In Memory of Dawn-One Year Later


As a kid I was fascinated with the ocean. My mother and I would spend every waking moment we had that wasn’t dedicated to work and school at the beach. I permanently had sand in my crack, sometimes I still do. I loved to go fishing with my grandfather, but I always felt sorry for the fish on the hook, and being a self declared fish lover I refused to ever eat any(that and I hate the taste of fish). We weren’t wealthy, and going to Orlando was an undertaking. But for the first time when I was 7, my mom took me to Sea World, and I saw the one thing that would change my life. Shamu.

This huge creature was just gliding through the water so silently, so full of majesty. And the trainers, they were in the water with it! I knew right then what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to study animals. Things tend to change over the course of your life, but the one thing that never did was the feeling I got from watching the giant Killer Whales in the water and interacting with the trainers. I don’t care if it’s the first time or the 1,000th, I still get the same goosebumps.

One year ago, the worst happened. It was the words we never thought in a million years would happen….could happen. A Shamu Trainer at Sea World had been killed by one of the animals. How could it happen? This was Shamu? The answer was simple…a horrible mistake.

Dawn Brancheau, 40,  A Shamu Trainer for 15 years was taken by the largest of the animals in captivity. Tilikum had thrashed her about and drug her underwater, killing her. Whether it was on purpose, or whether the animal was playing is unknown. It was a terrible and unfortunate accident.

The year following the accident has been an emotional one. I didn’t know Dawn at all, aside from seeing her face smiling all over brochures and billboards, often in the company of Tilikum. I can’t even imagine the pain and grief family and friends must still be feeling. Every bit of news that comes across must be hard to hear, and there has been lots of news.

First was the memorial service that Sea World held during the first Believe show after the accident. Hundreds of people lined the stadium in memory and celebration of the trainer. Not one dry eye was to be seen. PETA picketed like the disgusting fanatics they are. This time, shockingly, people actually rallied behind them and called for the ridiculous such as releasing the whales back to the wild. OSHA levied fines against the park saying that Sea World “knew the inherent risk of allowing trainers to work with dangerous animals.”

The legal battle continues as Sea World naturally contested the ruling, and pretty much arguing that OSHA has no idea what they’re talking about. How can they? You train the animals, and sometimes the animals are still animals. There is no control over nature, and the wonderful thing that I always took from Sea World is that they didn’t try to control nature. They simply asked it to play along. Most of the time, it did.

The park’s signature show “Believe” returned shortly after, but without the Shamu trainers in the water. It felt like a shell of what the show stood for. Anything can happen, if you just Believe. You too can swim with these amazing creatures, and be a trainer if you just Believe. How would you be expected to believe that if the trainers aren’t even allowed in the water with the animals? This Spring the show will be replaced with One Ocean, a show that celebrates the ocean and all who inhabit it.

On the eve of the 1st anniversary of the tragedy Sea World released to the Orlando Sentinel that trainers would be returning to the water with the whales. Tens of Millions of dollars will be spent to reconstruct fast raising floors, and purchase underwater vehicles to distract the animals with lights and whale song should anything ever go wrong again.

“We’ve never been in a situation where we’ve been out of the water a year with our whales. I would like to be able to tell you that I think our whales are going to be very comfortable doing this,” Chuck Tompkins, corporate curator of zoological operations for SeaWorld Parks,told the Sentinel Wednesday. “But that’s the reason we’re taking our time. We’re taking nothing for granted.”

And it’s progress. While it is a step in a positive direction, it’s not going to put things back to the way they were. The park is still not sure when (if ever) the trainers will perform with the whales during a show again. Baby steps.

And that brings me back to Dawn. It was a dream of hers, according to her family, to work with the whales. To interact with them and train them. She did it. She achieved her dream. I like to think it was because of her and the other trainers that the show Believe was even created. We all believe in something once in our lives, but somewhere along the way we stop believing in it and just live life the way we can.

Dawn never stopped believing.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family and friends.

We ask that you visit The Dawn Brancheau Foundation to learn more on how you can support her idea.