Harrowing story of the SeaWorld trainer who was drowned by Tilikum the killer whale after years in captivity

FOR years Dawn Brancheau dreamed of working at SeaWorld – but it was job that ultimately killed her when she was attacked by Tilikum the orca.

Regarded at one of the world's top killer whale trainers, she was performing with the 12,500lb sea creature when it grabbed her.

Dawn was dragged into the water by the orca – who already killed two other people in separate incidents – in the attack in February 2010.

Her death stunned the world as she was seen as the 'poster girl' of SeaWorld.

Some experts have since speculated that the highly intelligent animal may have been driven mad in the confines captivity – and the tragedy put a new focus on animal welfare at the park.

Others however suggested he was attracted to Dawn's long ponytail and was being "curious".

But for Dawn's sister Debbie, it is not the way she died that she should be remembered for – but rather for the incredible woman she was.

The tragedy meant one man's adored wife was never coming home, her mum would never her their beloved daughter again.

Dawn's community lost a fine leader and five grieving siblings didn't get to say goodbye to their youngest sister.

Ahead of the 12-year anniversary of her death, here The Sun Online looks beyond Dawn's cause of death but instead the life she lived.

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Debbie told The Sun Online: "From the moment Dawn began performing with the whales, she reached a new level of happiness.

"Seeing her interact with the whales during a show was like watching a well-choreographed dance.

"Her athleticism was phenomenal and her smile was so genuine. There was no doubting how much she loved what she did."

She added: "Dawn radiated joy and truly wanted to make the world a better place.

"She was a woman who embraced life and made the most of experience. She made each and every person she met feel special and enriched so many lives with her kind and loving acts."

Family and friends who knew Dawn say her welcoming nature and genuine kind-heart brought joy to everyone who came in her path.

Born to parents Charles and Marion LoVerde, Dawn was the youngest of six children, nicknamed "little caboose" by her dad.

To see joy in Dawn's eyes as she performed was priceless

She grew up under the watchful eye of her older siblings, often found in-tow wherever they went.

Dawn loved her sports and was a natural at volleyball, basketball and softball.

She was a passionate cheerleader and dancer with a natural athleticism that was enhanced by long-distance runner and golf.

Throughout her life she competed in the Walt Disney World Marathon, the San Diego Marathon, the Charlottesville Marathon and America Chicago Marathon.

But above all, loved being in the water, spending as much time as she could in the lake and the neighbourhood pool in Cedar Lake, Indiana.

When Dawn saw the Shamu show in at SeaWorld Ohio 1982 aged 13, she was completely drawn in.

Left bewildered, her family recalls her seeking out the trainers once the performance ended, and asking them about how they ended up there, so she could follow on the same path.

She once wrote to Sea World's human resources department, asking them for more information on how she could one day secure a job there.

From that day on, whenever someone asked her what career path she would choose as an adult, without hesitation she would say: "I want to work at SeaWorld and train Shamu."

For her family, it seemed like there wasn't anything their little sister couldn't do.

While other girls hosted lavish parties and begged for their first cars for their sweet 16th, Dawn's family 'adopted' a whale in her name instead.

Dawn went from student body president to prom queen in high school before graduating with a Bachelor of Science Degree majoring in psychology and minoring in biology.

She rewarded herself by getting her scuba certification with hot pink scuba gear and headed off to Hawaii to study marine life.

Her marine career started at Six Flags Amusement Park in New Jersey performing with sea lions and dolphins before her dream came true in 1994 when she landed a job at SeaWorld in Orlando.

She made a splash from as early as her first interview where she got the best swim results for a female applicant ever seen.

For two years she worked at the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium where she rubbed shoulders the show's stars – sea lions, otters and walruses – and encouraged her friends and family to visit as much as they could.

Debbie told The Sun Online: "To see joy in Dawn's eyes as she performed was priceless."

In 1996 she was moved to Shamu Stadium and the hard work she had been putting in for more than a decade paid off.

This same year she married the love of her life Scott – who she met at SeaWorld in the employee cafeteria.

She rose through the ranks becoming a senior trainer before she was considered "the face of SeaWorld".

But it was doing what she loved which led to her shocking and tragic death.

Dawn and Tilikum had a strong bond and the pair worked countless shows together but no SeaWorld trainer, including Dawn, ever swam in the water with Tilikum.

On February 24, aged 40, Dawn was on the side of the pool with Tilikum during an enrichment exercise.

For reasons only speculated, Tilikum's behaviour suddenly changed and he pulled Dawn into the water from the side of the pool during a "Dine with Shamu" show.

The show saw guests eating at an open air restaurant while watching Dawn's performance poolside.

Some believe, Tilikum had grown frustrated because he wasn’t rewarded for tricks he had been correctly completing.

Others say the attack was intentionally carried out after years spent inside the restricted tanks, with 2013 documentary Blackfish speculating he had been driven "psychotic".

Tilikum was the largest killer whale in captivity at 22.5 feet – being captured when he was just two years old off Iceland.

He was moved between sea parks before ending up at SeaWorld in Orlando.

And out of the four deaths of people who interacted with orcas in captivity, he was involved with three of them.

Along with Dawn, Tilikum – along with two other whales – drowned a trainer who fell into his pool in 1991, and in 1999 a parkgoer who broke in to swim with him in his tank was also killed.


Dawn's shocking death made headlines around the world, calling into question the fairness of whales in captivity with much speculation focused on Tilikum's treatment and life.

But for Dawn's family, scrutinising the details of event didn't bring her back.

After her death, her family felt strongly about wanting to create a legacy that reflected the life she had led.

The Dawn Brancheau Foundation has today helped tens of thousands kids and animals, supporting community services and initiatives to help others.

Dawn was known to be extremely generous with her time and passionately spent her time with others in mind.

For example, it had been speculated that her accident with Tilikum was caused by her long ponytail drifting into the water.

Dawn had long hair most of her life, but on that day it was exceptionally long because she was growing it for Locks of Love – an organisation that provides hair pieces for children with long term hair loss.

She also volunteered at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, helping orphans in Africa, supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation or often went out of her way to brighten someone else's day.

Debbie says: "Dawn was always striving to make a difference. Dawn is a perfect example of how one experience with the marine world can have a vast impact on a child's life.

"Through our work, we hope to provide many more children with these educational experiences that give them an appreciation and love for the world we live in, particularly marine life."

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