SeaWorld trainers told to use caution with whale

By the Associated Press | September 22, 2011 | 2:15 PM EDT

SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — The killer whale that dragged a SeaWorld trainer into a pool and drowned her last year was possessive of objects, and trainers were given grave warnings about working with him, another trainer testified Thursday.

Shana Groves discussed rules for working with the whale during the fourth day of a hearing over whether SeaWorld should have to pay $75,000 in fines from three citations issued after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. An administrative law judge isn't expected to rule until more than a week after the hearing. A decision against SeaWorld could change how trainers interact with whales at its marine parks.

Brancheau died in February 2010 when the whale named Tilikum grabbed her and dragged her underwater violently.

Groves said Thursday that trainers were told that if they fell in the water with Tilikum they might not survive. They also were taught never to turn their backs on any animal during a show.

Later in the day, a senior animal trainer who was hosting the Shamu show on the day of the accident gave a graphic description of Brancheau's death. After the show ended, Jan Topoleski said, Brancheau was lying on her back on a concrete slab beside the pool. He said the whale mimicked her behavior and flipped belly side up while she held his flipper.

"She was not asking the whale for anything," said Topoleski, referring to the moments leading up to Tilikum grabbing Brancheau. "It was considered relationship building and was nothing out of the ordinary."

He said he saw Brancheau rise to her knees and then grasp her ponytail.

"The last image I had was that she couldn't break free and was pulled into the water," said Topoleski.

Seaworld and several witnesses have said previously that Brancheau was pulled in by her hair, though an employee said this week that it looked like the whale grabbed her arm.

Topoleski immediately hit the alarm before grabbing oxygen and reeling out the emergency net. He said that it took 40 to 45 minutes before Brancheau's body was pulled from the water.

Tremelle Howard-Fishburne, an attorney for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, asked Topoleski if Tilikum responded to his slapping the water to get his attention after Brancheau went in. He said the whale did not respond and agreed that the rescue procedures SeaWorld had in place did not work that day.