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Whale trainers banned from pools

Shamu the killer whale will perform for an audience today -- just three days after a bull orca dragged Dawn Brancheau underwater to her death at the end of a show in Orlando.

But staff at the parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego won't get back in the water with the ocean predators until SeaWorld and a panel of outside experts complete a top-to-bottom review of how the company handles orcas.

"We have created an extraordinary opportunity for people to get an up-close, personal experience and be inspired and connect with marine life in a way they cannot do anywhere else in the world," said SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment president Jim Atchison.

He made the remarks as orcas swam behind him on the other side of an underwater window, adding, "and for that we will make no apologies".

The timing of the killer whales' return to performances reflects just what the black-and-white mammals mean to SeaWorld, which the private equity firm the Blackstone Group bought last autumn for around $2.7bn (€2bn) in a deal that included two Busch Gardens theme parks.

"SeaWorld operations are built around Shamu and the orca. So quantitatively they mean literally hundreds of millions of dollars to that company," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting firm. No animal is more valuable to that operation than Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, which now has been involved in the deaths of two trainers and requires a special set of handling rules, which Mr Atchison wouldn't specify.

Tilikum has grown into the alpha male of captive killer whales, his value as a stud is impossible to pin down. The market value of an individual whale is put at up to $10m.