Reporter: Michael Usher
Producers: Stephen Rice and Skye Gilkeson
60 Minutes will air an update on its investigation into the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld this Sunday.
They seem the friendliest and most sociable of creatures. At least, that's the impression you get when you watch killer whales swimming in wildlife documentaries or performing at marine parks.
But don't be fooled. These are wild animals, predators at the very top of the food chain.
They are, as their name implies, killers. None more so than Tilikum, an orca at Florida's Sea World.
He's killed three times.
Two of his victims were his trainers and his tragic story makes you wonder what we're doing confining these majestic and clearly very dangerous creatures in concrete tanks.
For more information on David Kirby’s book Death at SeaWorld go to: www.deathatseaworld.com
For more information about SeaWorld go to: www.seaworld.com
For more information about the Humane Society International campaign against keeping whales in captivity, go to
Read Michael Usher's blog on this story and have your say
Follow Michael Usher on Twitter
MICHAEL USHER: It's showtime at SeaWorld. More than just an aquarium, this is the Disneyland of marine parks. Every year millions of tourists flock here to Orlando, Florida to see the main event - SeaWorld's famous killer whales. It's quite a show, isn't it?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: It changes peoples' lives.
MICHAEL USHER: But for the billion dollar industry that's turned orcas into entertainment, something is going badly wrong. SeaWorld's star performers aren't following the script with deadly consequences.
DR JOHN JETT: They're caged natural killers. And they've been put into a totally unnatural environment and they're asked to perform silly tricks over and over and over and over for their entire life. They end up beating the hell out of a trainer or killing them.
MICHAEL USHER: Despite their fierce name we've come to know killer whales as friendly entertaining creatures who can be taught to perform and, it appears, even like the attention. But make no mistake. They are very skilled predators, the top of the chain in their natural waters. For sure they can be trained to perform in pools like this but that doesn't change their natural instinct to hunt and to kill. And if ever there was an argument against keeping these animals in captivity, it's the story of Dawn Brancheau. She was SeaWorld's star trainer in charge of SeaWorld's star whale, the mighty Tilikum. He's huge and dangerous. He'd killed twice before and in February this year, Tilikum struck again, turning on his devoted trainer.
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: She was an amazing person. She was one of our most experienced trainers and she was a phenomenal trainer. She was, you know, and we'll argue one of the best performers we've ever seen.
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE isn't just the chief animal curator at this park she was also Dawn's best friend here.
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: We experienced a huge loss. The animal training industry did, our killer whale family did.
MICHAEL USHER: Clearly emotional for you. It's hard.
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: It's still tough, yeah.
MICHAEL USHER: Dawn Brancheau knew exactly what she was dealing with. Killer whales are the wolves of the world's oceans who skilfully target and play with their prey. It's an instinct that seems to follow them into captivity. Over the past few decades, there've been a number of recorded moments where killer whales have snatched their handlers, held them underwater, tossed them about, refused to let them go. And even after 27 years in captivity Tilikum took just a split second to act on those natural instincts. What went wrong on that day between her and Tilikum?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: You know, everything was going right between her and Tilikum.
MICHAEL USHER: A tourist recorded the final minutes of Dawn Brancheau's life. She was doing what she did most days, playing with Tilikum, her 5.5 tonne favourite killer whale. But as Dawn bends down close, near Tilikum's mouth, he grabs her.
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: At some point in that interaction her ponytail made its way either near his mouth or actually in his mouth. And she entered the water with him.
MICHAEL USHER: What happened next was simply horrific.
DR JOHN JETT: Knowing Tilikum, I've lost sleep over thinking about what Dawn went through.
MICHAEL USHER: Marine scientist
DR JOHN JETT is a former SeaWorld trainer who worked with Dawn and Tilikum.
DR JOHN JETT: Once Tilikum decided that Dawn was going in the water with him, Dawn had no chance and Tilikum did let her go at one point where she was able to surface and get a breath of air. You know, she was described as having this terrified look, a please help me look on her face, and Tilikum then grabbed her, took her back down and then it got worse after that.
MICHAEL USHER: He was determined to kill her?
DR JOHN JETT: It's quite evident that Tilikum was determined to keep her.
MICHAEL USHER: Tilikum kept Dawn underwater for a full 40 minutes before he was marshalled into a holding pen.
DR JOHN JETT: At that point he still had Dawn in his mouth. They had to use sticks and, you know, broom handles to pry his mouth open to retrieve her body. They had to pry his mouth open to go back in and retrieve her arm.
MICHAEL USHER: It was SeaWorld's worst nightmare but it shouldn't have come as any surprise. Trainers weren't allowed in the water with Tilikum because he had a deadly history. In 1991 he killed 20-year-old trainer, Keltie Byrne at a Canadian marine park after she slipped and fell in the pool. Then, in 1999, a young homeless man named Daniel Dukes was found dead in Tilikum's Orlando pool after trying to swim with him.
DR NAOMI ROSE: With Dawn Brancheau, something was going on with Tilikum and he pulled her into the tank and then he shook her and broke her apart, so there was something dif... it wasn't playing.
MICHAEL USHER: Marine biologist Dr Naomi Rose, from the American Humane Society, has studied Tilikum's behaviour over many years and believes the attack on Dawn shows his killer instincts at work.
DR NAOMI ROSE: He pulled her into the tank on purpose. He shook her on purpose. He wouldn't let her get out of the tank on purpose, and personally I think he didn't mean to kill her but he was angry or upset or disturbed about something and he took it out on her and she died.
MICHAEL USHER: Are you saying he attacked deliberately?
DR NAOMI ROSE: I don't know what happened that day. I'm not sure Tilikum knows what happened that day but somebody's dead because of all this ignorance and that's what bothers me, that we're willing to live with this amount of ignorance about a very large, very dangerous animal in a tank with a bunch of people and we think that's entertainment.
SEAWORLD EMPLOYEE: How many of you are wondering why I'm on stage talking to you right now?
MICHAEL USHER: What is known but still unexplained is that the main show was cancelled just before Dawn's death.
SEAWORLD EMPLOYEE: 99.9% of the time, our shows go exactly the way we want them to.
MICHAEL USHER: Two female whales, Kayla and Kalina, were acting aggressively and refused to perform.
DR NAOMI ROSE: That's where everybody's attention should be focused, is what is going on earlier in the day that resulted in that cancellation?
MICHAEL USHER: To keep the crowd entertained, Dawn began playing with Tilikum in a back pool and as she finished, lay down next to him on a shallow ledge. But was that a dangerous thing for her to do? Was that against SeaWorld's protocol?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: We are still reviewing that, and you're asking me to speak to something that until we understand completely and until...
MICHAEL USHER: But something failed on that day, didn't it?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: I don't have my friend anymore. Something went wrong.
MICHAEL USHER: Did the procedures here go wrong or did she go wrong?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: I don't know how to answer that. I don't really know how to answer that. I...I...I was there. You're asking me to expound upon something that is a tragedy and you're asking me to make judgements on something that won't, some things that we'll never know.
MICHAEL USHER: But it appears SeaWorld did know exactly what Dawn was doing. As these photos show she'd done it many times before. Tilikum was known to be dangerous though, wasn't he? He'd been involved in two deaths prior to Dawn's?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: Yeah. You know though, people have been bringing those up, and here's the bottom line.
MICHAEL USHER: Well, rightly so.
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: Well rightly so, and I understand that.
MICHAEL USHER: That's his natural instinct, isn't it?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: No, you know, the behaviour that he was showing us was not hunting behaviour. It was not aggressive behaviour. It was not, ah, um, killing behaviour.
MICHAEL USHER: What was it then? To play with Dawn?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: I can't tell you what he was doing and I don't think anybody can. Unless they can analyse these sounds that you're hearing behind me and tell me what they're saying, they have no idea. And that's where I'd like to leave that.
MICHAEL USHER: Out in the wild, in the waters of British Columbia in Canada, you get a very different view of these magnificent killer whales. Here, they live and hunt in well-established pods, the way nature intended. And, with John Jett on board, it doesn't take long to find them. There he is right there. Look at that.
DR JOHN JETT: Oh wow.
MICHAEL USHER: Fantastic!
DR JOHN JETT: How about that? That is terrific. Golly.
MICHAEL USHER: That's a killer whale in the wild?
DR JOHN JETT: That's a killer whale in the wild. You know, once you see something like that, it'd be hard to go to an aquarium to see them in a captive environment, no doubt about it. Oh, nice, look at that.
MICHAEL USHER: The pod we're following has 25 family members and at this time every year, they cruise the shoreline in search of salmon.
DR JOHN JETT: Look at the tail.
MICHAEL USHER: Right here.
DR JOHN JETT: Here we have a big one, right there.
MICHAEL USHER: See the fin?
DR JOHN JETT: Wow. Look at that. Outstanding.
MICHAEL USHER: Just amazing. And today is a rare sighting - the matriarch of the pod is leading the search for fish. And she's a grand old lady who, believe it or not, is 99 years old. She's 99?
MARINE SCIENTIST: The oldest orca that we are aware of out in this area.
MICHAEL USHER: That's incredible. Her age though, means it's more than likely she lost offspring in these waters when killer whales were herded so the young ones could be captured and sold to marine parks. This is exactly how Tilikum was caught in Iceland 25 years ago.
DR NAOMI ROSE: He was very young when he was captured. He was taken from his mother in what was no doubt an extremely traumatic event. He was sent to one facility where he was bullied by two females who probably were not relatives of his so he had no status. I suspect he's actually pretty disturbed. I won't go so far as to say he's crazy but you know if he was a human being, I'd be really, really concerned about his mental health.
MICHAEL USHER: The way you talk about it, it's like describing a juvenile delinquent.
DR NAOMI ROSE: An abused juvenile.
DR JOHN JETT: They're the top predator in the ocean. They eat sharks, they eat whales, they eat dolphins. Around here they eat king salmon. So they eat what they want, when they want. But you know, it is interesting, given how long mankind has lived in close proximity with killer whales, there's never been any documented cases of them attacking, certainly not killing, any humans. Unfortunately we don't see that in captive environments, where to date four people have been killed by whales.
MICHAEL USHER: It seems SeaWorld isn't sure what to do with it's infamous star attraction. Tilikum now languishes out of public view in a small pool at the back of the complex. Trainers aren't allowed to touch him, and the most contact he has is being hosed from two metres away. For all intents and purposes he's in confinement isn't he?
DR NAOMI ROSE: He's in solitary confinement, yeah. He is in fact the loneliest whale in the world. This is not normal for killer whales. They're supposed to have companions. They live with their family for their whole life. This whale is messed up.
MICHAEL USHER: But out front, the show goes on. It has to. Because this is a business worth $2.5 billion, built around killer whales performing every single day of the year - sometimes several shows a day. So when you hear the criticism that killer whales equals killer profits, what do you say?
KELLY FLAHERTY CLARKE: I'm bothered by that a great deal. I'm bothered by that. Yeah. I would say it's profitable for the world and for the environment and for them. DR NAOMI ROSE: This species doesn't belong in captivity. They are inherently unsuited to being confined in concrete tanks. So what I'm asking them to do is to phase them out. Stop breeding them, that's the first thing you have to do. Stop producing more of them and let the ones that are currently on display live out their lives, die in due course, and not be replaced.