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.
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.