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The Tragedy Of Loro Parque

July 18, 2011

Dawn Brancheau was the first SeaWorld trainer killed by a killer whale. But she wasn’t the first trainer killed by a SeaWorld killer whale.

Exactly two months before she died, on February 24, 2010, a SeaWorld killer whale on loan to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands killed trainer Alexis Martinez. I explored Dawn Brancheau’s death in an Outside story called The Killer In The Pool. And now, in a story at Outside Online, I dig deep into the death of Martinez, using extensive interviews with his fiance and family, and information from confidential documents, to explore the tragedy.

Alexis Martinez and Keto, the SeaWorld whale that would eventually kill him.

I came away understanding much better the inherent dangers of being in the water with killer whales at marine parks, how hard it is to expect that trainers will always make the correct decision given the myriad subjective decisions they must make when they are working with highly intelligent, and highly variable, marine mammals, and how dire the consequences are once a killer whale decides it has had enough.

I also came away thinking that the death of Alexis Martinez is directly relevant to the current dispute between SeaWorld and OSHA regarding the safety of killer whale entertainment.

I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback on the story, and to following up on some of the issues raised in the story here on my blog.

Here’s the intro:

AT 11:25 A.M. ON DECEMBER 24, 2009, Estefanía Luis Rodriguez’s cell phone rang. Rodriguez, 25, is an earnest, friendly young woman who works as a pharmacy technician near the coastal town of Puerto de la Cruz, on the north coast of Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. She glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was her fiancé, Alexis Martínez, a killer whale trainer at a nearby zoological park called Loro Parque, one of the largest tourist attractions in the islands. Loro Parque displays everything from birds and dolphins to sea lions and, as of 2006, four orcas it had been loaned by SeaWorld.

Rodriguez and Martínez, 29, had been together seven years, after meeting at a friend’s party, and had moved into an apartment together three months earlier. She adored Martínez, who was handsome, generous, funny, and, in his spare time, played guitar in a band, Inerte. He’d been working nonstop with the killer whales at Loro Parque’s Orca Ocean to prepare for a special Christmas show. 

When Rodriguez answered, however, it wasn’t Martínez on the phone. The caller was Orca Ocean supervisor Miguel Diaz, using Martínez’s phone. He told Rodriguez that Martínez had been involved in an incident with a killer whale but that he would be fine, that he was being taken to the University Hospital in San Cristóbal de La Laguna, about 20 miles away. Rodriguez immediately called Martínez’s family and then joined his mother, Mercedes, to rush to the hospital. 

In the car, Rodriguez was deeply apprehensive. For months, Martínez had been telling her that all was not well at Orca Ocean, that there was a lot of aggression between the killer whales and that they sometimes refused to obey commands, disrupting training and the shows. After starting in Loro Parque’s penguin and dolphin displays, Martínez had begun as a killer whale trainer in 2006. As he gained experience, according to Rodriguez, he began to fret about safety, and he twice contemplated leaving the job. Preparing for the Christmas show only added to the stress. “I’m so tired,” Rodriguez recalls Martínez telling her. “That’s OK, everyone is tired from work,” she’d responded. He shook his head. “My job is especially risky, and I really need to be well rested and ready. With everything that is going on, something could happen at any time.”

You can read the whole story, and watch some exclusive behind-the-scenes video from Loro Parque, here.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2011 4:54 pm

    We call them wild animals for a reason. They should remain in the wild and not used for our entertainment. It is ignorant of us to believe that because an animal is trained to jump through hoops on command that they have automatically forfeited their wild animal tendencies. What’s your stance on this story?

  2. August 25, 2013 5:55 pm

    SeaWorld is looking more and more like a villain. Hopefully, the public will see this and demand a stop to captive marine mammals.

  3. francesco permalink
    October 17, 2013 1:28 pm

    le orche sono animali splendidi enormi, sicuri, affascinanti, intelligenti ma sono nati liberi non in cattività, quindi lasciamoli liberi……………..

  4. brian hughes permalink
    October 20, 2013 5:51 am

    Just back from a week in Tenerife, including a blinding day out at Loro Park. Then I read this story. While I’ve no dispute with the good work done by zoos in maintaining safety net populations, or conditions at the habitat for the 4 performing orca, the question has to be: What happens when their performing days are over? I’m definitely not 100% happy with the existence of captive marine animal shows.

  5. matt permalink
    November 23, 2013 6:42 am

    why go then brian – your just feeding their banks – ppl stop going – mammals get to stay in their natural habitat

  6. Jason permalink
    November 26, 2013 3:18 pm

    When the killer whales first got to loro park the tanks they keep them in was nt up to standards but the park would nt fix them straight away cause they wanted the whales to start making them money straight away the whales was also biting the rocks in the tanks and was causing the whales health problems and they say the look after them yeah looks like it

  7. February 17, 2014 4:55 pm

    I have assume a total dumb-ass runs:

  8. shawn permalink
    April 12, 2014 4:41 pm

    Ridiculous for people to hold sea world accountable for this the animals may have came from sea world but bottom line by the parks own admission is they were not ready for the whales the trainers did not have training like sea world trainers so please quit blaming sea world how about we blame the owner of loro parque who bought whales he could not handle.

    Sea world saves thousands of animals. They do way more than what any of you wannabe animal activists do when it comes to helping animals. Not to mention they have created more love and respect for the killer whale, not to mention understanding it is because of them that people are even concerned about the well being of creatures such as the killer whale without the shamu show you people wouldn’t even mention anything about killer whales.

    So please raise up of your better than anyone horse and respect an organization that is in the forefront of saving animals and helping people to love killer whales and other sea animals. Grow up and get over yourself.

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