Following the death of Dawn Brancheau, OSHA investigated SeaWorld’s killer whale training and show practices, and concluded SeaWorld trainers were endangered by the work. OSHA cited SeaWorld for unsafe practices, and offered SeaWorld a choice: stop working with killer whales in the water, and in close contact with them out of the water on slideouts and the pool decks, or implement safety innovations that would “mitigate” the dangers that OSHA believes to exist. (The citation, and how the death of Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands relates to it, is discussed in detail here).
SeaWorld is appealing OSHA’s citation before a judge next week. But even as it has been preparing its appeal strategy, SeaWorld’s parks have quietly been working on two major safety innovations. The first is to equip trainers with personal scuba sets, so that if a trainer is dragged beneath the surface, they will have access to air and hopefully more time for the whale to calm or for a rescue to succeed. The second is developing fast-rising floor technology, so that if a killer whale goes after a trainer the pool floor can be quickly raised up to lift the trainer and whale out of the water, where presumably the trainer could be more easily separated from the whale.
Anything that might help keep trainers safe is obviously worth applauding. No matter what SeaWorld says, the long list of trainer injuries (some very serious), and the handful of trainer deaths, pretty much make clear that working closely with killer whales in marine parks (especially in their watery element) can be risky. But as with everything to do with a complex, powerful and intelligent animal in a closed environment, any innovation has complexities.
Take the personal scuba systems, for example. Some of the former SeaWorld trainers I have interviewed in the past have raised questions about the efficacy of so-called “spare air,” and you can get a great summary of their arguments here.
Now I am hearing that current trainers who are experimenting with the systems also have some questions. Here’s what I have been told about the personal scuba system itself: it is like a normal scuba set-up, only streamlined. There is a Buoyancy Compensator (BC) backpack that can be rapidly inflated to shoot a trainer in trouble toward the surface, and a small air bottle that is positioned across the trainer’s lower back. There is a regulator hose and mouthpiece, and the mouthpiece is attached to the upper left of the backpack. If the trainer, all they have to do is grab the mouthpiece, pull it free, and put it in the mouth.
Pretty simple, no? But one of the main concerns of the former trainers is that killer whales, being very tactile and infinitely curious, might grab ahold of the scuba gear, which could create a dangerous situation in itself. Apparently, SeaWorld California’s killer whales were introduced to scuba gear on trainers at some point, and there were some problems with the whales grabbing the gear. Plus, there is a history of killer whales going after trainer’s socks and sometimes using the socks to pull trainers under (something Dawn Brancheau had experienced, I am told). So killer whales like to pull on stuff, and scuba gear potentially gives them more stuff to pull on, particularly if they get upset or go after a trainer.
One possible solution is for the trainers to wear their “cover-ups” on top of the scuba gear. The cover-ups are stretchy, leotard-like overlays that zip up in the back and can be branded with whatever show-related colors and designs the SeaWorld entertainment department wants on the trainers for any given show. They allow SeaWorld to change the trainers’ look without requiring the purchase of brand new wetsuits every time a show changes. For example, the cover-ups allow SeaWorld to put the branding for the new “One Ocean” show on trainers while also allowing them to wear their old “Believe” wetsuits.
Putting the cover-ups on top of the scuba gear might make it less likely for a whale to grab at the gear, and presumably makes the entertainment department happy because the gear won’t be on top of, and obscuring, the One Ocean branding. It also means the scuba gear, and its suggestion that killer whale/trainer trouble is possible, won’t be as visible to the audience in the stands. But there is also a risk with this set-up, because if a killer whale does go after a trainer, and drags the trainer under by the scuba gear and won’t let go, having the cover-up on top of the scuba gear will make it impossible for the trainer to yank on a release and quickly dump the gear. Maybe the solution to that problem is tear-away cover-ups (but no doubt the whales would figure out a way to mess with that, too).
The point is that there is risk no matter how you approach personal scuba gear, and weighing all the risks against each other to figure out what will really reduce risk for trainers is a pretty complex, and subjective, process. It’s hard to know where SeaWorld will end up on this. For now, it is mostly trying to keep the new scuba gear out of the public eye, while having trainers do what they can to wear it when they are around the whales to start trying to get the whales desensitized to it.
There are similar challenges with the fast-rising floor idea. That concept is being tested in the SeaWorld Florida G pool, which has underwater viewing windows and is the Dine With Shamu pool where Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau, pulled her under, and killed her. I am told that this is a picture of the floor being installed, though I am unable to verify it:
You can imagine how complex an engineering problem this is, in that the floor has to come up fast, displacing tons of water. I’m told that SeaWorld’s hope was to perfect the concept in G pool, and then install fast-rising floors in the main show pools at its three parks in Florida, Texas, and California. The hope was to have them ready to go in January 2012, but I am also told that in preliminary testing the floor failed. I don’t know how, or why, only that it was a serious failure, and that plans for installing lift floors at SeaWorld’s parks are now on hold while the engineering and concept is being re-evaluated.
It’s not at all surprising that there are problems and issues related to implementing complicated safety upgrades, particularly with regard to the fast-rising floors. And the challenges SeaWorld faces as it tries to address the safety issues OSHA raised, on top of uncertainty about how the appeal of OSHA’s citation will fare, only complicate SeaWorld’s plans and hopes to get trainers back into the water with its killer whales.
The truth is that there is probably no way to fully mitigate the risks that naturally come along with swimming with captive killer whales. And it has never been clear to me why SeaWorld doesn’t simply publicly acknowledge that it is risky, while making clear it does its best to control the risks as well as make sure that trainers are fully aware of them, so trainers can make informed choices about whether it is work they want to do. If it did that, SeaWorld could stop tying itself in knots denying the dangers and trying to maintain that killer whale shows are not inherently risky.
Maybe it is a liability thing, or a belief that the public won’t love Shamu if it knows that Shamu sometimes goes rogue. As I say, I don’t know. Perhaps someone can explain it to me in the comments.