ORLANDO, Fla. — Throngs of people will crowd the crescent-shaped SeaWorld amphitheater Saturday to watch the first killer whale show since an orca named Tilikum killed a trainer a few days ago.
This performance will be much different from past shows.
Trainers won’t be allowed in the water, meaning the spectacular stunts, like when the handlers surf on top of the whales or are thrown into the air, won’t be done. And a video tribute is planned for Dawn Brancheau, the 40-year-old veteran trainer who was rubbing the 12,000-pound giant when he grabbed her ponytail and pulled her in.
Protesters who think the killer whales should be released into the wild planned to demonstrate outside the park, where red balloons and flowers have been left in memory of Brancheau.
SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Jim Atchison said Friday trainers won’t swim with the killer whales until officials finish reviewing what happened to Brancheau.
“We will make improvements and changes and we will move forward,” Atchison said as killer whales swam in a tank behind him during a news conference at the Florida park. Shows will also resume at SeaWorld’s two other locations in San Antonio and San Diego.
Brancheau was dragged into the water Wednesday by Tilikum. The medical examiner said she likely died of traumatic injuries and drowning.
Atchison said 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.
“We have created an extraordinary opportunity for people to get an up-close, personal experience and be inspired and connect with marine life in a way they cannot do anywhere else in the world,” Atchison said, “and for that we will make no apologies.”
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.
“SeaWorld operations are built around Shamu and the orca. So quantitatively they mean literally hundreds of millions of dollars to that company,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting firm.
No animal is more valuable to that operation than Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, which now has been involved in the deaths of two trainers and requires a special set of handling rules, which Atchison wouldn’t specify. 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.
Breeding is the best way to build a collection of killer whales to draw in visitors at up to $78.95 apiece to sit in the splash zone or take pictures of their kids petting Shamu, the stage name SeaWorld gives all of its adult orcas in shows.
And no one is better at breeding killer whales than SeaWorld.
The company owns 25 of the 42 orcas in captivity, and other theme parks sometimes come to SeaWorld to get theirs.
At the heart of it all is Tilikum, bought in 1992 from a now-defunct Canadian park where he was one of three orcas that battered and submerged a fallen trainer until she died. After the woman slipped into the water, she became like a plaything to the three whales, said Adam Hellicar, a former diver at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia.
Like many amusement parks, privately held SeaWorld doesn’t release attendance figures or say whether it charges other facilities stud fees or other fees for the right to buy or borrow orcas. Nor does it disclose what chunk of its revenue comes from killer whales.
But that’s what everyone goes to see.
The Oregon Coast Aquarium saw its largest crowds during the few years that Keiko lived there before he was released into the wild.
“He was a superstar,” said Judy Tuttle, curator of marine mammals at the aquarium, who worked extensively with Keiko. “Some people think he’s still here. A woman came up to me recently and asked where Keiko was.”
Kelli Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Orlando, Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla., and Anna Varela in Atlanta contributed to this report.