Trainer’s grisly death as ‘big-eyed’ SeaWorld orca ‘violently played with body’

In the weeks leading to his death, killer whale trainer Alexis Martinez confided in his girlfriend that his "risky" job was taking its toll.

He had a nagging feeling that "something could happen at any time," she said.

Chillingly, he was right. On Christmas Eve, 2009, Alexis was killed by an orca during a training session. He was just 29.

Alexis had worked with the orcas, or killer whales, at Loro Parque, Tenerife, since 2006. He was skilled, experienced and intuitive when it came to the enormous, majestic creatures.

But when Keto, a 6,600lb male, turned on him, he could offer little in the way of a defence.

His girlfriend Estefania Luis Rodriguez said she was initially told by park officials that Alexis's death was an "accident".

However, months later, official documents revealed the true horror.

Keto, who was born in captivity in 1995, was one of four killer whales loaned by SeaWorld to Loro Parque for its Orca Ocean attraction. He had performed in parks in the US before before moved to Tenerife in 2006.

Both an autopsy report and a confidential corporate incident report suggest Alexis met a particularly grisly end following a brutal attack by Keto rather than an "unfortunate accident".

According to Outside Magazine, the corporate incident report said Keto "appeared in a good mood" on the day of the fatal assault and was in good form during swim sessions.

For the morning session, Alexis joined the whale in the pool while another trainer, Brian Rokeach, positioned himself on the stage. Other trainers were present too.

After a positive start, things went downhill – rapidly.

Alexis attempted a stand-on spy hop, a move where the trainer stands on the whale's rostrum, or the tip of its beak, as it rises up and out of the water. Keto showed good power, but was leaning to one side, which caused Alexis to fall off.

When the same thing happened at the second attempt, Alexis responded with a least-reinforcing scenario (LRS), giving a neutral reaction and withholding the reward, the report said.

Next, Keto was reportedly rewarded with two handfuls of fish after he obeyed another trainer's call to a shallow ledge across the pool from the stage.

Presumably encouraged, Alexis apparently decided to try a haul-down into stage haul-out, meaning he would ride the orca down into the pool and up onto the stage.

It was the last routine he and Keto would ever attempt.

The whale, who according to the report had appeared agitated after a performance a few months earlier, dived too deep, forcing Alexis to abandon the move near the bottom of the 12-metre pool.

The trainer gestured for Keto to follow his hand with his rostrum then responded with another LRS once they had reached the surface, the report said.

Seconds later, Keto carried out his killer move.

The incident report said: "Keto surfaced with Alexis and seemed calm, but appeared to position himself between Alexis and the stage. Alexis waited for calm from Keto and requested a stage call via underwater tone."

Trainer Brian Rokeach noted that the orca did not appear "committed to remaining under control" and looked "a little big-eyed".

He gave the whale a hand target. Once Keto appeared calm, he told Alexis, who was in the middle of the show pool, to swim slowly to a ramp leading to the other pools.

Spotting Alexis was on the move, Keto headed towards him. Brian again gave the whale a hand target, but this time it was ignored. He drove at Alexis, ramming him to the bottom of the pool with his beak.

Orca Ocean assistant supervisor Rafael Sanchez, in his testimony to investigators, said: “The animal in question moved towards him and hit him and violently played with his body.”

Trainers slapped the water and banged a bucket, signalling for Keto to return. Eventually, after 30 seconds, the whale obeyed, leaving Alexis at the bottom of the pool.

The orca took a quick breath before returning to Alexis. He then came to the surface with the trainer's limp body across his beak.

Keto was directed to another pool before Alexis's body was recovered from the pool. He had blood pouring from his nose and mouth.

The trainer's colleagues tried in vain to save him before he was rushed to hospital.

He suffered horrific injuries including significant internal bleeding.

Loro Parque bosses issued a statement saying the death was an “unfortunate accident”, giving a probable cause of death as asphyxiation as a result of compression of his chest.

They said Alexis "was knocked by the orca in an unexpected reaction of the animal", explaining that the whale's behaviour "did not correspond to the way in which these marine mammals attack their prey in the wild, but was rather a shifting of position”.

But the autopsy report told a different story, describing a violent attack.

It said he had "died due to grave injuries sustained by an orca attack, including multiple compression fractures, tears to vital organs, and the bite marks of the animal on his body".

Keto was flown to Tenerife from the US with three other SeaWorld orcas – Tekoa, a male, and females, Kohana and Skyla.

All four whales were bred in captivity and with no mature or dominant female to establish order, the social dynamics were tricky.

Just months before his death, Alexis documented his concerns over the whales in his journals.

In one entry, he wrote: “Keto is obsessed with controlling Kohana, he won’t separate from her, including shows. Tekoa is very sexual when he is alone with Kohana (penis out). Keto is sexual with Tekoa.”

On September 2, 2009, he alluded to an incident involving Brian Rokeach.

He said “Brian had a small incident with Keto the first hour of the morning,” adding that it was “a very bad day for Keto”. Days later, he wrote: “All the animals are bad. Dry day for Kohana.”

It later emerged that Keto had displayed aggressive behaviour towards the other whales. On one occasion, he rammed Tekoa, leaving him bleeding, and on another he bit Kohana's dorsal fin.

Two months after Alexis's death, SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, who had worked with Alexis, was killed in front of thousands of spectators at the attraction in Orlando, Florida.

The 40-year-old had a special relationship with a huge killer whale called Tilikum, also known as Blackfish, but the creature killed her in a prolonged and violent attack.

Tilikum died in 2017 after seeing out his days in a pool away from public viewing.

Six years after her death SeaWorld announced they would end their programme of breeding the orcas in captivity.

It now works with the Humane Society of the United States to work against commercial whaling and seal hunts, and also campaigns against shark finning and ocean pollution and has switched its focus to rescue operations.

Keto, now 26, remains at Loro Parque where he performs to this day.

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