‘Horrific day my SeaWorld trainer sister was killed by orca will haunt me forever’

Dawn Brancheau’s family are still haunted by the tragic day she died after being attacked by a killer whale.

The SeaWorld trainer was dragged into the water so quickly by Tilikum, a 5.4 tonne orca measuring more than 22ft in length, that no one saw it happening until it was too late.

Tilikum didn’t just kill his trainer, but mauled the 40-year-old in a prolonged attack which was incredibly violent and even refused to release her body on that fateful day in February 2010.

Horrifically, her spinal cord was severed, while she also suffered from broken ribs, a broken jaw and a post-mortem revealed she died from both drowning and blunt force injury.

Dawn’s family, who had watched her in killer whale shows and were in admiration of her accomplishments, are still struggling to come to terms with her death.

“I don’t think any of us will ever forget where we were when we heard the devastating news. We were all in shock,” says sister Debbie Frogameni.

Dawn Brancheau was a whale trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida until her tragic death in 2010


Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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Dawn had always been a huge animal lover and set her heart on becoming a trainer at visiting SeaWorld Ohio in 1982 when she was a child.

After 13-year-old Dawn watched the Shamu show, she found one of the trainers to ask how they got the role so she could follow the same career path.

Dawn wanted a whale ‘adopted’ in her name for her 16th birthday and even wrote to SeaWorld’s human resources department to ask for more information on how she could secure a job there in the future.

She studied psychology and animal behaviours at university and when she graduated, spent two years working with dolphins at an attraction in New Jersey before landing her job at SeaWorld.

Two years after she started working in the Orlando, Florida park, Dawn achieved her teenage dream of becoming a killer whale trainer.

Quickly becoming one of the star trainers, Dawn was key to the popular orca shows and her face was seen on billboards advertising the park.

Whenever the family went to SeaWorld for the day they would watch every single show that Dawn performed in, which left them in awe and tears of joy.

Dawn loved her job and developed deep connections with the whales


Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Debbie believes her sister “reached a new level of happiness” form the moment she began performing with the whales and there was no doubting how much she loved her job.

Chillingly, four years before her tragic death, Dawn had spoken out about the dangers of working with orcas.

She had a special relationship with Tilikum, but new the risks associated with this killer whale in particular due to his history of human deaths.

In 1991, he was one of three whales involved in the death of Sealand trainer Keltie Byrne, who was pulled to the bottom of the enclosure after falling into the pool and drowned.

Shortly after her death Sealand closed, Tilikum was put up for sale and was bought by SeaWorld, but tragedy struck again in 1999 when he fatally attacked Daniel P. Dukes, who was trespassing at the park.

Despite their strong bond, even Dawn would not get in the water with Tilikum as all SeaWorld trainers were banned.

They worked countless shows together from the poolside, but Dawn was killed doing the thing she loved most.

Tilikum with Dawn at the poolside


Splash News)

At the end of one of the Dine With Shamu shows, Dawn was lying with her face next to Tilikum’s rubbing his head when she 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.

John Hargrove, who was 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.”

Dawn was not only drowned, but her left arm was torn from its socket and she was scalped – with her hair and skin found at the bottom of the pool.

Chillingly, the captive whale killed his trainer and then refused to release her body despite attempts from the other trainers to distract him with nets and food.

After 45 minutes, 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 who had spent so much time with him.

Dawn shown performing in 2005


Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Dawn’s death played out very publicly, making what was already a devastating tragedy even more harrowing for her family.

All trainers were stopped from getting in the water with any orca and the attack ignited debates on whether killer whales should be kept in captivity.

Speaking to The Sun, Debbie said: “We were constantly seeing pictures of her, having people give their opinions about what happened and why it happened and should trainers be in the water and should whales be in captivity.”

But the family did not want to comment on SeaWorld’s practices because they didn’t have the expertise and realised it would not bring their beloved Dawn back.

Dawn dedicated her life to making a difference to the lives of animals and inspiring others, so her family created an opportunity to continue her legacy.

A year after Dawn’s death, the family launched The Dawn Brancheau Foundation, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need.

They hope to inspire others to follow their dreams, as Dawn did, and promote the importance of community service.

Dawn’s family want to continue her legacy


Barry Bland / Barcroft Media)

They have raised and distributed over $1.5 million so far to worthy causes such as building playgrounds for local communities, helping low-resource areas with tutoring and counselling, and supplying personal care products to homeless.

Debbie says Dawn lived each day to the fullest and now the family wants to “continue her legacy of improving the world”.

She adds: “Dawn was always striving to make a difference. Dawn is a perfect example of how one experience with the marine world can have a vast impact on a child’s life.”

Following Dawn’s death, Tilikum was sent to spend most of his days in a pool rarely seen by the public and died at the Florida attraction in January 2017.

Six years after Dawn’s death SeaWorld announced they would end their programme of breeding the orcas in captivity.

Instead the attraction now works with the Humane Society of the United States to work against commercial whaling and seal hunts.

SeaWorld also campaigns against shark finning and ocean pollution and has switched its focus to rescue operations.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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