Tragic final moments of SeaWorld trainer as killer whale 'tore organs' (2024)

Keto the orca was born in captivity and had lived in water parks in San Diego, Ohio, Texas and the Canary Islands, until he brutally attacked his trainer Alexis Martínez

Tragic final moments of SeaWorld trainer as killer whale 'tore organs' (1)

Keto the killer whale ravaged his trainer in an unthinkable attack that nobody saw coming.

Alexis Martínez., 29, had worked with orcas for several years and was used to handling the whales but on Christmas Eve, 2009, Keto acted in a way that had never been seen by his trainers before.

The killer whale's mother, Kalina, was the first orca to be born in a SeaWorld theme park before Keto arrived in 1995. He has never known another life than the man-made pools he now calls home. The 6,600-pound ocra has spent the whole of his life in captivity, has never swum in the ocean and spends his days entertaining thousands of people at a water park in Tenerife. Keto fathered several calves during his time as one of the main attractions at Loro Parque in the Spanish resort, several of whom have come to tragic ends.

Alexis and Keto were working on the Christmas show in a training pool and at first, everything seemed normal - but then the giant orca started to behave strangely. He failed to perform several of his moves correctly but seemed calm as he floated on the surface of the pool with his trainer, Alexis. But one of the other staff there that day says he did notice Keto seemed to have deliberately positioned himself between his trainer and the stage.

Then when the underwater stage call came and Alexis started swimming, Keto started to lean into him. Another trainer used controls that had always worked with the killer whales, but Keto refused to respond and pushed Alexis to the bottom of the pool using his rostrum, or the tip of his snout of beak. The trainer on the side of the pool realised the situation had now become critical and used several more signals to bring Keto under control.

It seemed to work and the orca returned to the surface of the pool and took a breath - but within seconds he dived back down to Alexis. The next horrifiying site those watching saw was Keto resurfacing with Alexis on the tip of his rostrum and his mouth closed. When he released the young trainer, Alexis sank to the bottom of the pool.

Trainers desperately work to lure Keto, who is owned by SeaWorld, into another pool, although he seemed to resist by playing with the gate. It was only when they released a net into the pool that he swam into the neighbouring water and Alexis' body could be recovered from the bottom. He had suffered terrible injuries, including massive internal bleeding, and nothing could be done to save the 29-year-old.

Alexis post-mortem stated he had "died due to grave injuries sustained by an orca attack, including multiple compression fractures, tears to vital organs, and the bite marks of the animal on his body".

Heartbreakingly, his death came exactly two months before SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau was killed in front of thousands of spectators at the attraction in Orlando, Florida. Dawn, who had achieved her goal of becoming a senior trainer at Seaworld at the time of her tragic death, had studied psychology and animal behaviours at university. When she graduated, she spent two years working with dolphins at an attraction in New Jersey before landing her job at Seaworld.

Two years after Dawn started work at Seaworld, she became a killer whale trainer. She made sure she was as fit and healthy as possible so she could manage to rigours of swimming with the huge beasts from the deep.

Dawn was one of the star trainers at Seaworld - she was key to the killer whale shows and her face was seen on billboards advertising the park. Chillingly, four years before her tragic death, Dawn had spoken out about the dangers of working with orcas. She had a special relationship with the huge killer whale, Tilikum, also known as Blackfish.

He was one of the largest orcas at SeaWorld and he had been in captivity for more than 30 years. Those who worked with her said their bond was strong and based on love and trust. John Hargrove, who was a senior trainer at Seaworld at the time of Dawn's death, said: "We'll never know why Tilikum made that choice to grab Dawn and pull her into the pool.

"He had a great relationship with her, and she had a great relationship with him. I do believe that he loved her, and I know that she loved him." It was after one of the Dine With Shamu shows that Tilikum carried out his brutal act. Tourists could watch the action as they ate and Dawn had climbed out of the pool.

She was lying with her face next to Tilikum's - the orca she had spent countless hours with and who had always treated her as a trusted companion. Suddenly, Dawn was dragged into the water. Initially it was claimed she had been pulled into the pool by her ponytail, but there were later suggestions Tilikum had grabbed her by her shoulder. What came next was truly gruesome.

Tilikum didn't just kill his trainer, the attack was prolonged and incredibly violent. Dawn, 40, was not only drowned, her left arm was torn from its socket, Dawn was scalped with her hair and skin found at the bottom of the pool. Horrifically, her spinal cord was severed, and she also suffered from broken ribs and a broken jaw. The post-mortem revealed she died from both drowning and blunt force injury.

Chillingly, the captive whale killed his trainer and then refused to release her body. For 45 minutes, he kept Dawn's broken body on the pool with him, despite attempts from the other trainers to distract him with nets and food. Eventually, they managed to get him into a smaller, medical pool, where he was easier to calm and he finally released the body of the trainer who had spent so much time with him.

Following Dawn's death, Tilikum was sent to spend most of his days in a pool rarely seen by the public. There are reports that he would spend hours on end just lying on the surface of the water. Tilikum died at the Florida attraction in January 2017. Six years after Dawn's death SeaWorld announced they would end their programme of breeding the orcas in captivity.

Instead the attraction now works with the Humane Society of the United States to work against commercial whaling and seal hunts. SeaWorld also campaigns against shark finning and ocean pollution and has switched its focus to rescue operations.

Tragic final moments of SeaWorld trainer as killer whale 'tore organs' (2024)

FAQs

Did a trainer's horrific death as SeaWorld killer whale tore his organs and bit his body? ›

A killer whale trainer died following a brutal attack that saw the mammal rip out his internal organs. Alexis Martínez was 29 when he died on Christmas Eve 2009 while training for his routine with Keto the orca at Loro Parque's Orca Ocean in the Canary Islands.

What did Tilikum do to Keltie Byrne? ›

At Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, two eyewitnesses saw Tilikum attack 21-year-old Keltie Byrne after she slipped and fell into the tank. While Tilikum dragged Keltie repeatedly under the water, Haida II and Nootka IV prevented the rest of the Sealand of the Pacific staff from reaching her.

How long did Tilikum keep Dawn's body? ›

After approximately 45 minutes, Tilikum released Brancheau's body.

Did someone get eaten by a whale at SeaWorld? ›

This incident, however, is a reminder of what happened at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010 when trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a killer whale during a performance. As a result of that case, OSHA eventually fined SeaWorld for safety violations.

Have orcas killed humans? ›

Orcas have been encountering humans in the ocean for centuries, and while there's a handful of accounts like Ponting's, there's only one report of the species killing a human. The fatal encounter reportedly happened in the 1950s, when some orcas became trapped in sea ice in the eastern Canadian Arctic.

Why was Tilikum's fin bent? ›

Ultimately, what's going on is the collagen in the dorsal fin is breaking down. One reason this may happen is from temperature. Warmer temperatures can disrupt collagen's structure and rigidity. Which may explain why more captive whales have curved fins.

Why did Tilikum go crazy? ›

Experts interviewed for Blackfish stated that it was unclear what drove Tilikum and the other whales to attack Byrne, but suggested that years of abuse and cruelty towards Tilikum, including allowing the other whales to rake Tilikum's skin with their teeth until he bled, had made him an aggressive whale.

Why was Tilikum bullied? ›

Because of his involvement in two previous deaths and his unpredictable temperament, no trainers were allowed to get in the water with him. As an unrelated male among matriarchal females he was bullied and shunned by the other orcas and was usually kept separate from them.

How did Tilikum end up dying? ›

ORLANDO, Fla. — Five years ago, SeaWorld whale Tilikum died after a lung infection.

Were trainers allowed to swim with Tilikum? ›

Partly out of recognition of Tilikum's huge size – at 12 tonnes he is the largest orca in captivity – and partly out of knowledge of the past, the park's 28 trainers were never allowed to swim with him. But Brancheau's death has provoked debate about the appropriateness of captivity for such giant seafaring creatures.

How did Tilikum grab Dawn? ›

As his expert 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau leaned over the edge of his tank during what is called a “relationship session,” the 11-ton star orca Tilikum took her in his mouth, dragged her into the pool, shook her, fractured much of her body, drowned her, savaged her, and killed her.

Did Shamu hurt someone? ›

The killer whale quickly turned on Eckis, biting down on her leg and refusing to let go. Eventually, a trainer got Shamu to release Eckis by shoving a pole into the killer whale's mouth and prying it open. Eckis required more than 100 stitches and sued SeaWorld after the incident.

How many people did Tilikum hurt? ›

Throughout his life, Tilikum killed three individuals: Keltie Byrne, Daniel P. Dukes, and Dawn Brancheau. In 2013, CNN Films released a fascinating documentary titled Blackfish, exploring the exploits of the infamous orca. Furthermore, it even questioned the controversy over the captivity of these beasts.

Is Dawn Brancheau still alive? ›

Dawn Therese Brancheau (née LoVerde, April 16, 1969 – February 24, 2010) was an American senior animal trainer at SeaWorld. She worked with orcas at SeaWorld Orlando for fifteen years, including a leading role in revamping the Shamu show, and was SeaWorld's poster girl.

Where is Tilikum now? ›

SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that Tilikum's health was deteriorating, and it was thought he had a lung infection due to bacterial pneumonia. In May 2016, it was reported Tilikum's health was improving. On January 6, 2017, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum had died early in the morning.

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