SeaWorld trainers may go back in water with orcas

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By MITCH STACY
The Associated Press
Monday, March 14, 2011; 3:24 AM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- SeaWorld's three theme parks are slowly working to get trainers back in the water with killer whales, one year after a 6-ton orca named Tilikum suddenly dragged a trainer off a platform by her hair and drowned her.

There is no timetable for getting trainers back to "water work," and it may not happen at all, said Chuck Tompkins, curator of zoological operations for the SeaWorld parks. But the first new whale show in five years, which debuts in April, is being planned to incorporate the interaction and play in the water that had become a staple of the iconic Shamu shows at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment attractions in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.

And SeaWorld is spending tens of millions of dollars on new safety equipment, including rising pool floors that can quickly lift people and whales from the water, underwater vehicles to distract the animals in emergencies and portable oxygen bottles for trainers. The exhibitions have continued since Dawn Brancheau's death on Feb. 24, 2010, with whales responding to commands, jumping in unison and splashing the giggling families in the front rows. However, the trainers remain on the pool deck, occasionally stroking the sleek black-and-white orcas that flop onto the platform.

For now, the orcas have to get used to having humans in the water again, Tompkins said. For instance, the animals are being retrained to swim the perimeter of the pools and ignore increasingly loud distractions created by trainers.

"We want to make sure we go slowly enough that we don't miss any steps," Tompkins said recently. "To assume a killer whale is going to respond the same way they did a year ago, I think we're comfortable saying that the majority of our water-work animals probably would, but we're not going to take that for granted. We're going to make sure every whale goes through a very basic program of understanding what to do. It's going back and learning fundamentals again."

Plans to get trainers back in the water will progress despite findings by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration last summer that accused SeaWorld of recklessly putting trainers in danger by allowing them "to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals." The company is fighting OSHA's citations and $75,000 fine, and it contends the parks had a good safety record over more than four decades of killer whale shows, Tompkins said.

Kelly Flaherty Clark, director of animal training at the Orlando park, said that Brancheau's death devastated the other trainers, and that they were further disheartened by not being allowed in the water with whales. SeaWorld Orlando has 26 whale trainers, with around 10 participating in any one 25-minute show.

"We were in the water during shows, we were also in the water during training sessions, we were also in the water playing with the animals and teaching them new behaviors," Clark said. "We were in the water a lot, and that is a big change for us. It was the closest you could get to an animal, it was a great way to display them, and it's also a very safe way to interact with them."

Clark's affection for 29-year-old Tilikum was evident as she put him through his paces one day recently after the crowds had filtered out of the 5,000-seat Shamu Stadium. "Good boy! Thank you!" she told him after he flawlessly followed her poolside gestures to rise out of the water and wave his flippers, turn over on his back and do other tricks. A mouthful of restaurant-quality fish was his reward.

The 22-foot-long animal, twice as big as any of the Orlando park's other six performing whales and a prolific sire of baby whales in captivity, hasn't participated in public shows since he attacked Brancheau. Because of Tilikum's history of aggression and involvement in two previous human deaths, trainers were never allowed in the water with him even before the accident.

A sheriff's office report said Brancheau, 40, was not in the water with Tilikum, but lying on her stomach on a platform submerged in a few inches of water. She was nose-to-nose with the whale when her long hair floated into the animal's mouth and she was dragged in. She managed to free herself initially, but the whale continued to strike and thrash her. It happened shortly after a "Dine with Shamu" show, and some guests were still in the area.

Since then, Brancheau's husband retained a Chicago law firm for a possible wrongful death lawsuit, though one has not been filed. A lawsuit filed by a New Hampshire couple who claimed their 10-year-old son suffered emotional distress from seeing the whale attack is still pending.

The accident was bad timing for SeaWorld, which is owned by private equity firm Blackstone Group. With the recession affecting theme-park attendance overall, SeaWorld's public image took a hit. Then in June, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Orlando. SeaWorld doesn't disclose attendance figures, but industry experts credit the Harry Potter park with siphoning visitors away from all other central Florida attractions.


© 2011 The Associated Press

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