ORLANDO, Fla. – The killer whale that drowned a female trainer at Orlando's SeaWorld flawlessly performed Wednesday for the first time since last year's death, wowing thousands amid heightened safety that included a steel bar protecting the orca's trainers.
Tilikum participated without incident in the marine park's signature "Believe" show for the first time since dragging 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau from poolside by her pony tail and drowning her during a performance Feb. 24, 2010. Trainers on the platform stood Wednesday behind the stout metal bar shaped as an inverted "U" that was designed to prevent a whale from coming up out of the pool and biting and dragging a trainer into the water.
SeaWorld Animal Training Curator Kelly Flaherty Clark said in a statement that returning Tilikum to performing more than a year later was best for the whale.
"Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum's day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment," Clark said. "He has been regularly interacting with his trainers and the other whales for purposes of training, exercise and social and mental stimulation, and has enjoyed access to all of the pools in the Shamu Stadium complex."
There was no special reference made in Wednesday morning's show to Tilikum's return. Nonetheless, Tilikum was the main draw for many. Orcas jumped in unison and splashed those in the front rows, delighting a crowd that filled the 5,000-seat Shamu Stadium to capacity. The show lasted just short of a half-hour.
No trainer has been allowed in the water during the shows since Brancheau's death and they remained out of the pool Wednesday. The closest the trainers got was the pool deck, standing behind the steel bar whenever they reached over to occasionally stroke the whales when they flopped on the platform or to toss them a fish treat.
In the accident that killed Brancheau, she was nose-to-nose with the whale when her pony tail floated into the animal's mouth and she was dragged in, authorities have said. They added that she managed to free herself initially, but the whale continued to strike and thrash her. The tragedy unfolded shortly after a "Dine with Shamu" show when some guests were still in the area.
Tilikum also was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia. Tilikum also was involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld Orlando security was found draped over him, authorities said.
The park is still working on plans to get trainers back in the water with the whales. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration last summer accused SeaWorld of recklessly putting trainers in danger. The company is fighting OSHA's citations and a $75,000 fine. SeaWorld contends its parks have a good safety record during more than four decades of shows involving killer whales.
Since the death, SeaWorld officials have drawn up plans to spend millions of dollars on safety upgrades. Measures include installing rising pool floors that can quickly lift people and the whales from the water, underwater vehicles to distract the marine animals in emergencies and portable oxygen bottles for trainers.
Orlando resident Wendy Santiago said her family has been attending SeaWorld shows for years and she and her husband, Marcos, made a point of being present for Tilikum's return Wednesday. She said the tragedy left her sad though she was pleased to see Tilikum performing again.
"You never can tell with any of these animals — they are wild animals," Wendy Santiago said of the trainer's death. But she added, tears welling in her eyes at the show's conclusion, "I'm happy today that I was able to see him perform."
Marcos Santiago said he also experienced a mix of feelings while watching the show with their 3-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter.
"I've loved SeaWorld, ever since I was a little kid and used to come here many times," he said. "I fell in love with Shamu and so did my son. So to me it was very emotional to be here on this day."
But the day was not without protests nearby.
Many of those who went to see Tilikum perform drove past about a dozen protesters gathered outside SeaWorld's gates. The demonstrators complained that killer whales should not be held in captivity and several held up signs reading, "Free Tilly."
Despite the lack of any special reference to Tilikum's return Wednesday, veteran SeaWorld attendee David Wythe said the whale's return was clearly the main draw for many.
"That's exactly why we were here," said Wythe, a Kissimmee resident. "Me personally, I believe Tilikum should have been back in the shows a long time ago."