Brancheau's mother, Marion Loverde, told the Orlando Sentinel her daughter, 40, had been inspired by Shamu when she saw the famous whale three decades ago.
"It was her dream to do it," Loverde said. "She loved her job."
Brancheau, the youngest of six children, studied psychology and animal behavior at the University of South Carolina and worked with dolphins at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey for two years before being hired at SeaWorld, her mother said.
But Brancheau, who was married to husband Scott Brancheau for about 13 years after they met at SeaWorld, was aware of her job's inherent dangers. "You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you," she told the Sentinel in 2006.
A Friend for LifeLoverde said her daughter had a warm, outgoing personality – she even sent out 250 Christmas cards yearly. "If you were her friend, you were her friend for life," said Loverde, who last saw her daughter when they attended church together last weekend. "She was very loving, very giving – a good girl, close to her God, close to her family, close to friends."
Meanwhile, disturbing details have emerged about Tilikum, who dragged Brancheau into his tank before she drowned. The whale was involved in the deaths of two other people, including another trainer and a man whose naked body was found scratched, bruised and draped over Tilikum's body in 1999, reports CBS News.
The first death happened at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia when a trainer drowned while in the tank with Tilikum. Then, in July 1999, after the whale was sold to SeaWorld Orlando, Daniel Dukes, 27, was found dead in Tilikum's tank after reportedly making his way past security and remaining in the park after it had closed.
Wearing only his underwear, Dukes jumped, fell or was pulled into Tilikum's tank and was found mangled and draped over the animal. In 1999, a park official said of Tilikum, "He's not an aggressive animal. He's good with the trainers. He has a good relationship with a lot of the trainers. He understands people."
Was Off-LimitsAccording to the Sentinel however, a former contractor with SeaWorld said trainers were not allowed to get in the water with Tilikum because of these incidents.
Describing this week's tragedy, Victoria Biniak, a witness to Wednesday's death, said that "[Tilikum] took off really fast in the tank and he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing [her] around."
Emergency personnel were called to the park after 2 p.m. but Brancheau could not be revived.