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SeaWorld Safety Upgrades Running Into Problems

September 12, 2011
Shamu at SeaWorld Orlando lifting a trainer ou...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

A SeaWorld trainer (possibly Dawn Brancheau) a...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

The One Ocean look.

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.

Alexis Martinez and Dawn Brancheau

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.

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2011 1:46 pm

    SeaWorld’s propaganda machine has been running full throttle for years, making EVERYTHING all bright and sunshine and love and warm and fuzzy. Fact is, Orcas ONLY attack people in captivity, from the stresses and aggravations of captivity. Bottom line? CAPTIVITY KILLS. The loss of “trainers” (or maybe we should be calling them “handlers”,) is tragic, but the loss of Orcas to captivity is exponentially higher. In fact, many bottlenose dolphins and orcas don’t make it much beyond a year, and even those that do have markedly shorter lifespans than they would in the wild — despite SeaWorld’s propaganda to the contrary. The near future? 3-D cinematic shows of orcas and smaller dolphins IN THE WILD, and the audience sitting in the middle, feeling, hearing and seeing them from within the ocean. Now THAT would be a show worth paying for!

    • Debbie Dickinson permalink
      September 12, 2011 2:43 pm

      Beautifully said!

    • Colleen Goodreau permalink
      September 12, 2011 3:43 pm

      Couldn’t agree more ^^ Well said!!

  2. Josie permalink
    September 12, 2011 3:29 pm

    Simple stop breeding and capturing orcas then there is no risk at all because then there wont be any to hurt the trainers because there out in the wild. Im pretty sure eac and everyone of them can be taught how to live in the wild like keiko. I know there were problems but at least orca wont hurt or kill anybody which i dont blame them for. Hell, if you out me an a 2×2 closet and feed me bread crumbs every day i wouldwant to kill that person to. There has never once been an attack on a human from a WILD orca but in captivity there are many seriuos injuries or even death. The Orcas are trying to say something, you but us in a bowl we will killyou, andi for one dont blame them.

  3. Lucy Byrne permalink
    September 12, 2011 3:34 pm

    John Taylor, you said it all and I agree with you 100% !!!!!

  4. denise permalink
    September 12, 2011 4:04 pm

    If a person who is going to work with a wild mammal, an Orca, needs to be told that it can be dangerous, that person would be an idiot. It is obvious if you have a degree to do so then you are already informed or you should look for another line of work. And yes, Sea world should also be honest and stop pretending that this job of Orca training is safe. In all actuality Sea World should not be hosting live animal shows period. This is EGOIC, GREEDY, AND A LACK OF COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUS. THESE ANIMALS SUFFER GREATLY IN CAPTIVITY! They aren’t going rogue, they are being Orca. They are caged up in a very small containment compared to being in the ocean. How would you all like to be kept in your house for the rest of your life and never be allowed out? Why, oh why do we humans think that we shoud be in charge of taking away another beings freedom? I thought slavery ended a long time ago. Did anyone ask the animals if they like being there????…..

  5. September 12, 2011 5:06 pm

    Tim, thanks for this evaluation and comment. To address your question, I believe it is liability concerns, the desire to attract audiences without alienating them (performing animals are supposed to be amusing, not dangerous), and human arrogance. We think there’s always a way around something, and when there isn’t it’s best to hide from it by ignoring it and hope it will go away. This issue doesn’t. I live in Seattle where we appreciate our local orcas in the wild. It seems like with all our technological innovations we could put videos up on giant screens, even at marine parks, so people can come as close to appreciating wild nature as possible. That and a brief fun lecture. Hmm, no more angry whales (because we’ve sent them back to the wild) and no more injured people. Hmm, what the lure of money will do. Robyn M Fritz, Seattle

  6. L-J permalink
    September 12, 2011 8:11 pm

    Love the idea Mr. Taylor. I am a big movie fan, and I think that would be perfect, and a sight to see. I always get tears and chills when I see Orcas on T.V. in the wild. Not everyone has a heart for Orcas like us, but people do like to be entertained. I hope “The Whale” changes peoples views on the situation, and will want to get involved more. Whatever the cost is to go see a show at Seaworld, maybe people could just donate it to keep the Orcas healthy, and set up a system like they did for Keiko. No audience, No show, and the whales and other sea creatures wont suffer.

  7. Laila permalink
    September 12, 2011 10:07 pm

    The hell’s your problem,Seaworld treats their animals geeat, just because you all failed at becoming trainers and now hate seaworld, doesnt mean ou have to share it with the world. Accident happen, animals areunpredicatle, get over it,they know the risks, kudos to the trainers for doing what they love despite the danger. SeaWorld hater’s need to GTFO.

    • September 12, 2011 11:11 pm

      No one deserves to be killed at work making twenty bucks an hour from a circus that exploits people, whales, walruses, dolphins, sea lions, belugas, and polar bears; especially if they haven’t been made fully aware of the danger. For more on the animals:

    • Anonymous permalink
      September 13, 2011 12:59 am

      “SeaWorld hater’s need to GTFO”

      Then why are you here?

  8. Mary Langford permalink
    September 13, 2011 10:31 am

    My solution is I will never set foot in a SeaWorld park anywhere in the world while there are Orcas and dolphins in captivity.

  9. concerned for cestacean welfare permalink
    September 13, 2011 10:39 am

    The ‘killer whale’ DOLPHIN has a complex communication system in which scientists are only recently discovering on how dolphins communicate. Google the research on this for your enlightment to realise why there is only so much they can take.
    Also google the dolphin killing in Japan and how they slaughter them and sell individuals to marine parks for mega profit.

  10. September 13, 2011 12:11 pm

    So many ignorant “Haters”. Of course the trainers know there is a risk. They know now especially and still choose to be there. The trainers are not forced to do anything they might be uncomfortable with. There are hundreds of jobs where people risk their lives everyday, its a choice!
    Mr. Taylors info on life spans is completly incorrect. Most animals, including cetaceans, live longer in captivity. A lot of animals are not dying in a year or less, that is “Hater” propaganda!
    Orcas are intelligent, beautiful, and powerful animals. Think of how often the trainers have been in the water with them, millions(probably billions) of times, and only a handful of deaths or severe injuries. That is not a bad track record considering the animals have the ability to cause harm very easily.
    The research and knowledge we have about these animals and their communication is due to the fact they are in captivity. We would have less than half the knowledge about these animals if they weren’t in captive situations.

  11. LolitaBFree permalink
    September 13, 2011 1:37 pm

    JH, YOU need to do your research. Sumar just died last week in SW San Diego. He was 12 yrs old. Male Orcas, once they live past their first year, live to 40-60 years of age in the wild. Most orcas in captivity die in their teens. There are hundreds of jobs that are dangerous to a persons wellbeing where an animal being in a totally unnatural environment , it’s basic civil “rights” being taken away isn’t involved. What makes an Orca an orca is it’s NATURAL hierarchy, it’s learning from it’s pod foraging and hunting techniques, the actual hunt itself, feeling the tides and waves, meeting up with other orca pods on their journey of swimming for miles and miles and miles all day, everyday. Doing “tricks”, being fed dead fish, and swimming endlessly in circles in a concrete pool where they cannot communicate with their echolocation take away EVERYTHING that an Orca is all about. And 2 trainers dying within weeks of each other is a pretty bad track record to me. The fact of the matter is, there are getting NO new research on these animals from them being in captivity, because there is no research to do. Everything they do, they wouldn’t do in the wild. Wild orcas are where they are getting all the new research. Maybe at one time we gained knowledge from them being in captivity, but get real, the ONLY reason they are still breeding and keeping them is for MONEY. When people go to Seaworld, they aren’t educated, they are “entertained” (if that’s what you want to call it) Saying anything to the contrary is a total copout.

    • timzimmermann permalink*
      September 13, 2011 1:49 pm

      Note, Sumar died last year, not last week. For some reason Google decided to recirculate the story of his death recently.

    • September 17, 2011 12:50 pm

      I apologize, I am only aware of the one trainer in the last 10yrs…? They have been in captivity 30+ yrs? 3 to 5 total deaths? More people are killed by pets or “wild” animals in just a year.
      Captivity is the main reason these animals are so well known, appreciated and loved. Not all captive situations are acceptable, but some are definitly better than the rest.
      You speak of animal civil rights, is that only for orcas?
      People ARE educated, whether it be good or bad, when they visit places like SW.
      There are studies, and discoveries, still going on with dolphins communication and their cognitive abilities.

      • Jordan permalink
        September 18, 2011 10:17 am

        While there might have been only 4 deaths caused by captive orcas, 40+ attacks, ranging from minor to near-fatal injuries, have been documented. Here’s a list of them:

        There are most likely more incidents between orcas and trainers than we know, but are not released to the public.

        Also, I’m going to have to ask how you know “people are educated… when they visit places like SW.” Because you’d be surprised by the number of people who post pictures of orcas they took at SeaWorld on Tumblr, then promptly add the tag “#fish” when categorizing it.

  12. Orca_Researcher permalink
    September 13, 2011 1:49 pm

    Orca longevity is as follows:

    Males have an average longevity of 29.2 years and a max. of 50 – 60 years.
    Females have an average longevity of 50.2 years and a max. of a whopping 80 – 90 years.

    This is as per decades of research on wild orca by people who dedicate every single day of their lives to these animals.

    Excluding calves, there is an est. annual mortality rate of 2.3% for wild orca as opposed to a nearly tripled 6.2% in captivity (also excluding calves).

    The majority of scientific research out there regarding orca and other cetaceans actually comes from the research of wild orca around the globe – this includes observational studies, amassed identification catalogues, genetic analysis, biopsies, necropsies, etc – the works!

    Very little research comes out of the captive environment – and the majority of research produced in the captive environment is centred around improving husbandry techniques for captive orca. This cannot be applied to orca in their natural environment and in fact, can not be applied to wild orca.

    You could not get a genuine idea of how a human being behaves and lives if studying that human being in a small cell – it would not be a true representation of the human race and findings could not be applied to the wider species. Please do not think the same does not apply to captive orca – you cannot generalise any findings on any animal in an artificial environment, especially when that environment does not even remotely resemble that of a natural one.

    I think before you start throwing words like ‘ignorant’ around, you should do a little research yourself, so as to make an informed decision.

    Suggested reading: ‘Dying to Entertain you’ – a report by the Whale & Dolphin Conservation society (;

    Olesiuk, P.F., M.A. Bigg & G.M. Ellis. 1990. “Life history and population dynamics of resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington State.” Rept. Int. Whaling Commn. Special Issue 12. pp209-244;

    Ford, J.K.B., G.M. Ellis & K.C. Balcomb. 1994. Killer Whales. UBC Press, Vancouver. pp1-102;

    DeMaster, D. P. & J. K. Drevenak. 1988. “Survivorship patterns in three species of captive cetaceans.” Marine Mammal Science. Vol. 4, no 4, pp297-311;

    Small, R. J. & D. P. DeMaster. 1995. “Survival of five species of captive marine mammals.” Marine Mammal Science. Vol. 11, no 2 pp209-226; Woodley, T. H., J. L. Hannah & D. M. Lavigne.

    I would also suggest that you type in “killer whales” into Google Scholar – – the first page alone lists research conducted on WILD orca.

    Further reading would include any peer-reviewed published articles by the likes of the world’s top orca researchers, including Graeme Ellis, John Ford, Ingrid Visser, Paul Spong, M. Bigg, just to name a few.

  13. Orca_Researcher permalink
    September 13, 2011 1:51 pm

    Very little research comes out of the captive environment – and the majority of research produced in the captive environment is centred around improving husbandry techniques for captive orca. This cannot be applied to orca in their natural environment and in fact, has very little, if any at all, relevance.***

  14. LolitaBFree permalink
    September 13, 2011 2:19 pm

    Thanks for the correction Tim, I saw the news story last week, and since it was sept, guess I didn’t catch the correct year. He was only 12 however, got that part right. =)

    • timzimmermann permalink*
      September 13, 2011 2:21 pm

      That’s the important part. Sumar was a young whale. His death was a surprise.

  15. September 17, 2011 12:06 pm

    My references to research were to the previous points, specifically about communication and cognitive abilities of cetaceans (refering to orcas and dolphins). The majority of our knowledge about those abilities comes from captive research.

  16. September 17, 2011 12:19 pm

    The use of the word “ignorant”, was used by someone earlier. I used it in the first paragraph when talking about the trainers. You are correct, people need to make informed decisions. Looking at some of the responses, most people are not well informed with all available information. Hence, although harsh, the use of the word “ignorant”. My apologies.
    You have great references for information, on the other side, some of the information is out dated and not as accurate or up to date as it could be.

  17. Susan permalink
    September 19, 2011 6:15 pm

    It is really all about freedom of choice. A “trainer” of any type of animal should be aware of the risks. There is “risk” involved in all that we do everyday. Crossing the street, driving a car, washing windows – the list is endless. No doubt that employers should look out for the safety of the employees – but if you are going to climb a ladder and fall – who is responsible?

    Possibly Naive in the US.

    • Digit permalink
      September 23, 2011 6:30 am

      I think you miss the point though.
      Yes, there are risks in the job, BUT, it is the employers responsibility to minimise the risks.
      If your employer instructed you to wash windows with an old ladder that was going to buckle at any moment, that’s their fault, not yours. Also, most people would refuse to work in such an enviroment.
      Likewise, it is SeaWorld’s responsibility to minimise the risks for their staff, and the OSHA hearing is flatly proving SeaWorld has been outright lying and dodging safety standards to their own ends.

      It’s not about the trainers knowing and accepting the risks, it’s about an employer that is aware of the risks and does nothing about them.

  18. jmventre permalink
    October 1, 2011 9:32 pm

    Thanks Tim. Here are three days of coverage of the SeaWorld v OSHA hearings by Anderson Cooper 360. Part two of the hearings begin November 15.

  19. K. M. permalink
    November 17, 2011 12:45 pm

    Here’s a question- If the trainers are not supposed to be going into the water with the whales in the new show, why then are they wearing stretchy cover-ups that fit over wetsuits. Why aren’t they in uniformed shirts and shorts like they were in the old days. there isn’t a need for a wetsuit design unless they are simply poised and ready to jump back in at a moment’s notice.

  20. Natalie permalink
    June 29, 2012 11:49 am

    I worked close with the trainers at Sea World for several years and to this day I long for fullfilling my lifelong dream of becoming a marine mammal trainer. I believe that if these magnificent creatures are to be in “habitats” at Marine Life Parks, they should be introduced and cared for by Trainers that will cherish their exhistance and seek the highest possible care and treatment for their well being. This delivering the whales the abundent stimulation and care that they crave.

    Working close with Killer Whale Trainers I found that the trainers viewed the whales as family members. Especially those trainers who had earned their way up the ladder to do “waterwork” and perform behaviors in the water with the whales. The stimulation was clearly equally cherrished by both trainer and whale. To have killer whales in captivity and not allow them to have the close human interaction that they crave is a travesty. If I worked as a trainer I would be heartsick for myself and for the whales at the loss of no longer being allowed to build the relationship with these intelligent creatures that exhists when trainer and whale work together in the water. People who do not experience relationships with animals need to understand that they lack an understanding for what a captive whale would require for the healthiest possible life, both physically and mentally. Trainers learn what each whales needs and as an individual requires and yes it is different for each whale. Perhaps some whales preffer their independance while others whales would rather be in your lap all day if they could fit. The personality describtions are endless to each whale.

    I have had about 24 years of animal experience from various household pets to horses. Horses remind me of the killer whales perticularly because there is danger in working with them, and sexually mature males tend to be much more dangerous and aggressive than females due to hormones. Some intact males “whales/Bulls” “horses/stallions” are tempermental and aggressive while others are more well mannered with the people who care for them. I never knew Tillikum personally I had learned that he was in fact an aggressive male ( All intact males in the mammal kingdom have testosterone that inevitably has much effect on the mammal). Ulysies, the largest male at Sea World in San Diego has a much more dosile personality towards trainers than Tillikum. However BOTH whales were not used during waterwork sessions because of the fact that they are Bulls. They would demonstrate behaviors during the shows yet trainers would not enter the water past the poolside or slideouts because they understood the whales potential agressive ability. At many public stables where horses are borded, Stallions are not legally alloud to be on the property. Because Sea World focuses on animal husbandry and welcomes the whales to reproduce as their own desired rate, the whales are not restricted to being kept from the opposite sex, which is a healthy and natural decision made right for the whales.

    With everything there are consequences. The trainers at Sea World are made well aware of the possible danger that comes with working with Killer Whales, and are dilligently in constant training to learn and maintain safety because safety is something that has to be made a conscious effort every moment that a trainer encounters one of the mammals. The same necessary skills and awareness must be made working with horses.

    I teach horseback riding lessons and am responsible for selecting horses with a calm and gentle disposition for children as young as 5 to ride. I inform the child and the parents that horses are unpredictable no matter how wonderful there behavior. The simplest thing such as weather can change their behavior for a moments or even an entire day. They are still a horse. The parents still allow their little child to ride because these children are passionate about horses enough to accept the possible consequences. The trainers at Sea World are passionate enough about the whales to respect with the consequences and understand that their relationship is fragile, yet so rewarding and worth while!! A race car driver is fully aware that he/she is at risk, yet he/she is driven to drive race cars. A “Killer Whale Trainer” is also fully aware of the risk and consider it worth taking. please dont let the stimulation and companionship that only improves a Killer Whales life in captivety be stripped from them. Trying to control the fate of whale and trainer by developing new tools like “special scuba gear” and “rising pool floors” taints the beauty of the tender bond that one can’t deny exhists between whale and trainer.


  1. SeaWorld Safety Upgrades Running into Problems | Stop Cetacean Captivity

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