A mistake by trainer Dawn Brancheau prompted a killer whale to drag her into the water to her death, a former mentor of Brancheau's said today.
"Dawn, if she was standing here with me, would tell you that it was her mistake that it happened," Thad Lacinak, former head trainer at SeaWorld and Brancheau's teacher, told "Good Morning America." "Dawn was one of the best killer whale trainers I've ever worked with. ... It looks like she made the mistake."
Lacinak said Brancheau was apparently lying down in a 4-inch "slide out" that trainers are meant to stand on while interacting with the whale when her ponytail drifted toward the mouth of the 12,000-pound animal.
"He pulled her in by the ponytail," Lacinak said. "I'm pretty sure it was her breaking protocol. ... Sometimes we get too comfortable working with these animals. Sometimes we forget what they are."
Brancheau, 40, an experienced trainer, was snatched by the whale in front of a stadium of horrified onlookers, thrashed and ultimately held under water to drown Wednesday.
Although this is the third dead person linked to the whale named Tillikum, and two federal agencies are investigating Brancheau's death, SeaWorld officials said they had no plans to euthanize the animal.
SeaWorld has for years banned trainers from swimming with Tillikum, who was linked to the death of a Canadian trainer in 1991 and another man who sneaked into a holding area in 1999. The whale has, however, been used in public shows and is given commands from trainers from the sides of the tank.
Although captive land mammals, including tigers and chimpanzees, are routinely killed on sight or later euthanized if they attack people, SeaWorld said it had never killed an animal for displaying aggressive behavior.
"Euthanasia is different in a veterinary setting, but we have never euthanized an animal for being aggressive," SeaWorld spokeswoman Leigh Andrus said Thursday.
"The plan is to review our protocols and continue to care for Tillikum with the same high level of care. Trainers will interact with the animal to provide care, but this was never an animal which trainers swam with."
Given the whale's checkered history and the animal's natural predatory tendencies, a debate has emerged about what should be done with the whale.
Brancheau's family and animal rights activists say they do not want to see Tillikum killed.
Brancheau's sister, Diane Gross, told the Associated Press that the trainer loved the animals like they were her children and "would not want anything done to that whale."
Activists at PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who oppose the captivity of all wild animals said the park should release the whale to a coastal sanctuary that would allow the animal to swim in the ocean in a controlled setting.
Should Killer Whale Be Euthanized?
Such sanctuaries were built for the whale Keiko, star of the 1993 film "Free Willy," first in Oregon and then Norway with the hopes of one day returning the whale to the wild.
Some animal experts, however, doubt that a whale held captive for years can successfully be returned to the wild. "These animals are 100 percent dependent on human beings and its incredibly unlikely that they would be able to survive if put back in the wild," said naturalist Jeff Corwin, host of "Corwin's Quest" on Animal Planet.
"This animal should not be punished for being what it is: a wild predator," he said Thursday.
Though euthanizing captive whales is rare, a number of the 5,000 marine mammals that find themselves stranded on U.S. beaches every year are killed, said Janet Whaley, a vet at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries department.
In the United States, beached whales are typically euthanized using a chemical cocktail, but they are simply shot in other countries, she said.
By some accounts, Tillikum was depressed and acting erratically, but Chuck Tompkins, curator of zoological operations at SeaWorld Orlando, told "Good Morning America" that the whale was "a good animal."
Tompkins said the whale attack may have been triggered by Brancheau's long hair, which swatted the whale in the face and by which the animal grabbed the trainer.
"What we have found out is that Dawn [Brancheau] had just finished up a very good session with this animal. ... She was interacting with him, petting him on the nose," he said." "Dawn had very long hair in a ponytail. That ponytail had swung in front of him. He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her underwater and held her underwater."
Eyewitnesses watched through an underwater window as the whale thrashed and drowned its trainer.
"We thought it was part of the act," said tourist Wayne Gillespie, who was at the killer whale show with his wife and two children. "We thought maybe they were playing together until we realized he was thrashing around pretty hard. That's how we knew something was wrong."