Trainer death orca in new show
The killer whale that drowned a female trainer at Orlando's SeaWorld performed flawlessly for the first time since last year's tragedy, wowing thousands amid heightened safety that included a steel bar protecting the orca's trainers.
Tilikum participated without incident in the Florida marine park's signature Believe show on Wednesday, for the first time since dragging 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau from poolside by her pony tail and drowning her during a performance on February 24 last year.
Trainers on the platform stood behind the stout metal bar shaped as an inverted "U" that was designed to prevent a killer whale from coming up out of the pool and biting and dragging a trainer into the water.
SeaWorld animal training curator Kelly Clark said returning Tilikum to performing more than a year later was best for the orca.
"Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum's day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment," she said.
"He has been regularly interacting with his trainers and the other whales for purposes of training, exercise and social and mental stimulation, and has enjoyed access to all of the pools in the Shamu Stadium complex."
There was no special reference made in Wednesday's show to Tilikum's return. Nonetheless, Tilikum was the main draw for many. Orcas jumped in unison and splashed those in the front rows, delighting a crowd that filled the 5,000-seat Shamu Stadium to capacity.
No trainer has been allowed in the water during the shows since Ms Brancheau's death and they remained out of the pool on Wednesday. The closest the trainers got was the pool deck, standing behind the steel bar whenever they reached over to occasionally stroke the orcas when they flopped on the platform or to toss them a fish treat.
Since the death, SeaWorld officials have drawn up plans to spend millions of dollars on safety upgrades. Measures include installing rising pool floors that can quickly lift people and the animals from the water, underwater vehicles to distract the marine animals in emergencies and portable oxygen bottles for trainers.
But the day was not without protests nearby. Many of those who went to see Tilikum perform drove past about a dozen protesters gathered outside SeaWorld's gates. The demonstrators complained that killer whales should not be held in captivity and several held up signs reading "Free Tilly".