Inside SeaWorld Trainer Dawn Brancheau’s Death In The Jaws Of A Killer Whale

Published January 16, 2023
Updated June 7, 2023

Dawn Brancheau was killed while performing with an orca named Tilikum in Orlando on February 24, 2010 — and SeaWorld never allowed humans into tanks with killer whales ever again.

Dawn Brancheau

Ed Schipul/Wikimedia CommonsSeaWorld animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was tragically killed by an orca during a show in 2010.

Animal trainer Dawn Brancheau worked happily at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, for many years. In her time there, she became a beloved trainer, and her shows with world-famous orcas brought millions of dollars to the park. But on February 24, 2010, she was killed in a rare, and unprovoked, attack by one of the orcas she’d loved so much.

Brancheau’s death in the jaws of the orca Tilikum forever changed the way theme parks handle wild sea animals, and was the subject of the award-winning documentary Blackfish. This is the tragic true story of Dawn Brancheau, the trainer whose death sparked a revolution.

Dawn Brancheau’s Road To Becoming An Animal Trainer

Born Dawn Therese LoVerde and raised in Indiana, Brancheau decided early on that she was going to work with orcas. The youngest of six children, she first saw Shamu — perhaps the most infamous killer whale in captivity — when her parents took her on vacation to SeaWorld in Orlando when she was 10 years old.

“I remember walking down the aisle [of Shamu Stadium] and telling my mom, ‘This is what I want to do,'” she told the Orlando Sentinel in 2006. “It was her dream to do it,” said Marion Loverde, Brancheau’s mother. “She loved her job.”

But before she started down the path that would lead her to her dream job, she graduated from the University of South Carolina with a dual degree in psychology and animal behavior. In 1994, she began working with otters and sea lions at Six Flags theme parks, before transferring to SeaWorld in 1996. That same year, she married Scott Brancheau, a SeaWorld stunt skier, and began working with the orcas she loved so much.

It wasn’t long before Dawn Brancheau became the face of SeaWorld. Her likeness was plastered on advertisements and billboards, and she was instrumental in revamping the Shamu show. For many years, Brancheau was frequently paired with orcas and would perform various stunts with and alongside them.

Dawn Brancheau At SeaWorld

Wikimedia CommonsDawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in 1998 with another whale, named Katina.

Although Brancheau was well aware of the potential danger that came with working with orcas, she also knew that orcas don’t attack humans in the wild, and attacks on humans in captivity were very rare.

“Orcas are very curious, highly intelligent, and really social animals,” said Karl McLeod from Australia’s Department of Conservation. “So it’s unsurprising that we have a number of encounters around the country, divers fishermen and stuff like that.”

Unfortunately, on February 24, 2010, the unthinkable happened.

The Horrific Death Of Dawn Brancheau In The Jaws Of Tilikum


Gerardo Mora/Getty ImagesKiller whale “Tilikum” performs on March 30, 2011, a year after the six-ton whale killed trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Dawn Brancheau developed a “close bond” with a SeaWorld orca called Tilikum. “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,” said John Hargrove, a senior trainer.

Unfortunately, love wasn’t enough to save her. On the day in question, Tilikum and Brancheau were performing at the “Dining with Shamu” show at SeaWorld, where guests enjoyed open-air dining with a live killer whale show.

According to the testimony given by witnesses, Tilikum grabbed her by her ponytail, pulled her into the pool, and began swinging her underwater in his mouth. Other witnesses, however, claimed that she got pulled into the pool by her arm, or by her shoulder.

Whatever the specifics, Tilikum pulled Brancheau down quickly and violently, quickly drowning her.

Worse still, the whale’s jerking motions resulted in Brancheau’s jaw being fractured, her ear, knee, and arm being dislocated, and her vertebrae and ribs being snapped. The coroner also determined that Brancheau’s spinal cord had been severed in the attack, and her scalp was completely removed from her head.

Dawn Brancheau was only 40 years old. She was soon buried at the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery just outside Chicago, Illinois.

The Legacy Of Bracheau’s Death And The Future Of Whale Shows

After Dawn Brancheau’s death, no SeaWorld trainer ever again entered a pool with orcas. Shortly after she was buried, SeaWorld re-enforced the moratorium — which was subsequently permanently enforced by OSHA. The federal worker safety agency had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get SeaWorld to comply with more rigorous protocols.

In 2013, the documentary Blackfish was released. Focused heavily on the death of Dawn Brancheau, the film also shed light on the treacherous conditions faced by orcas in captivity.

Tilikum At SeaWorld

Wikimedia CommonsTilikum performs at SeaWorld in 2009, the year before the death of Dawn Brancheau.

In addition to winning several awards, Blackfish started a national conversation surrounding conservation and captivity and was credited with SeaWorld’s “recalibration” on how it treats the animals in its care.

In 2016, SeaWorld announced it would stop breeding orcas in captivity, and many of the park’s theatrical shows featuring orcas have been subsequently retired or completely eliminated.

The few remaining orca displays more closely resemble their natural behavior in the Pacific Northwest, where orcas are normally found in the wild, and no interaction between humans and orcas is permitted.

SeaWorld has also pledged to no longer receive orcas that were caught in captivity, and their focus is now on conservation and rehabilitation of the orcas in their care.

As for Dawn Brancheau, her family would prefer to focus on how she lived, rather than how she died. In 2016, her family created an eponymous foundation in her honor. Its mission, they said, is “dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need, inspiring others to follow their dreams, and promoting the importance of community service.”

Now that you’ve read all about the amazing life and tragic death of Dawn Brancheau, read all about the complex lives of orcas in the wild. Then, learn about the tragic death of Steve Irwin, the beloved “Crocodile Hunter.”

Bernadette Giacomazzo
Bernadette Giacomazzo is a New York City-based editor, writer, photographer, and publicist whose work has been featured in People, Teen Vogue, BET, HipHopDX, XXL Magazine, The Source, Vibe, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.
Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.