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SeaWorld Trainer Death Theory Debunked as a Ponytail Tale

April 20, 2011
Despite SeaWorld's claims of Dawn’s ponytail “floating” into Tilikum’s mouth, this still from the Connell family video would indicate that her hair remained high and dry just seconds before the take-down.

Despite SeaWorld’s claims of Dawn’s ponytail “floating” into Tilikum’s mouth, this still from the Connell family video would indicate that her hair remained high and dry just seconds before the take-down.

The media has it all wrong. But they have it exactly as SeaWorld wants the world to Believe. A little more than two weeks ago, Tilikum’s return to performing at the Orlando theme park rehashed the events that led to death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau some 13 months prior. Through their recounting of that tragic day, virtually every news outlet, press release, and article written about her death portrayed the attack and initial take-down of Dawn as a “ponytail grab” and subsequent drowning.

They couldn’t be more wrong. The preponderance of evidence indicates that Dawn was not pulled in by her ponytail but instead was dragged into the water by her arm. As we know from the brutal details of her death this was much more than a simple drowning. But why does it matter that the media continues to roll with SeaWorld’s “ponytail theory”? And why does SeaWorld want to portray this as the start of the events that led to her death?

First we’ll have to take a look at what SeaWorld (SW) initially wanted the public to believe. Hoping to quickly put the story to rest (as well as the facts), SW convinced the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) to report that a trainer had “slipped or fell” into the pool and died of drowning. Although witnesses did not indicate that she slipped or fell, OCSO Spokesman Jim Solomons emerged from a meeting with SW officials and made that proclamation before a global audience in the initial press conference below:

With this, the fabrications and deceptions began. Not only did OCSO make a major faux pas by making this announcement (which was subsequently withdrawn as the public came forward) but SeaWorld President Dan Brown also started the web of deceit. He expressed “we have never, in the history of our parks had an incident like this”. While partially true, he failed to mention that just eight weeks earlier Keto, a SeaWorld orca on loan to Loro Parque brutally killed trainer Alexis Martinez in a similar fashion. His death in the Canary Islands was also portrayed merely as an accidental drowning.

Due to the outpouring of witness statements in the media, it was clear the “Slip or Fell” scenario wasn’t going to fly. So a new theory was born. The Ponytail Theory. Why is the Ponytail Theory important to SW? As we discussed in our exclusive interview last month with former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg, M.Ac., L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., the answers are quite clear. (Click HERE to read the full text of the interview).

Briefly, there are several reasons why making this distinction is important to SW:

Aside from the appearance that a ponytail grab is less intentional, it also gives SW an action they can take to remedy the situation: No female trainers are allowed to wear their hair down – hair must be kept in a bun or cut short. This gives the appearance they’re effectively addressing the problem and mitigating the dangers of working with Tilikum and all other orcas. During the latest onslaught of media coverage many were quick to point out the neat, tidy hair buns that now adorn the female trainers. This along with all of their other proposed safety improvements are a false solution.

More importantly, the ponytail theory allows SeaWorld to blame Dawn for being careless and letting her hair drift into his mouth. This is something SW has done repeatedly in the press. They will undoubtedly continue to speak out of both sides of their mouths. They will carry on blaming Dawn despite their tributes holding her up as being “the best of the best”, naming educational centers in her honor, hosting charity benefits and funding a foundation in her memory. Yes, Dawn’s life deserves to be celebrated and her family and friends do not deserve continual anguish. But the company behind these tributes is the same company deceiving the public and dishonoring Dawn by citing her actions as the sole cause that led to her death. Chuck Tompkins, head of animal training at SeaWorld has led the charge promoting the ponytail theory which squarely places blame on Dawn. In the interview below, he explains his version of what occurred, which is inconsistent with eyewitness accounts:

Click on image above to watch Chuck Tompkins CNN Interview (opens in new window)

His deceptive statements continued to push further from the truth. Despite his claims that Dawn’s session with Tilikum was absolutely perfect, a second-by-second analysis of her Dine with Shamu performance shows it was far from ideal (Click HERE to read that analysis).

You’ll also note that he cited all the other whales were normal on that date. This is another claim that has been refuted by eyewitnesses and proven by several videos including the one below. The Believe Show just prior to Dawn’s death was cancelled abruptly as the killer whales became aggressive, uncooperative and unresponsive to trainer commands. You’ll note in the video below that the trainers quickly leave the stage to call the orcas into the back pool after things go awry. (Which was also captured on video by another visitor HERE).

And the blame game has not stopped with current SW staff. Former employees have also come forth to ensure SW can continue to profit by placing the blame on Dawn’s shoulders. Thad Lacinak, former Vice President and Corporate Curator for Animal Training at SeaWorld even went as far as stating that “If Dawn was here today she would say that it was a mistake on her part”. Apparently, not only can Thad “walk and talk with the animals” but he’s taken his Dr Doolittle talent to a new height by speaking for the dead. Watch the 10-minute uncut raw interview with Thad and WFTV News Orlando (opens in new window):

Click on the image above to watch Thad Lacinak WFTV interview (opens in new window)

Click on the image above to watch Thad Lacinak WFTV interview (opens in new window)

The SW double-talk continues. In the interview, Thad also claims that killer whales are very intelligent animals and would know the difference between a human and other objects yet he’d still like everyone to believe that somehow Tilikum was confused or just playing with the ponytail.

SeaWorld has also maintained that trainers were not allowed in the water with Tilikum, but would only perform “dry-work” with the 12,000 lb orca. Knee-deep water is hardly dry-work for an experienced trainer who supposedly knew the history of Tilikum’s involvement in two prior human deaths. In their own PR literature, SW is fully aware that some killer whales specialize in retrieving their prey from platforms. Yet, it was commonplace for Dawn and other trainers to have close interaction.

Dawn was the “face” of SeaWorld – one of their most experienced and profitable trainer/entertainers, but was she fully aware of the risks involved with working with Tilikum and were the dangers continually reinforced? It seems that SW has a culture of providing little information or misinformation to its employees when it comes to past trainer/orca incidents. Carol Ray began working for SeaWorld’s animal training department in December of 1987, just one month after trainer John Sillick was crushed at SeaWorld San Diego:

“This occurred when I was working as a tour guide. The information we were given in that department was that it was a “trainer mistake”. Naturally when I started working in the animal training department I expected more information, and asked. I was surprised to get the same response “trainer error, simple as that”…and nothing more.” ~ former SeaWorld trainer Carol Ray, MA CCP-SLP

It is also possible that new VIP shows and interaction sessions with Tilikum (some of which were reportedly scheduled to begin on that day) played a role in Dawn’s death. Could there have been some deliberate complacency on the part of SW?

“It seems the limits were being pushed in order to provide the best experience possible for their supporters. There’s always pressure anytime there are VIP’s present. There is always pressure to put on a show. And since the Shamu show was cancelled preceding the incident, it makes sense that there would be some compensation in the duration of the Dine with Shamu presentation. And it’s true that the session was suboptimal at best. And it is true that the session dragged on and on and on with very little reinforcement. It’s easy to see how Tilikum may have become frustrated.” ~ former SeaWorld Trainer John Jett, Ph.D.

So where did the Ponytail Theory originate?

It all starts with Jan (Jay) Topoleski’s questionable observations that he saw Dawn’s hair floating on the water into Tilikum’s mouth. Jan was working as the safety spotter for Dawn during her Dine with Shamu performance. However, witness reports of the initial takedown raise a question of whether Jan was watching closely and if he even saw what he reported. (Read more about it in our exclusive interview with former SW trainer Samantha Berg HERE). So there is reason to wonder how clearly Jan saw the grab, if at all. But this was enough for SW to run with the Ponytail Theory. It was the perfect out for them; young, beautiful, experienced trainer growing her hair long to donate to a children’s charity, makes a mistake and allows Tilikum to become “confused” as her hair becomes entangled in his mouth.

But even Jan doesn’t seem too sure of what he saw. During his interview with OCSO investigators he stated that Tilikum had her hair and maybe her arm as well:Click on image to read a portion of Jan Topoleski's report to OCSO (PDF)He also goes on to tell investigators that Tilikum does not have any toys that are similar to hair which would cause Tilikum to mistake Dawn’s hair for a toy:

Click on image to read a portion of Jan Topoleski’s report to OCSO (PDF)

So why or how would Tilikum become confused and take her hair in a “playful” manner and refuse to let her go? Remember “expert” Thad Lacinak stated that killer whales are very intelligent and would know the difference. The answer is simple. Dawn’s hair played no role in the initial attack and it was only only later that her hair was involved during the 30+ minutes that he kept possession of her.

Of all the witnesses who provided statements to the OCSO, the evidence shows that Dawn was not pulled in by her ponytail but rather was taken down by the arm as the two drifted across the platform in knee-deep water. Dawn remained calm, a neutral response to Tilikum grasping her arm before pulling her in. The following slow-motion video (courtesy of our friend Wendy Cooke) depicts the seconds before Tilikum took Dawn into the water. It is an excerpt from the video shot by the Connell family of New Hampshire. You’ll see that Dawn’s hair remains high and dry as the two are moving to the left in tandem with Dawn’s arm in Tilikum’s mouth.

Other than Jan Topoleski’s conflicting statements about the ponytail grab, numerous other witnesses saw something completely different. To better understand what and when witnesses saw Tilikum grasping Dawn’s hair the following graphic displays the pool layout of Shamu Stadium at SW Orlando. The Dine with Shamu pool where the initial interaction and attack occurred is “G” pool. After more than 30 minutes of trying to retrieve Dawn’s body and moving Tilikum, Dawn and the other orcas between the pools, Dawn’s hair, scalp and whistle were retrieved from “F” pool. It is in “F” pool where many witnesses observed Tilikum grasping Dawn by the hair. Her body was finally retrieved in “D” pool.

“A” main show pool (Believe)- “B” & “C” training pools- “D” med pool w/ false bottom (Dawn’s body retrieved)- “E” w/ covered awning- “F” scalp, hair, whistle recovered- “G” Dine with Shamu pool, underwater viewing areas, point of initial attack

The most telling evidence of an initial arm-grab is that of SeaWorld Security Officer Fredy Herrera, who witnessed the initial take down:

Click on image to read Fredy Herrera’s entire hand-written report (PDF)

Listen to Fredy Herrera’s audio interview with Orange County Sheriff’s Office HERE.  And his is not the only statement to correlate that Dawn was not pulled into the water by her ponytail. Susanne DeWit a visitor from the Netherlands- “Suddenly I saw Shamu grabbing the trainer by the shoulder and pulling her down in the water near the window.”::

Click on image to read Susanne DeWit’s entire hand-written report (PDF)

Phyllis Manning- SeaWorld Photographer: “…the trainer who poses the whale yelled up to Dawn that she was ready then I saw Dawn facing towards Tilly, hanging on, her legs were dangling and her shoe fell off.” Is this at all possible if Tilikum had Dawn by the hair?:

Click on image to read Phyllis Manning’s entire hand-written report (PDF)

Katherine Gass- SeaWorld Employee: “… this was at about 3 mins in… He (Tilikum) did swim by the window (in “G” pool) and I took note that he did not have anything in his mouth or on his body at that time” She later continues: “We were in the process of pulling nets in when he went into “F” pool. That is the first time I got a good look at the trainer. He had her in his mouth by the hair.”:

Click on image to read Katherine Gass’s entire hand-written report (PDF)

And these aren’t the only witnesses to corroborate that Dawn’s hair didn’t play a role until later in the event. Crime Scene Investigator Murdock conducted a search for Dawn’s hair, scalp and whistle, which were located in “F” pool:

Click on image to read the entire OCSO Final Investigative Report (PDF

According to other witnesses, their obsevations indicate that Tilikum had her by the torso or upper arm prior to entering “F” pool where her scalp was retrieved. From the OCSO Final Investigative Report:

  • Pg 32: Chahine Kish, SeaWorld “Dine with Shamu” employee: “…did see Tilikum surface at one point (in “G” pool) and when he did, he had Dawn Brancheau in his mouth possibly by the torso.”
  • Pg 34: Jeremy Rippy, SeaWorld animal trainer: “… and the other people there began using the net (in “G” pool) to try and move Tilikum to the smaller pool (“F” pool). The net kept snagging on the rocks and Tilikum was able to get behind the net. He could see Tilikum was holding Dawn Brancheau in his mouth by the neck and shoulder.”
  • Pg 36-37: Laura Surovik, SeaWorld assistant curator of animal training: “When she arrived, Tilikum was in “G” pool and moving into “F” pool. Laura Surovik could see Tilikum was holding Dawn Brancheau in his mouth (possibly by the torso).”
  • Pg 36: Craig Thomas, SeaWorld animal trainer- “…Tilikum finally responded by entering “F” pool. Craig Thomas could see Tilikum was holding Dawn Brancheau by the hair”

So with the overwhelming evidence that Dawn was not taken down by her ponytail, how is it that SeaWorld has successfully manipulated the media to follow their lead? Simply put… good PR and even better deception. The Ponytail Theory is just that. A theory that doesn’t hold weight and has no merit.

For a complete set of investigative documents related to Dawn Brancheau’s death, including the Orange County Sheriff’s Final Investigative Report, attachments, addendums, autopsy report, OSHA investigation documents, USDA-APHIS investigation documents, etc., click HERE. All documents were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and are viewable online or can be downloaded in PDF format.

Update: November 10, 2011- The Orca Project has obtained exclusive photos taken from the underwater viewing area during the final seconds before Tilikum pulled Dawn into the water. Read our post “New Photos of Killer Whale involved in Trainer Death at SeaWorld”

97 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle S permalink
    December 24, 2020 9:47 pm

    Very sad.. humans have let down the animal species with their pride and greed. They don’t rely on you for survival but they are so honest, pure and loyal when they feel a connection with you – shame shame shame on you

  2. Cindy permalink
    October 13, 2019 6:26 am

    “Entrusted with their care”? They stole them from their homes and tortured them into servitude for greed. Shame on you SeaWorld

  3. January 6, 2017 11:00 pm

    This was a really well written article with a ton of information. I have been reading so much about orca captivity today after hearing about Tilikum’s death. I know I’m super late for all of this, but it was interesting reading your article in addition to the many others I have read. Seems yours is right on the money. I am actually surprised more incidents (trainers dying) because of whale captivity. Poor guy was bored and frustrated.

  4. March 20, 2016 1:58 am
  5. October 25, 2015 4:59 am

    Reblogged this on Sherlockian's Blog.

  6. May 5, 2015 5:12 pm

    i just finished watching Blackfish and i was so shocked to hear what these people do to the animals and in what bad conditions they are in. these whales are taken away form their home and family and then their forced to do tricks and live in small tanks most of their lives?!?!?! how would the owners of sea world feel if they were trapped in a small cage?!?! they’d go insane, thats how these whales feel, its why they kill, their getting crazy from being in a small place when they started out in giant ocean the ones born there don’t know but tilikum does and he will keep killing

  7. May 5, 2015 4:59 pm

    tilikum should be released from sea world or many more accidents will happen

  8. April 4, 2015 10:56 pm

    I’m late to this party, but here’s my opinion: After seeing that photo I am even more convinced that Tilikum at that point had his trainer’s arm in his mouth already. The look she gave him was somewhat startled, but she was trying to remain calm because she knew what she was dealing with. Yes, after he took her down Tilikum grabbed the ponytail, because he scalped her later on. Her scalp and her ponytail was found in a pool. The idea that he wanted to invite her into his world and he meant her no harm is ridiculous.

    If this animal had been left alone in Iceland three people would still be alive. Some of the misinformation in the comments here is astounding. Keltie Bryne (SeaLand) had bitemarks all over her body. The second victim was stripped and his genitals were bitten off. Make no mistake, this whale has killed three people. I believe his confinement has driven him insane. I bristle whenever people compare him to Keiko. That scene in Free Wily, about the caretaker’s baby who fell in the pool? That actually happened. Keiko pushed the young child up on a ledge and patiently waited for the humans to notice what was going on. If that child had fallen into Tilikum’s pool he would have been a goner.

  9. thomas craig wiñn permalink
    October 5, 2014 4:46 pm


  10. October 1, 2014 7:47 am

    great points altogether, you simply won a new reader. What
    would you suggest about your put up that you made a few days ago?

    Any positive?

  11. September 27, 2014 1:01 pm

    I read this piece of writing completely concerning the difference of most up-to-date and preceding technologies, it’s awesome article.

  12. September 16, 2014 12:29 am

    So much for a “ponytail tail”: “,%20dawn_report.pdf” Is the scalp part of the arm?

  13. August 18, 2014 3:14 pm

    We’re a gaggle of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community.

    Your website provided us with valuable info to work on. You have performed an impressive activity and our entire group can be
    thankful to you.

    • Shinksy permalink
      September 23, 2016 12:28 pm

      These whales are killers.
      Dawn knew the score but decided to risk it anyway. She has herself to blame for her own death.
      She put herself in that position. She was never forced into it.
      That said ….Seaworld should never have allowed any trainers in a pool with these whales. It was a simple health ans safety issue.
      They care more about profit than there employees lives.

      • aiden permalink
        April 10, 2019 11:35 am

        you’re right but it’s not really her fault all the way it’s half of say world’s fault and half her fault


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