ORLANDO, Fla. March 30, 2011 — -- Thunderous applause greeted SeaWorld's Tilikum today as the killer whale returned to the theme park's big stage, 13 months after grabbing trainer Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail and killing her.
SeaWorld officials would not specify what safety precautions were instituted, but some appeared to be obvious.
Steel bars blocked the whales from the main stage and female trainers wore their hair in high buns. Trainers also stayed out of the water and off the stages during Tilikum's performance.
When the 12,000 pound orca made his splashy entrance, the crowd erupted in applause and cheers. It included the thrill of danger.
"I was afraid," said one boy who was splashed by the giant whale.
Colleen Gorman of St. Petersburg Beach said, "I didn't see any new protective measures… he's a timebomb. If anyone gets near him.. he's been linked to three deaths already, I'm afraid that if anybody comes close to him he'll do it again."
"He's big, very big," said Bob Beasy of Chicago, who was pleased to see that the trainers were out of the pool. "They put up bars for safety, which means the trainers are safe and we can still those beautiful animals perform."
SeaWorld officials said that it was the 12,000-pound whale's "choice" to perform in the "Believe" show this morning and that none of the park's whales are coerced to participate.
In a statement, executives from SeaWorld defended Tilikum's reentry into the performing world saying it "is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment."
Tilikum has been connected to the death of three humans. The last death was on Feb. 24, 2010 when Tilikum used his girth to snatch trainer Dawn Brancheau's ponytail, pull her underwater and shake her violently until she died.
The death was caught on tape and watched by horrified spectators.
In 1991, trainer Keltie Lee Byrne fell into a tank holding Tilikum and two other whales at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, Canada. A homicide inquest found that the whales had prevented Byrne from climbing out of the tank and ruled her death an accident.
After Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando, Tilikum was again connected to the death of a person in 1999.
The body of Daniel Dukes, 27, was found naked and draped across the giant whale's body in July 1999. Dukes reportedly got past security at SeaWorld, remaining in the park after it had closed. Wearing only his underwear, Dukes jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water of Tilikum's huge tank.
Tilikum had been brought to SeaWorld mostly to mate and trainers like Brancheau were not allowed in the water with him, but did interact with him on the pool ledge.
The 40-year-old trainer was at ease with the killer whale and had just petted him on the nose. However, in a scene that horrified SeaWorld visitors, Tilikum pulled her into the pool and began swinging her around in its mouth.
SeaWorld officials had always said Tilikum would be back after Brancheau's death, despite protests by experts and activists.
"He's the big finish and it worries me that the show is more important than his well being or trainer safety," said Naomi Rose from the Humane Society of the United States.
SeaWorld's Tilikum Performs Despite Reservations From Activists, Federal Officials
Federal officials aren't as worried about the largest killer whale in captivity, but more about his human trainers.
In August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that Seaworld showed indifference or intentional disregard for employee safety by exposing workers to drowning hazards when they interact with killer whales.
The agency fined SeaWorld $75,000 and recommended that trainers not be allowed to have any physical contact with Tilikum unless protected by a physical barrier.
In response, SeaWorld officials say they are building fast rising false bottom floors capable of lifting whales and trainers out of the water in an emergency.
At the park, many visitors seemed less interested in safety.
"That's a chance that you take when you go and see an animal show whether it's whales, it's a lion, it's a snake, you take a chance seeing something horrible happen to a human being," Merly Carvalho said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.