking to it.

"Then all of a sudden he just reached up," she said.

"He got her in the water, and he took her underwater, and he had her under for quite a while. He came up out of the water, and he had her in his mouth."

An alarm was sounded and park employees scattered around the pool with a net as audience members were rushed away, she added.

Third death

Chuck Tompkins, chief of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando, has said Tilikum would not survive in the wild because the animal had been captive for so long.

He added that destroying the whale was not an option because it was an important part of the breeding programme at SeaWorld and a companion to seven other whales there.

However, this is the third death involving the orca.

In 1991, trainer Keltie Lee Byrne fell into a tank holding Tillikum and two other whales at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, Canada.

An inquest found the whales had prevented her from climbing out of the tank and ruled her death an accident.

At SeaWorld Orlando, in 1999, the body of Daniel Dukes, 27, was found naked, draped across the whale's body.

He had reportedly got past security, remaining in the park after it had closed, and wearing only swimming trunks, he either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water of the huge tank.

An inquest ruled that he had died of hypothermia but officials also said it appeared Tilikum had bitten the man and torn off his trunks, apparently believing he was a toy to play with.

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