Earlier this month I wrote about two safety upgrades SeaWorld is working on to try and reduce the risks of working in the water with killer whales: a fast-rising pool floor, and a small, emergency air supply for trainers to wear in their work.
Since then I’ve picked up a few more details on the emergency air supply. One of the concerns some trainers have with it is that the killer whales might grab the equipment, so the equipment itself could become a source of risk. SeaWorld is hoping to minimize this risk by sewing the rescue scuba tank Buoyancy Compensator (BC) as tightly as possible onto the wetsuit, so there is nothing left hanging for killer whales to latch onto. And, as mentioned before, the plan is to then wear the tight overlays the trainers don for show branding purposes on top of the rig (though some trainers are worried that putting the overlay on top will be dangerous because they won’t be able to dump the scuba gear if a killer whale does latch onto it).
SeaWorld has experimented with personal air systems before, and some trainers feel that this new rig–which is based on a military design–is much easier to use. However, the previous system SeaWorld experimented with–which was based on something like this NOAH design, and consisted of a canteen-sized air bottle located at the small of the back, with a hose running up inside the wetsuit, where it could be accessed via a velcro opening at the chest–was much less bulky. The new emergency air supply is more like a full-up scuba rig (with tank, BC, regulator and hose), and so wearing it many hours over the course of a day isn’t as comfortable or easy.
One of the purposes of a more full-up scuba rig, presumably, is to provide more air capacity, which is important. Trainer Ken Peters, for example, who was dragged underwater multiple times by Kasatka in 2006 (a video that was shown at the Seaworld/OSHA appeal), spent a minute or more at a time underwater. (Though I doubt that spare air would have been much help to Dawn Brancheau or Alexis Martinez, given the severity of their internal injuries).
SeaWorld management believes that the new scuba design should give trainers about five minutes of air capacity, which certainly could have helped Peters (who survived even without the air). But in practice sessions trainers are finding it only delivers a couple of minutes of air (which would not be a huge jump over the old NOAH system).
Another feature of the new design–which also helps account for the increased bulk–is a separate air cannister that is reserved exclusively for emergency inflation of the BC, for rapid ascent in a dire situation. As any scuba diver knows, rapid ascent is always a risky proposition because rapidly expanding air in the lungs can force dangerous, or even deadly, air embolisms through the lining of the lungs and into the bloodstream. For this reason, scuba divers ascend slowly and make sure that they exhale air from their lungs as they rise through the water column. The emergency inflation of the trainer BC, however, will cause a trainer on the bottom of the pool to ascend to the surface (some 40 feet) in about 3 seconds. Any compressed air in the trainer’s lungs from the spare air system (and remember, this step will only be taken in a chaotic, stressful situation), would likely result in severe embolism injury (former trainers tagged this danger when the idea of “spare air” first came up after Dawn Brancheau’s death).
This video of trainers swimming and diving in the SeaWorld Florida “Dine With Shamu” pool gives you a sense of the depth and scale of a SeaWorld pool.
This danger of embolism is serious enough that SeaWorld management has been nervous about having trainers practice emergency ascents with the equipment.
The final issue I have been hearing about with regard to the new emergency air equipment is a more mundane problem: the placement of the air cannisters. The location of the breathing bottle and the emergency ascent air supply on the rig place both bottles against the trainer’s lower spine. Trainers do a lot of running around the wet pool decks during training and shows. Sometimes they slip and fall on their backs, and some trainers are concerned that a similar fall with the new gear could result in serous lower spine injury.
So there are real dilemmas and trade-offs on implementing the new gear, which is not surprising. Killer whale training and interactions are intensely complex. Any new piece of equipment, and any change in practices, will always raise any number of issues that could impact both the trainers and the killer whales. SeaWorld had been hard at work getting the new air system ready for prime time: trainers were wearing and experimenting with the gear (behind the scenes, out of sight of the public), and the killer whales were being desensitized to it (though the trainers stayed out of the water, as they have been since Dawn Brancheau was killed). That work stopped with the onset of the OSHA hearings, which have now been extended to a second session that will start in November. But SeaWorld seems poised to deploy the equipment–with all its trade-offs–if and when they ever send trainers back into the water.