Page last updated at 17:21 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Whale trainer's family speak of shock at SeaWorld death


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

The sister of a trainer who died after being attacked by a killer whale at a Florida entertainment park has said her family is in shock at the incident.

Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, died after the orca grabbed her from a poolside platform and dragged her under the water.

Diane Gross said the family considered the death an accident, which they had yet to come to terms with.

Ms Gross said her sister had loved the whales like they were her children.

"She loved all of them," Ms Gross said, according to the Associated Press.

Sea World curator Chuck Tompkins: "He grabbed her hair and pulled her underwater". Courtesy Good Morning America/ABC News

"They all had personalities, good days and bad days."

She said her sister had been inspired to work with marine life after a trip, as a nine-year-old, to a SeaWorld centre.

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.

'Shoe floating'

A SeaWorld representative was quoted by Reuters as saying that the trainer, who had 16 years experience working with marine animals, was grabbed by the 12,000lb (5,450kg) killer whale as she rubbed its head. The firm has launched an investigation.

Eyewitnesses described how 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".

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

Several other people in the audience described how the whale had pulled Ms Brancheau underwater and appeared to be swimming with her.

The entertainment park, in Orlando, known for its killer whale, seal and dolphin displays, was closed after the incident.

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.

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.

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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