"It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon," SeaWorld General Manager Dan Brown said in a statement. "We've initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred. There are no other details to report at this time."
As the investigation proceeds, the area of the park that contained the whale has been shut down, the Orlando Sentinel said. The newspaper reported that other areas of the Florida park remain open. SeaWorld also suspended orca shows at its other parks, The Associated Press said.
The trainer was identified as 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, who had spent more than a decade working with killer whales.
A witness interviewed by CBS affiliate WKMG Local 6 said she saw the whale leap out of the water and grab the woman.
"He was thrashing her around pretty good. It was violent," the witness told Local 6.
But a spokesman for the Orange County sheriff's office described the incident differently.
"We had a female trainer back in the whale holding area. She apparently slipped or fell into the tank and was fatally injured by one of the whales," said spokesman Jim Solomons.
Chuck Tompkins, head of animal training at SeaWorld, later confirmed the witness account. "She was apparently rubbing the animal down and apparently the whale pulled her in," he told WFTV. "She was pulled in and she drowned."
Tompkins confirmed reports from numerous sources that the animal responsible for the attack is a 12,000-pound, 30-year-old male called Tilikum -- "Friend" in the Chinook Native American language -- that has been linked to two prior human fatalities.
The first occurred in 1991 at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific park in Canada. Tilikum and two female whales drowned a 20-year-old marine biology student and part-time animal trainer in front of other staff members, according to the New York Daily News.
Then in 1999, Tilikum -- who had been transferred to SeaWorld following the closure of Sealand of the Pacific -- was found one morning with a 27-year-old homeless man on his back, also drowned, CBS Orlando 4 reported. The man had apparently remained hidden in the park until closing and then climbed into the tank or sneaked in after hours.
These two incidents as well as various other nonfatal incidents involving orcas going back to the 1970s have led the Humane Society of the United States to vehemently oppose keeping the animals in captivity and training them to perform in front of crowds.
"SeaWorld should have changed their policy in terms of Tilikum years ago," Naomi Rose, orca biologist and senior scientist at the Humane Society, told AOL News. "This was an accident waiting to happen."
Rose pointed to a 2006 investigation into an accident at SeaWorld San Diego when a 39-year-old trainer suffered serious injuries after being bitten and dragged underwater by an orca during a performance. The trainer was following industry standards, investigators said.
In a report detailing the findings, the California Division of Occupational Safety concluded:
SeaWorld was subsequently issued a citation in that case, but Rose maintains that not only did the organization fail to act upon the investigators' recommendations, but the conclusions reached in the report were actively suppressed.Swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn't been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen. The trainers recognize this risk and train not for if an attack will happen but when. The orca is capable of tearing off an arm, a leg, or a head and if that is against its nature it could easily drown a human or trap it in the cold waters of the tank until the human expires from hypothermia. Even if the animal does not have the intent to kill, the bulk and weight of its body is enough to smash a person against the sides of the pool, knocking them unconscious or crushing them to death.
"One of the biggest problems is that SeaWorld miseducates the public," Rose told AOL News. "What the public is seeing isn't a contented animal behaving naturally but a caricature dragged into a box and not given any choice. These are very intelligent, powerful, social animals and I'm afraid that this is what happens when they are not given any choice as to their own lifestyle and behavior."
But SeaWorld is not without its defenders. Take journalist Amy Sutherland, who spent a year researching animal training techniques for her popular books "Kicked, Bitten and Scratched" and "What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage."
"SeaWorld in particular is revered in the animal training world," she said to AOL News. "It has pioneered some of the most progressive training techniques and is well known for using positive reinforcement. From a care perspective, they do a great job, both in caring for their animals' needs and for their trainers' safety."
She trusts SeaWorld to conduct a thorough internal investigation to determine what went wrong in this case and believes that it will adjust its policies accordingly.
Meanwhile, Rose said that the Humane Society would prefer to see Tilikum retired to an area of SeaWorld where he is not involved in "stressful" public performances. While the organization does not support euthanizing the animal, she recommends allowing trainers to have an "elephant gun" handy to put down any animals that threaten human safety. Update Fri. Feb. 25: Naomi Rose reached out to AOL News with the following clarifying statement regarding the proposed use of an "elephant gun" on whales:
She also said that Tilikum's behavior may indicate that he is close to the end of his own life. "He may be days away from dying. Whales can go off their feed and be dead within 48 hours. They often hide their illnesses, so it's difficult to know. Clearly he was acting out for some reason in this incident.""I DID NOT recommend that the trainers have a large gun handy. I merely mentioned that the OSHA report suggested this might be necessary to truly ensure safety. *I* don't think an gun should be kept handy – I don't think these animals should be in captivity at all, of course!"
The orca, or "killer" whale, is actually the largest member of the dolphin family. The animals get their nickname from the fact that they sometimes hunt actual whales for food and are the "most widely distributed mammal in the world" besides humans, according to MarineBio.org.