Employees wept and audience members grew silent Saturday at SeaWorld as the theme park's popular killer whale show resumed with a photo montage memorial for a trainer who was killed by one of the orcas in front of horrified spectators three days ago.
The show had been shut down since veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, died Wednesday after rubbing a 22-foot, 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum. The animal grabbed her ponytail and pulled her into the water in front of about 20 spectators. The medical examiner says she likely died of traumatic injuries and drowning.
More than 2,000 people packed the park's stadium Saturday for the first show since Brancheau's death.
The audience seemed thrilled, applauding and cheering as the killer whales zipped around their tank and splashed spectators during the show — with the theme of "believe," about a young boy who sees an orca and dreams of one day becoming a killer whale trainer. It was a fitting tribute to Brancheau, whose family said she always wanted work with the giant whales.
‘This touches so many lives’
At one point during the show, a young girl was brought on stage and given a whale tail necklace.
"I just wanted to be here for this show. It's so special," said Russell Thomphsen, 65, who said he is a season-ticket holder for SeaWorld. "This touches so many lives."
Spectators packed the enormous outdoor amphitheater despite chilly, rainy weather, with the orca pool registering at 52 degrees. The orca trainers received a standing ovation as they approached the platform before the show, part of the multimillion-dollar enterprise centered around "Shamu" — the stage name given to all the performing orcas.
Several SeaWorld employees wept as the photo montage set to music was shown.
"It was very moving," said Molly Geislinger, 33, who came from Minneapolis with her husband and 21-month-old child.
However, she noticed a difference in how the trainers acted.
"They looked like they were being very careful," she said. "They looked very cautious today."
Indeed, the trainers weren't allowed in the water, meaning the whales' handlers did not surf on top of the marine mammals or fly into the air. Instead, the trainers — wearing orca-like black-and-white wetsuits — directed the whales from outside the huge tank's acrylic walls. They coached the creatures to splash the front-and-center rows a few times, much to the delight of onlookers.
SeaWorld officials have said trainers won't swim with the orcas until they finish reviewing what happened to Brancheau.
Jeff Steward, who came to the show with his wife, called the memorial "a very emotional start."
He said they enjoyed the show, adding: "It's a tragedy, but these things happen when you're dealing with wild animals."
Big business at SeaWorld
SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Jim Atchison said Friday that Tilikum will remain an "active, contributing member of the team," in part because the killer whale show is big business at SeaWorld. The company owns more killer whales than anyone else in the world and builds the orca image into its multimillion-dollar brand. Tilikum did not perform Saturday.
The timing of the killer whales' return to performances reflects just what the sleek black-and-white mammals mean to SeaWorld, which the private equity firm The Blackstone Group bought last fall for around $2.7 billion from Anheuser-Busch InBev in a deal that included two Busch Gardens theme parks and several other attractions.
There are two other SeaWorld parks — one in San Antonio, and one in San Diego.
No animal is more valuable to that operation than Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity. Captured nearly 30 years ago off Iceland, Tilikum has grown into the alpha male of captive killer whales, his value as a stud impossible to pin down. He now has been involved in the deaths of two trainers and requires a special set of handling rules, which Atchison wouldn't specify.
John Galloway, of Palm Coast, Fla., said he didn't want to see the killer whale shows end because of the tragedy.
"I think they know what they're doing," he said of the trainers. "Me, myself, I wouldn't be down there doing that."