Abstract Numerous physical and chemical agents can destroy mechanosensory hair cells in the inner ear of vertebrates, a process that is irreversible in mammals. Few experimental systems allow the observation of hair cell death mechanisms in vivo, in the intact animal, one of these being the lateral line system in the zebrafish. In this work we characterize the behavior of dying lateral line hair cells in fish exposed to low doses of copper in the water. The concentration of copper used in our study kills hair cells in a few hours, but removal of the metal is followed by robust regeneration of new hair cells. We use a combination of membrane and nuclear live stains, ultrastructural analysis and measurement of reactive oxygen species to characterize the events leading to the death of hair cells under these conditions. Our results show that a combination of necrotic cell death, accompanied by apoptotic features such as rapid DNA fragmentation, lead to the loss of these cells. We also show that hair cells exposed to copper undergo oxidative stress and that antioxidants can protect these cells from the effects of the metal. The study of this process in the zebrafish lateral line allows rapid morphological analysis of hair cell death and may be used as an efficient end point for molecule screens aimed at preventing these effects.