ORLANDO, Fla. — Employees wept and audience members grew silent Saturday at SeaWorld as the theme park's popular killer whale show resumed with a photo montage memorial for a trainer who was killed by one of the orcas in front of horrified spectators three days ago.
The show had been shut down since veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, died Wednesday after rubbing a 22-foot, 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum. The animal grabbed her ponytail and pulled her into the water in front of about 20 spectators. The medical examiner says she likely died of traumatic injuries and drowning.
More than 2,000 people packed the park's stadium Saturday for the first show since Brancheau's death.
The audience cheered as the whales zipped around their tank and splashed spectators during the show — with the theme of "believe," about a young boy who sees an orca and dreams of one day becoming a whale trainer. It was a fitting tribute to Brancheau, whose family said she always wanted to work with the giant whales.
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"I just wanted to be here for this show. It's so special," said Russell Thomphsen, 65, who said he is a season-ticket holder for SeaWorld. "This touches so many lives."
Spectators packed the enormous outdoor amphitheater despite chilly, rainy weather, with the orca pool registering at 52 degrees. The whale trainers received a standing ovation as they approached the platform before the show, part of the multimillion-dollar enterprise centered around "Shamu" — the stage name given to all the performing orcas.
Several SeaWorld employees wept as the photo montage set to music was shown.
"It was very moving," said Molly Geislinger, 33, who came from Minneapolis with her husband and 21-month-old child.
However, she noticed a difference in how the trainers acted.
"They looked like they were being very careful," she said. "They looked very cautious today."
Indeed, the trainers weren't allowed in the water, meaning the whales' handlers did not surf on top of the marine mammals or fly into the air. Instead, the trainers directed the whales from outside the huge tank's acrylic walls. They coached the creatures to splash the front-and-center rows a few times, much to the delight of onlookers.
SeaWorld officials have said trainers won't swim with the orcas until they finish reviewing what happened to Brancheau.