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SeaWorld trainer dies in killer whale attack in Orlando

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Dawn Brancheau's sister Diane Gross said SeaWorld ''was her dream''

A trainer at the SeaWorld park in Orlando, Florida, has died after being attacked by a killer whale.

Witnesses said the orca had jumped and grabbed Dawn Brancheau by the waist from a poolside platform before dragging her underwater.

Guests were evacuated while fire crews tried to rescue the 40-year-old, but they were unable to revive her.

The killer whale, Tilikum, was also reportedly involved in the death of a female trainer in Canada in 1991.

Other orcas were also said to have attacked trainers at SeaWorld parks in 2006 and 2004.

'Shaking her violently'

Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld parks' head of animal training, was quoted by Reuters news agency saying: "She was rubbing the killer whale's head, and [it] grabbed her and pulled her in."

Eyewitness Wayne Gillespie: 'The tail was thrashing hard'

SeaWorld said an investigation was under way into Wednesday afternoon's death of Ms Brancheau, a trainer with 16 years' experience.

Jim Solomons, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Office, said early accounts indicated she could have slipped and fallen into the tank.

He said it was too early to tell if she had been attacked by the 12,000lb (5,450kg) orca.

But witnesses told a different story.

Park visitor Victoria Biniak told a local TV channel that the trainer had just finished explaining to the audience what they were about to see.

FEARSOME PREDATOR
Keiko the killer whale, star of Free Willy
The killer whale (Orcinus orca) is largest species of dolphin family
Known as orcas, they roam all the oceans, from the Arctic and Antarctic to tropical seas
Can specialise in particular prey: salmon, sea lions, seals, or walruses, even large whales
Considered under threat due to pollution, loss of prey and habitat
Despite its savage reputation, there have been very few documented attacks on humans
After success of 1993 film Free Willy, the movie's star Keiko was freed near his native Iceland

At that point, she said, the whale "took off really fast, and then he came back around to the glass, jumped up, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started shaking her violently. The last thing we saw was her shoe floating."

Audience member Eldon Skaggs told AP news agency the whale had "pulled her under and started swimming around with her".

A male spectator who witnessed the tragedy gave CNN a similar version of events.

Brazilian tourist Joao Lucio DeCosta Sobrinho and his girlfriend were at an underwater viewing area when they saw the whale with the trainer in its mouth.

The entertainment park, known for its killer whale, seal and dolphin displays, was closed after the incident. SeaWorld in San Diego also suspended its killer whale show.

Tilikum is said to have been involved in previous incidents, the BBC's Andy Gallacher reports from Florida.

A SeaWorld spokesman said the orca had been one of three whales blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after she had fallen in a pool at a marine park in British Columbia, Canada.

Naked man

After the whale - nicknamed Telly - was sold to SeaWorld Orlando it was involved in a second incident when authorities discovered the body of a naked man lying across his back in 1999.

Officials later concluded the man, who had either crept into SeaWorld after closing time or hidden in the park until it closed, probably drowned after suffering hypothermia.

BBC's Andy Gallacher: Reports say this whale has a dubious past

There have been incidents involving other whales at SeaWorld.

In November 2006, a male trainer escaped with a broken foot after he was bitten and held underwater by a female killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park.

In 2004, another whale at the company's San Antonio park attempted to bite a trainer, but he too escaped.

Though called a killer whale, the orca (Orcinus orca), is actually the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family.

Animal rights group Peta says it has long been asking SeaWorld to stop taking wild, ocean-going mammals and confining them to an area that, to them, is "the size of a bathtub".



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SEE ALSO
What to do with captive orcas?
25 Feb 10 |  Earth News
Canada's lonely killer whale dies
11 Mar 06 |  Americas
Free Willy whale buried in secret
15 Dec 03 |  Entertainment

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