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SeaWorld trainer tribute: Shamu Believe show resumes with standing ovation
It was back to business at SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium on Saturday, but there were some glaring differences in a show that has brought tourists from across the globe to the celebrate the beauty of jumping killer whales.
On an emotional morning that celebrated the life of Dawn Brancheau, fans of the park's signature show, "Believe," didn't see a trainer emerge from the depths of the enormous pool on the nose of a flying orca, nor were they drenched by the crashing waves off the fins of the 6-ton killer whale Tilikum.
The 11 a.m. show -- which had fans lining up as early as 9 a.m. -- started with a tribute to Brancheau, a veteran orca trainer who drowned Wednesday after Tilikum yanked her by the ponytail and pulled her underwater.
Billy Grady and his family, tourists from Georgia, returned to the park this weekend solely to catch the show after it had been canceled Friday. The father of three said he was moved by the tribute, which included photos of Brancheau hugging and swimming with killer whales.
"It brought tears to my eyes. She died doing what she loved," Grady, 33, said.
Young children in the audience recognized Brancheau in the pictures, while some adults sniffled and fought back tears.
Despite Brancheau's shocking death, Grady said, the show needs to continue to educate people about animal conservation. That's what he thinks Brancheau would want as an animal lover.
"If it stopped, I don't think she'd be happy. She's looking down on us, and she's happy it went on," Grady said. "If she had a second chance and she was still alive, I don't think she would give up."
Yoouhenky Hickman, an Orlando resident who comes to the show regularly, was teary as she exited the stadium. Hickman, who described herself simply as "a big fan" of the killer-whale show, said that watching the animals and trainers interact Saturday reinforced her belief that Brancheau's death was a tragic accident.
"It's amazing all the things these animals do," she said.
There was no Tilikum on Saturday morning, so the 6-ton orca didn't provide his crowd-pleasing, clothes-soaking splashes as part of the show. Officials have said that the male killer whale will return, but they are not sure in what capacity.
Trainers also stayed out of the water, feeding the whales with buckets of fish on the ledges of the pool. In what has become a signature for the park, the trainer-orca interaction has provided Shamu fans with incredible images of beautiful lifts out of the middle of the pool, with the trainer emerging from the water standing on the nose of a jumping orca.
But because of the continuing investigation into Brancheau's death, fans had to settle for the whales taking direction from above the surface.
Other precautions were obvious, with more staff on hand throughout the stadium and the female trainers tying their hair up in buns. These adjustments will also take effect at the parks in San Diego and San Antonio.
Some things never change
Although trainers, who were greeted with a standing ovation, stood on the sidelines this weekend, Grady said the show wasn't disappointing. Using hand signals, trainers instructed the whales to leap, twirl and wave to the audience, while also providing plenty of big splashes for the audience.
Tilikum has long been known as the whale with the biggest splash, prompting many to buy ponchos outside the stadium so that they could sit in the front row and take all that the orca had to offer. On Saturday, the dreary weather kept many from entering the splash zone, but Tilikum's back-ups still left plenty with wet clothes to air out as visitors walked around the park.
"They still put on a great show. I don't feel let down," Grady said. His family planned to attend a second show Saturday.
They don't 'Believe'
The emotional return of 'Believe' did not change the minds of people who have long thought SeaWorld should not force animals to perform in shows.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sponsored a protest at the the park, with less than a dozen holding signs at the main gate. PETA has called for SeaWorld to free its captive whales and warned that more human deaths will occur if frustrated, unhappy animals are not let go.
"In the wild, orcas and other dolphin species swim up to 100 miles a day," said Amanda Fortino, a PETA spokeswoman, lamenting that animals at SeaWorld are kept in tanks "that to them are just like the size of a bathtub."
PETA claims that 42 killer whales are held captive in the U.S..
Marine mammal-rights activist Russ Rector said Saturday that killer whales such as Tilikum should not be kept in tanks or put in shows. "Captivity just dements these males, makes them monsters," said Rector, a former dolphin trainer.
"They treat them like props. It's a shame, absolutely a shame."
The main attraction
But it would be a shame if the park lost its marquee performers, said the Christopherson family of Ridgeland, Wis. It was the family's first vacation in Orlando, and even though they planned their trip around the Walt Disney World theme parks, they said the orca show lured them to SeaWorld.
"We were scared the show wasn't going to open," said mother Kelly Christopherson, 38.
They wanted to teach their three daughters, ages 10, 8 and 4, about sea animals, which they don't get a chance to see back home in the Midwest.
"Where else can you see killer whales [close up]?" said father Tim Christopherson, 41.
Although she wants to see trainers and whales back together in the water in future shows, tourist Deborah Osuch said SeaWorld officials are right to take their time in reviewing their procedures, with trainer safety being the most important. "Until the dust settles, they need to do what's right," said Osuch, of Fairhaven, Mass.
Following in Dawn's footsteps
Brancheau, according to her mother, found her love for orcas on a family vacation to SeaWorld when she was about 10 years old. On Saturday morning, a young Kissimmee girl was chosen from the crowd to be the guest trainer, spending about a minute on a plank near the tank. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, the dark-haired girl simply replied:
"A Shamu trainer."