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SeaWorld vs. OSHA- Killer Whale Showdown in Florida

September 18, 2011

We’ve moved our updates and information on the SeaWorld vs OSHA hearings to a new page HERE which includes all of the information below, plus coverage of round 2 of the hearings, all of the latest developments, testimony, links, documents, video, etc.  And please be sure to follow us on FaceBook and Twitter (@TheOrcaProject) for all the latest news and reports.

An image of the sad aftermath. Two lives taken away while they were both too young, Dawn and Tilikum on Feb 24, 2010.

Last August, OSHA issued citations to SeaWorld for apparently placing profit above employee safety following the death of Mrs. Brancheau who was brutally killed by Tilikum, a nearly 12,000 pound (5,443 kg) killer whale (Orcinus-orca) on February 24, 2010.

The citations, included fines totaling $75,000 for safety violations including the maximum $70,000 penalty for the “Willful” act of knowingly placing its employees at risk, a charge that has major implications beyond the monetary value, which is not substantial for the multi-billion dollar marine park. The stunning announcement rekindled the ongoing debate of keeping these intelligent, highly-social beings in captivity for entertainment purposes. It has also sparked a growing number of former SeaWorld employees to speak out about the culture of working with orcas and the secrecy that shrouds the marine mammal entertainment industry.

Since its inception in 2010, The Orca Project has collaborated with some of the world’s top marine mammal experts, caring professionals and individuals from diverse backgrounds to cover the debate on orca captivity, the death of Dawn Brancheau and the history and current conditions of Tilikum’s confinement. Below, we’ve highlighted some of our top stories, investigations, interviews and posts from the past year:

Also, in revealing exclusive interviews with The Orca Project, former SeaWorld trainers expose the facts behind the secretive marine mammal entertainment industry, trainer injuries and deaths as well as the truth behind Killer Whales in captivity:

For a collection of documents from the investigation of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death including autopsy report, Orange County Sheriff’s Office Investigative Report, USDA-APHIS and OSHA freedom of information act documents, click HERE.

And be sure to visit the following stories on the SeaWorld investigation by Tim Zimmermann of Outside Magazine:

  • The Killer in the Pool– When a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum dragged his SeaWorld trainer into the pool and drowned her, it was the third time the big killer whale had been involved in a death. Many observers wondered why the animal was still working. But some experts, knowing the psychological toll of a life spent in captivity, have posed a darker question: Was it human error, or can a killer whale choose to kill?
  • Diary of a Killer Whale– Tim Zimmermann digs a little deeper into some of the questions surrounding the tragedy of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau.
  • Blood in the Water– On December 24, 2009, a 6,600-pound orca killed trainer Alexis Martínez at a marine park in the Canary Islands. Two months later, trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca at SeaWorld Orlando. With the OSHA trial on trainer safety at SeaWorld Orlando starting September 19, Tim Zimmermann asks: Should Martínez’s death have served as a warning about the lethal potential of killer whales being trained for our entertainment?

We encourage former and present trainers, marine mammal park employees (in the U.S. and abroad), scientists, authors, individuals and the media to contact us at to continue this important work. Confidentiality is assured if you wish to remain anonymous.


SeaWorld vs. OSHA Day 1 (Monday, September 19, 2011):

SeaWorld employees were litteraly brought to tears during day 1 of the SeaWorld vs. OSHA hearing:

Reports from the Sanford hearings include:

Safety of SeaWorld trainers questioned in OSHA hearing– Jason Garcia of The Orlando Sentinel reports in the Sentinel’s sister newspaper the Chicago Tribune that OSHA attorneys will question the “ponytail theory“.

Hearing begins in death of killer whale trainer– CNN reports on the opening of the SeaWorld vs. OSHA hearing.

Video: Death at Sea World: Author David Kirby and former SeaWorld trainer  Carol Ray on AC360 with Anderson Cooper on CNN talk about the brutal killing of Dawn Brancheau and the false “PonyTail Theory”. CNN requested SeaWorld to appear on the broadcast. They refused.

Death at SeaWorld — Should Videotapes of the Killing be Released?- David Kirby, author of the soon-to-be released book “Death at SeaWorld – Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity” (St. Martin’s Press) discusses the upcoming battle to show the underwater video of Dawn’s horrific death in the Huffington Post.

Dawn Brancheau’s SeaWorld Death Leads To Fight Over Safety Citation– Mike Schneider reports in the Huffington Post

The question: Whose fault was the death of Dawn Brancheau– Michael Mountain of ZOE Nature reports on the testimony of day 1.


SeaWorld vs. OSHA Day 2 (Tuesday, September 20, 2011):

Fredy Herrera, a security officer at SeaWorld Orlando who was working at Shamu Stadium on the day Brancheau was killed, testified that it appeared to him she was pulled in by her left arm, as we have reported HERE at The Orca Project.

SeaWorld guard: Killer whale appeared to pull trainer underwater by her arm, not hair– Jason Garcia of The Orlando Sentinel reports on Day 2 of the SeaWorld vs OSHA hearing.

Ponytail theory takes another dive– Michael Mountain of ZOE Nature reports on the testimony of day 2.

A brief report on NBC News in Tampa, Florida regarding the “Ponytail Theory”:


SeaWorld vs. OSHA Day 3 (Wednesday, September 21, 2011):

The morning began with a report on NBC’s Today Show, continuing the covereage of yesterday’s testimony which essentially puts the “ponytail theory” to rest, including highlights with The Orca Project’s Colleen Gorman. Watch the Today Show video by clicking HERE.

Today’s testimony included former SeaWorld Animal Curator Chuck Tompkins discussing previous killer whale/trainer  incidents. Under examination by OSHA attorney John Black, it was discovered that SeaWorld has not kept accurate records of incidents. The following help disclose SeaWorld’s failures:

Not all whale aggression made it into SeaWorld’s incident log, lawyers say– Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel reports on today’s testimony describing the ommissions in SeaWorld’s incident reports.

SeaWorld Scrutinized Over Whale Incident Reports– A mid-day report from Orlando, Florida’s NBC affiliate WESH 2 looks at todays’s testimony on “incident reports”. Read their story and watch the video (including comments from The Orca Project) which shows that SeaWorld has side-stepped safety issues.

… and video of the 2006 attack on trainer Kenneth Peters at SeaWorld SanDiego was played in the courtroom. Author David Kirby dicusses this with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on AC360. (click HERE to watch the interview)

When orcas attack– Michael Mountain of ZOE Nature reports on the testimony of day 3.


SeaWorld vs. OSHA Day 4 (Thursday, September 22, 2011):

SeaWorld trainer Jan Topoleski took the stand today to describe what he witnessed. Topoleski was acting as the “safety spotter” for Dawn during her interaction with Tilikum during the “Dine with Shamu” show and he reports to have witnessed the initial take-down. His recollections today seem to differ than those originally reported to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office regarding the “ponytail theory“. His report on what occurred that day has been previously been called into question based on all other eyewitness reports of how Dawn was pulled into the water, including SeaWorld employees and park visitors. The Connell family, who captured the infamous final images of Dawn and Tilikum on video have also previously reported that Topoleski was not watching when Dawn was pulled in and they had to alert him that Dawn was taken down. You can read the Connell family’s reports to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in our collection of documents HERE.

Additionally, emotional testimony was given by Shana Groves, one of the first SeaWorld trainers to report to the scene, and Dr. David Duffus, a killer-whale expert and professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia — to buttress their contention that trainers cannot be expected to accurately predict a whale’s behavior at all times. It was also announced by Judge Welsch that the hearing will not be able to conclude on Friday (day 5) as anticipated and there will need to be an extension of the hearing, which may take place next week, or even in October or November. Today’s testimony is covered here:

Spotter saw SeaWorld trainer struggle to free her hair– Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel reports on today’s events.

Author David Kirby appeared again tonight on CNN’s AC360 with Anderson Cooper to discuss today’s testimony and Jan Topoleski’s apparent conflicting accounts of Dawn being taken into the water by her ponytail. Watch the CNN video HERE.

It’s still about the ponytail– Michael Mountain of ZOE Nature reports on the testimony of day 4.


SeaWorld vs. OSHA Day 5 (Friday, September 23, 2011)

Today, Judge Ken Welsch announced the hearings will reconvene on November 15. It was originally scheduled to conclude today, however it’s anticipated that there will be an additional week of testimony. Dr. David Duffus, professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia returned to the stand for cross-examination by SeaWorld attorneys and said he was alarmed by how close Brancheau was to Tilikum when he grabbed her, stating “I don’t want to second-guess an experienced trainer, but I would not, given my experience with killer whales, … be that close to Tilikum. No way on Earth”. Day 5 coverage below:

SeaWorld-OSHA hearing in recess until mid-November– Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel reports on today’s events.

Official says SeaWorld put whale trainers at risk– By Barbara Liston (Reuters) – A government safety official said on Friday that Florida’s SeaWorld knew it was putting trainers at risk by letting them interact with a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum.

“If you end up in the water with Tilikum, you’re going to die”- Michael Mountain of ZOE Nature reports on the testimony of day 5, including the “Tilly Talk” that’s given to all new orca trainers at SeaWorld Orlando.


There are so many more developments occuring behind the scenes here at The Orca Project and we will keep you posted as information and events unravel. November should prove to be eye-opening and and a great step forward in ending the unecessary and unjust practice of orca captivity.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. yolanda henderson permalink
    March 19, 2012 12:05 pm

    give them a candy cane or a sucker for them do play with the children

  2. yolanda henderson permalink
    March 19, 2012 12:01 pm

    cleaning requires a touch of happiness and a ideal of love this twin cities tree trust camp this is for the children not for you all to destroy I am really disapointed nature is a force to work with not kill and put on a act with water and plants u wrong and I said move back this is for the children and the parents and grand parents are the ones that are watching u we call we sea you

  3. yolanda henderson permalink
    March 19, 2012 11:56 am

    stop sticking needles and stealing from sea world you are putting on an act I donot appreciate u tearing up my parking world it seems as though u have a mental problem A natural habit is beatiful the water is who why are u bugging me

  4. mia permalink
    February 9, 2012 3:05 pm

    i really want to be a killer whale trainer .so i have been studing .

  5. Lynn Rubin permalink
    September 27, 2011 5:29 pm

    Its all about Sea World making money and that’s obvious!
    No creature as big as a whale or as great a swimer as a dolphin and Orca should be in captivity, its mean and insane making them do shows all day long every day. This is gready and inapropriate treatment of orcas and dolphins.

  6. Penny, UK permalink
    September 19, 2011 6:23 am

    Seaworld are utterly disgraceful in their continued contempt of these orca whales – they have refused to acknowledge that what they are doing to these whales is wrong and cruel. The only way is to boycott this facility and to make the general public worldwide do the same, when they aren’t getting their income from their torture of these whales, they’ll soon stop.


  1. SeaWorld PR attempts to save-face but rescue and conservation efforts fall short « The Orca Project
  2. Zoe – It's Our Nature : Facts about Killer Whales in Captivity
  3. SeaWorld vs. OSHA- Killer Whale Showdown in Florida (via The Orca Project) | Taiji, Japan – Dolphins Dying to Entertain

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