MIAMI (Reuters) - The orca that killed its trainer at the Florida SeaWorld will continue to perform but no one will be allowed in the water with him or any of the company’s other killer whales until an investigation is finished, SeaWorld’s chief executive said on Friday.
Trainer Dawn Brancheau was on a platform at the side of the pool, rubbing the 12,000-pound (5,400-kg) killer whale after a performance on Wednesday when the animal grabbed her ponytail in his mouth, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Chief Executive Jim Atchison told a news conference at the park.
The orca, a bull called Tilikum, thrashed Brancheau around and pulled her underwater. Sheriff’s investigators said she died of multiple trauma and drowning.
A spectator had previously said the whale grabbed Brancheau by the waist and a sheriff’s spokesman said she had slipped into the pool, but Atchison said the park’s analysis showed the whale had pulled her in by her hair.
SeaWorld halted its whale shows at the park in Orlando and at its parks in San Diego, California, and San Antonio, Texas, after the accident but will restart them on Saturday, Atchinson told a televised news conference.
However, he said, trainers will not be allowed in the water with the orcas at any of the parks while SeaWorld conducts an investigation into the death and reviews its rules and procedures, he said. Whale experts from other marine mammal facilities and from the U.S. Navy will join the investigation, he said.
The shows previously featured trainers riding on the whales and performing other stunts with them.
Tilikum, who has been linked to two previous deaths, has not been isolated from the other whales and will not be retired, Atchison said.
“This is really a wonderful animal. His participation in our shows, his engagement in our interactions, it’s very important to his overall health and husbandry. He will remain an active, contributing member of the team despite what’s happened,” he said.
Tilikum was captured off Iceland in 1983 and is one of eight killer whales at the Orlando park. SeaWorld has 25 in all at its three parks, with most weighing 6,000 to 9,000 pounds (2,700 to 4,050 kg).
Orcas are known to swim great distances and animal rights animal groups have long called it cruel to confine them in pools.
Atchison said the park had special handling procedures for Tilikum because of his enormous size, but refused to elaborate on those rules or say whether they were violated.
“He’s a very large animal,” he said. “He’s essentially a whale larger than our other whales.”
The park did not have any restrictions on trainers’ hair length, though that is “something we’re going to revisit, obviously,” Atchison said.
“We’re reviewing everything we do related to our handling of him and our other whales,” he said.
Tilikum was one of three killer whales that drowned a trainer in 1991 at a now-defunct park in Canada. He was sold to SeaWorld as a stud in 1992 and was involved in a second death in 1999, when authorities found the body of a naked man lying across his back.
Authorities said the man sneaked into the pool after the park closed and had drowned.
SeaWorld is owned by the Blackstone Group, a private equity company that also owns part of the Universal Orlando theme park.
Editing by Sandra Maler