Dawn Brancheau loved all animals and felt a special affinity to the majestic and stunning orcas.
For 15 years, the 40-year-old had lived out her dreams and was working with orcas at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
Being a trainer at the world famous attraction was something she had dreamed of since she was a child and she was now one of the most senior there.
Dawn had spent her life working towards her goal, first studying psychology and animal behaviours at college before going on to get a job working with dolphins at an attraction in New Jersey following her graduation.
Two years later she landed her dream job at SeaWorld.
It wasn’t just in her professional life that Dawn’s love of animals shone through.
She volunteered at an animal shelter in her free time and her home was filled with her beloved pets – she had two Labradors, a collection of stray ducks, chickens, rabbits and even birds.
Dawn’s love of the natural world was shared by her beloved husband, Scott.
Two years after joining the staff at SeaWorld, Dawn began working as a trainer and took her job incredibly seriously.
Staying in tip top physical shape so she could keep up with the orcas she swam in the pool with on a daily basis, Dawn was one of the stars of the attraction and her face was on billboards all across SeaWorld.
Dawn wasn’t unaware of the dangers of her job and four years before her tragic death, spoke out about the perils of swimming with orcas.
Her favourite orca at the site, and one with who she had a special relationship was Tilikum, also known as Blackfish.
Tilikum had spent more than 30 years in captivity and was one of the biggest orcas living at SeaWorld.
His bond with Dawn was based on love and trust according to all those who worked alongside the pair.
John Hargrove, who was a senior trainer at SeaWorld, said: “We’ll never know why Tilikum made that choice to grab Dawn and pull her into the pool.
“He had a great relationship with her and she had a great relationship with him. I do believe that he lived her and I know that she loved him.”
After one of their regular shows, Tilikum seemed to suddenly snap – all while tourists were watching on and eating at a nearby restaurant.
Dawn had climbed out of the pool and was lying with her face close to the edge, chatting to the orca who had always treated her as a trusted companion.
Then, out of the blue, Tilikum dragged Dawn into the water by her ponytail and the attack that followed horrified all who saw it.
The attack was incredibly violent and prolonged.
Dawn’s official cause of death was drowning with blunt force injury – her arm was ripped from it socket and her hair and scalp were found at the bottom of the pool after being ripped off by Blackfish.
Her spinal cord was severed and Dawn also suffered from broken ribs and a broken jaw.
Even after she was dead, Tilikum refused to release Dawn and kept her body with him in the pool for 45 minutes despite the desperate attempts of the other trainers to coax him away from her with food and nets.
Tragically, Tilikum had been responsible for the deaths of two other trainers decades before he attacked Dawn.
He was among three whales responsible for the death of trainer Keltie Byrne at SeaLand in 1991.
SeaLand was closed and Tilikum put up for sale shortly after her death.
After being bought by SeaWorld, tragedy struck again in 1999 when he attacked and killed Daniel P Dukes, who had been trespassing at the attraction.
After Dawn’s horrific death, Tilikum spent the rest of his days in a pool which was rarely seen by the public.
Reports claim he would spend hours just lying on the surface of the water before he died in January 2017.
SeaWorld announced it would end its practice of breeding orcas in captivity six years after Dawn’s terrible death.
Now working with the Humane Society of the United States to work against commercial whaling and seal hunts, SeaWorld also campaigns against shark finning and ocean pollution.
This article by Jane Lavender was first published by The Mirror on 4 May 2023. Lead Image: Dawn with Tilikum (Image: Tribune News Service via Getty Images).
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