One of the key questions in the OSHA versus SeaWorld smackdown happening this week in a courtroom in Sanford, Florida is: how did SeaWorld’s parks respond to the Dec. 24, 2009 death of Loro Parque orca trainer Alexis Martinez, killed by a SeaWorld killer whale called Keto during a training session supervised by SeaWorld trainer Brian Rokeach?
It is key, because it goes to the question of whether SeaWorld was indifferent to the risks waterwork and close contact with killer whales posed to its trainers. Mike Scarpuzzi, SeaWorld San Diego’s vice president of zoological operations, testified yesterday (according to my notes) that SeaWorld Florida, where Brancheau was killed two months later, took its trainers out of the water on Dec. 25, and returned them to waterwork on Dec. 27th or so.
Today, SeaWorld Florida animal-training curator Kelly Flaherty-Clark also discussed the death of Alexis Martinez. She discussed the corporate incident report and talked about reviewing the video of Alexis’s death, captured by an underwater camera. She was critical of how Brian Rokeach handled the moments leading up to Alexis’ death, saying: “He made decisions spotting the session that I would not have made, that my team here [at SeaWorld Florida] would not have made.” Flaherty-Clark also was critical of the general level of experience of the trainers at Loro Parque, saying “I understood that the level of experience of trainers at that park did not mirror the level at my park.”
It was against this background that Flaherty-Clark said she, in consultation with SeaWorld Florida management, made the decision to return SeaWorld Florida’s trainers to the water.
When I reported the story of Alexis’ death I went to great effort to try and figure out when SeaWorld’s parks removed trainers from the water in the aftermath, and for how long. Since SeaWorld would not tell me, with the help of a friend who is a master of Flickr searches, I turned to photo evidence. What Flickr photos of SeaWorld Florida’s Believe shows, in the days after Alexiss Dec. 24 death, seem to show is that SeaWorld Florida continued waterwork on Dec. 25 and 26, removed trainers from the water for one day, Dec. 27, and had them back in the water on Dec. 28.
Of course, it is possible that the date setting on a camera might be wrong, but this photo of Dawn Brancheau, for example, explicitly says it was taken on December 25 (see the caption).
I’ve published the full list of photos at the end of this post so you can see what you think of them, and decide what they show, yourself.
If these photos show what I think they show, then Scarpuzzi’s testimony about when SeaWorld Florida was out of the water was not quite accurate, and SeaWorld Florida waited two days after Alexis died to pull its trainers from the water, and then kept them out of the water for only one day (the other parks waited longer).
The other thing I have been wondering about how SeaWorld Florida handled the suspension and resumption of waterwork in the aftermath of Alexis’ death is: how much could Flaherty-Clark and SeaWorld Florida management have known about what happened at Loro Parque just two days after Scarpuzzi arrived in the Canary Islands to help Rokeach handle the tragedy and find out what happened?
In her testimony Flaherty Clark discussed the incident report and video, but Scarpuzzi testified (according to my notes) that he left Loro Parque, to return to the United States to brief the parks on his investigation and show the video, on Monday, Dec. 28. So by the time he arrived in Florida, it appears that SeaWorld Florida trainers were already back in the water with the killer whales. And the decision had been made, it seems, before Scarpuzzi had made his full presentation on the incident, which included the underwater video, to the training team at SeaWorld Florida.
Of course, Flaherty Clark and the management team at SeaWorld Florida may have seen a draft of the incident report before Scarpuzzi returned, or may have discussed its content with Scarpuzzi by phone. But it seems unlikely they had seen the video before ordering trainers back into he water, unless Scarpuzzi e-mailed it somehow over the weekend. I’d love to know when Flaherty-Clark first saw a draft of the incident report, and when she first viewed the video.
Flaherty-Clark also testified that she discussed the decision to return to the water, which presumably occurred Dec. 27 or the morning of Dec. 28, with the trainers who would be going back in the water. But how much could they have known about what happened at Loro Parque if they hadn’t yet been briefed by Scarpuzzi, and hadn’t yet viewed the video, as appears to be the case? And from what I learned in my reporting about how SeaWorld handled Alexis’ death, trainers learned what they know about the incident from Scarpuzzi’s briefing and the viewing of the video. I don’t believe that the corporate incident report was shared widely with trainers, or made available to trainers in the way that SeaWorld incident reports normally are.
Perhaps there are good answers to these questions. SeaWorld did not want to talk about this when I was doing my reporting, so I am piecing a timeline together from a variety of sources, and sharing the questions the timeline, if I have it straight, raises. It is a critical timeline, and the issues go straight to the heart of the courtroom battle between SeaWorld and OSHA.
Here are the photos of waterwork at SeaWorld Florida in the aftermath of Alexis Martinez’s death:
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