SeaWorld Reopens Killer Whale Show

Theme park to re-open following death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Killer whale shows will resume today at SeaWorld Orlando, and Tillikum -- the orca who killed a trainer Wednesday -- will be among the whales on display.

But no one will be allowed in the water with him or any of the other killer whales until an investigation into Dawn Brancheau's death is completed, the president of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment said yesterday.

Tillikum is an important part of the team, said Jim Atchison, calling the whale an extraordinary animal. "We have the highest standards of safety and the protocols we put in place."

A review of those protocols will be conducted with the help of whale experts from other facilities and the U.S. Navy, Atchison said.

Brancheau died when Tillikum, who weighs 5.4 tonnes, grabbed her by the ponytail and dragged her into the tank.

It's the third time the 30-year-old whale, who was captured in Iceland when he was two years old, has been involved in a death. In 1991, when Tillikum was at Oak Bay's Sealand of the Pacific, he was among three whales who killed 20-year-old trainer and marine biology student Keltie Byrne after she slipped into the pool. The whales, Tillikum and females Nootka and Haida, would not allow her out of the pool and she drowned. All three whales were sold to SeaWorld in 1992, the same year Sealand closed its doors.

In 1999, a 27-year-old man apparently jumped into Tillikum's pool. He died of drowning and hypothermia, but his body was also found to have bite marks.

Brancheau's death has reignited calls for Tillikum and other captive killer whales to be released or put in ocean pens where they could communicate in normal whale fashion, something that's impossible in a concrete tank.

However, SeaWorld officials say Tillikum could not manage in the wild and even advocates for whale freedom believe it would be difficult to return him to Iceland.

"We don't know who his family is and it would be far too expensive to retire him to Iceland," said Michael Harris, president of Seattle-based Orca Conservancy.

However, it could be possible to retire him to a sea pen at Neah Bay, Wash., and then partner with academic institutions to create long-term study opportunities, Harris said. "He would still be a huge safety concern for his caretakers," he said. "Then again, perhaps he'd become far less dangerous if introduced to the natural seawater and ocean walks."

At Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, where Keiko, the Free Willy star, was taken for the first stage of his rehabilitation, a special tank was built in 1995.

However, that tank has been divided into three and can no longer be used for killer whale rehab, said Jim Burke, director of animal husbandry for the aquarium.

Harris, OrcaLab researcher Paul Spong and a growing list of celebrities say funding and public pressure would be better directed to freeing Lolita, a member of the endangered southern resident killer whales now living at Miami Seaquarium, and Corky, a member of the threatened northern residents at SeaWorld San Diego.

"There's never been a better time to put [the release of] Corky and Lolita back on the table and we know how to do it," said Harris, who has put together a release plan that has already been run past governments and First Nations.

Spong, who has worked for decades for Corky's release, said he is hoping SeaWorld will offer to release the whale as a goodwill gesture."They would benefit immensely from the publicity," he said.

The whales could be released to sea pens, where they would continue to be fed, in the areas where their families still live.

"Can you imagine the relief of getting back in the real ocean and, when your family comes by, hearing those voices from the past?" Spong said.

SeaWorld and the Seaquarium said previously they would not consider releasing Lolita or Corky.

Source: AFP