The families snacking on the lunch buffet that Wednesday were getting an eyeful.
Brancheau bounced around on the deck of the pool, wearing a black-and-white wetsuit that echoed Tilikum's coloration, as she worked him through a few of the many "behaviors" he had learned during his nearly 27 years as a marine-park denizen. As the audience started to file out, Brancheau fed Tilikum some herring (he eats up to 200 pounds a day), doused him a few times with a bucket (killer whales love all sorts of stimulation), and moved over to a shallow ledge built into the side of the pool.
She supposedly went to management, and supposedly they wrote him up and made him sign a letter saying that if I went to his work, called anyone, or emailed anyone at his work, he would be reprimanded.
He brought home the letter with his and his manager’s names on it, but neither signed. They have an interest in ensuring that their employees aren’t harassed at work or otherwise subjected to angry emails from employees’ spouses.
But that day, instead of waiting for his cue and behaving the way decades of daily training in captivity had conditioned him to, Tilikum did something unexpected.
In an instant, a classic tableau of a trainer bonding with a marine mammal became a life-threatening emergency. A "Signal 500" was broadcast over the Sea World radio net, calling for a water rescue at G pool. "It was scary," Dutch tourist Susanne De Wit, 33, told investigators.
One level down, a group of families gathered before the huge glass windows of the underwater viewing area.
A trainer shouted up that they were ready for Tilikum.
But she weighed just 123 pounds and was no match for a 12,000-pound killer whale. Her water shoes came off and floated to the surface. Finally—now holding Brancheau by her arm—he was guided onto the medical lift. "Every safety protocol that we have failed," Sea World director of animal training Kelly Flaherty Clark told me a month after the incident, her voice still tight with emotion.
She managed to break free and swim toward the surface, but Tilikum slammed into her. "He started pushing her with his nose like she was a toy," said Paula Gillespie, one of the visitors at the underwater window. "That's why we don't have our friend anymore, and that's why we are taking a step back." Dawn Brancheau's death was a tragedy for her family and for Sea World, which had never lost a trainer before.