SeaWorld Trainer Death Theory is a Ponytail Tale

Ever since the brutal death of SeaWorld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, the media has erroneously cited the marine park’s claim that killer whale Tilikum pulled her into the water by her ponytail. But why is this false theory important to SeaWorld?
Dawn Brancheau seconds before brutal attack
Dawn Brancheau seconds before brutal attack
Spread the Word
Listed Under

Killer Whale


St Pete Beach - Florida - US

April 20, 2011 - PRLog -- The media has it all wrong. But they have it exactly as SeaWorld wants the world to Believe. A little more than two weeks ago, Tilikum, a 12,000 lb orca (killer whale) returned to performing at the Orlando theme park rehashing the events that led to death of his trainer Dawn Brancheau 13 months prior. Through their recounting of that tragic day, virtually every news outlet, press release, and article written about her death portrayed the attack and initial take-down of Dawn as a “ponytail grab” and subsequent drowning.

They couldn’t be more wrong. The preponderance of evidence indicates that Dawn was not pulled in by her ponytail but instead was dragged into the water by her arm and the brutal details of her death made this much more than a simple drowning.

But why does it matter that the media continues to roll with SeaWorld’s “ponytail theory” and why does SeaWorld want to portray this as the start of the events that led to her death?

First we’ll have to take a look at what SeaWorld (SW) initially wanted the public to believe. Hoping to quickly put the story to rest (as well as the facts), SW convinced the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) to report that a trainer had “slipped or fell” into the pool and died of drowning. Although witnesses did not indicate that she slipped or fell, OCSO Spokesman Jim Solomons emerged from a meeting with SW officials and made that proclamation before a global audience in the initial press conference below.

With this announcement, the fabrications and deceptions began. Not only did OCSO make a major faux pas by making this announcement (which was subsequently withdrawn as the public came forward) but SeaWorld President Dan Brown also started the web of deceit expressing that “we have never, in the history of our parks had an incident like this”. While partially true, he failed to mention that just eight weeks earlier Keto, a SeaWorld orca on loan to Loro Parque brutally killed trainer Alexis Martinez in a similar fashion. His death in the Canary Islands was also portrayed merely as an accidental drowning:

But due to the outpouring of witness statements in the media, it was clear the “Slip or Fell” scenario wasn’t going to fly. So a new theory was born. The Ponytail Theory.

Why is the Ponytail Theory important to SW? Briefly, there are several reasons why making this distinction is important to them. Aside from the appearance that a ponytail grab is less intentional, it also gives SW an action they can take to remedy the situation: No female trainers are allowed to wear their hair down – hair must be kept in a bun or cut short. This gives the appearance they’re effectively addressing the problem and mitigating the dangers of working with Tilikum and all other orcas. During the latest onslaught of media coverage many were quick to point out the neat, tidy hair buns that now adorn the female trainers. This along with all of their other proposed safety improvements are a false solution.

More importantly, the ponytail theory allows SeaWorld to blame Dawn for being careless and letting her hair drift into his mouth. This is something SW has done repeatedly in the press. They will undoubtedly continue to speak out of both sides of their mouths. They will carry on blaming Dawn despite their tributes holding her up as being “the best of the best”, naming educational centers in her honor, hosting charity benefits and funding a foundation in her memory. Yes, Dawn’s life deserves to be celebrated and her family and friends do not deserve continual anguish. But the company behind these tributes is the same company deceiving the public and dishonoring Dawn by citing her actions as the sole cause that led to her death.

Chuck Tompkins, head of animal training at SeaWorld has led the charge promoting the ponytail theory which squarely places blame on Dawn. His deceptive statements continue to push further from the truth.

Mr. Tompkins additionally cites all the other whales were normal on that date. This is another claim that has been refuted by eyewitnesses and proven by several videos (which can be seen in our full report- link below). The Believe Show just prior to Dawn’s death was cancelled abruptly as the killer whales became aggressive, uncooperative and unresponsive to trainer commands.

And the blame game has not stopped with current SW staff. Former employees have also come forth to ensure SW can continue to profit by placing the blame on Dawn’s shoulders. Thad Lacinak, former Vice President and Corporate Curator for Animal Training at SeaWorld even went as far as stating “If Dawn was here today she would say that it was a mistake on her part”. Apparently, not only can Thad “walk and talk with the animals” but he’s taken his Dr Doolittle talent to a new height by speaking for the dead.

And the SW double-talk continued. Thad also claims that killer whales are very intelligent animals and would know the difference between a human and other objects yet he’d still like everyone to believe that somehow Tilikum was confused or just playing with the ponytail.

So where did the Ponytail Theory originate?

It all starts with SeaWorld trainer Jan Topoleski’s questionable observations that he saw Dawn’s hair floating on the water into Tilikum’s mouth. Jan was working as the safety spotter for Dawn during her Dine with Shamu performance. However, witness reports of the initial takedown raise a question of whether Jan was watching closely and if he even saw what he reported. So there is reason to wonder how clearly Jan saw the grab, if at all. But this was enough for SW to run with the Ponytail Theory. It was the perfect out for them; a young, beautiful, experienced trainer growing her hair long to donate to a children’s charity, makes a mistake and allows Tilikum to become “confused” as her hair becomes entangled in his mouth.

The answer is simple. Dawn’s hair played no role in the initial attack and only later was her hair involved during the 30+ minutes that he kept possession of her.

Of the many witnesses who provided statements to the OCSO, the evidence shows that Dawn was not pulled in by her ponytail but rather was taken down by the arm as the two drifted across the platform in knee-deep water. Dawn remained calm, a neutral response to Tilikum grasping her arm before pulling her in.

The most telling evidence of an initial arm-grab is that of SeaWorld Security Officer Fredy Herrera, who witnessed the initial take down:

“At app. 1:37 pm while on post at SeaWorld’s Cove Restaurant pool “G” I did observe Shamu trainer Dawn petting the whale named Tilikum at the concrete area of the pool when the whale grabbed the trainer’s arm and pulled her into the pool and would not let go.”

So with the overwhelming evidence that Dawn was not taken down by her ponytail, how is it that SeaWorld has successfully manipulated the media to follow their lead? Simply put… good PR and even better deception.

The Ponytail Theory is just that. A theory that doesn’t hold weight and has no merit.

To read the complete report debunking the Ponytail Theory, complete with witness statements, videos, photos, former trainer interviews and access to investigative documents please visit: or

For the latest killer whale updates, additional content, links, photos, videos, documents, interviews, news and stories, visit

# # #

The Orca Project is a small but effective non-profit organization, collaborating with some of the world’s top marine mammal experts and caring professionals from diverse backgrounds, working to change the public’s attitude and government supervision of marine mammals in captivity through research, investigation and education. We are committed to providing the public with a look behind the scenes of the marine mammal captivity/entertainment industry, explore the legal and ethical issues of keeping orcas in captivity and to keep pressure on our government oversight agencies to enforce and improve animal welfare regulations.
The Orca Project Corp PRs
Trending News
Top Daily News
Top Weekly News

Like PRLog?
Click to Share