SeaWorld’s Waterwork Timeline

Since hearing that SeaWorld will start waterwork desensitization, I’ve been trying to puzzle out SeaWorld’s waterwork gameplan and timeline.

Here is what I have learned so far, and maybe all you smart people out there–regardless of your views on captivity–can help figure out the strategy.

Waterwork desense will officially begin today (Monday) in the med pool at SeaWorld California. I don’t know if the other parks also have whales and trainers lined up to begin desense work, and are also starting today, but it seems likely, given that the SeaWorld parks tend to work in synch with one another on major program changes like this.

Apparently, this commencement of waterwork desense (the first step toward getting trainers and orcas back on track toward full waterwork capability in the big show pools) follows a tour of the parks that SeaWorld’s chief zoological honcho, Brad Andrews, conducted earlier this year. Andrews and a SeaWorld management team met with the Shamu trainers, and showed them a video of the prototype fast-rising floor that has been installed in SeaWorld Florida’s G pool (the Dine With Shamu pool in which Dawn Brancheau was killed). The floor took just under a minute to surface, and Andrews told the trainers that similar rising floors would be installed in the show pools at all the SeaWorld parks, a major construction program that could take something like 12 to 18 months.

In the meantime, Andrews said, waterwork desense would start up in the med pools. Normally, waterwork desense (for an animal that has been removed from waterwork, say for being too aggressive) is initiated in the med pool with the floor raised up high. Trainers work with the animal through a series of behaviors, and with each successful evolution the floor is lowered a bit, until the waterwork is in fact taking place in the water. From there, the desense moves into one of the smaller back pools alongside the med pool. That way, if anything goes wrong nets can be used to try and corral the orca back into the med pool, where the floor can be raised. And if the back pool desense regimen is successful, and the orca consistently executes the behaviors asked, the desense program moves back into the show pool. This process can take a number of months.

With the current desense program, however, Andrews told Shamu trainers that no waterwork would be performed in a pool that does not have a fast-rising floor. So desense will be conducted in the med pool, and then jump directly to the show pools once the floors are installed there (though Florida, with the G pool floor, will presumably have the option of using G pool as a bridge to the show pool). That means that the desense work with the whales and trainers selected, will progress very slowly and carefully in the med pools for a year or more, so that the orcas and trainers are ready to move into the show pools when they have fast-rising floors.

The big question, assuming my information is solid, is what SeaWorld’s waterwork gameplan is. Unless SeaWorld successfully appeals the OSHA ruling (the next step would be to file an appeal with the US Circuit Court Of Appeals), Judge Welsch’s decision means that waterwork is effectively banned from performances at SeaWorld Florida (the park cited by OSHA following Brancheau’s death). If they are successful, then all of SeaWorld’s parks, having desensed selected orcas, will be in a position to resume waterwork.

If the appeal fails (or is not filed), then it gets more complicated. The OSHA ruling applies only to performance waterwork, so SeaWorld is in theory free to resume training waterwork in all its parks whenever it likes. OSHA could, however, conduct a follow-up inspection and try to get the ban on waterwork applied to training as well. That would, no doubt, be a similarly contentious and drawn-out legal process.

But training waterwork does not really get SeaWorld back into show waterwork, which presumably is the goal. So another possibility is that SeaWorld finishes installing the fast-rising floors, and whatever other safety measures SeaWorld hopes will protect trainers (like spare air systems), and then goes before OSHA to argue that these safety innovations “mitigate” the dangers that OSHA identified. The mitigation measures have to provide protection that is equal or greater than maintaining distance between trainers and orcas, or the use of physical barriers between trainers and orcas. So that might be a hard case to make. But just because it is hard does not mean that it is unwinnable. And if SeaWorld succeeds in winning a decision that says the floors, spare air, and any other safety measures, mitigate the dangers, then they are back in the waterwork business.

The final, seemingly problematic, scenario that I can come up with, addresses what happens if SeaWorld DOES NOT win either an appeal, or succeed in an effort to mitigate the dangers with the floors and spare air. In that scenario, SeaWorld could, in theory, simply resume waterwork at the SeaWorld Texas and SeaWorld California parks, since they were not cited by OSHA. That would obviously open SeaWorld up to a massive liability and PR hit if another trainer was injured  or killed during waterwork. And OSHA could, and likely would(?), move to try and cite those parks for exposing tariners to dangers as well. So this scenario has lots of problems and risks for SeaWorld, and seems unlikely. But it is at least in theory possible.

So, that’s all my thinking on where this med pool desense work could go. Anyone else out there have thoughts, insights or comments on how this could all play out?

15 thoughts on “SeaWorld’s Waterwork Timeline”

  1. My understanding is that both Alex and Dawn during part of the attacks that killed them were, medical examiners believe, “laid on by the whale on the bottom of the pool” for lack of a better description. If a whale has taken a tranier down and held them on the bottom of the pool using their body how will a fast rising pool bottom save them? Wouldn’t they just be crushed quicker with the weight of the whale? I don’t get how that makes thems safer from a whale intent to kill.

  2. My thinking is if you already have an animal who is aggressive and agitated then what good is it going to do for the animal to hear all of the loud construction going on while building these fasting rising floors. These animals are living in a concrete pool where sounds are loud vibrating and annoying. I have a deaf child and when she wears her cochlear implant at a loud event she hates all of the sound that she hears. This being the case I would think these whales are not going to be willing to participate if they are already stressed out for all the commotion going on around the pool constructions.

  3. Is it only for SeaWorld or does Loro Parque have same plan (because of adan, morgan and the new baby) that they resume waterwork too?

      1. The trainers and management at Loro Parque have always expressed an interest in resuming waterwork, it is SeaWorld that has prevented this so far.

  4. these animals shouldn’t be in captivity….plain and simple. I don’t know why the courts don’t just use common sense and skip all this run around. If Tilikum hadn’t be ruthlessly captured from his family in the first place, then Dawn wouldn’t have died the way she had. As long as Orcas are in captivity they’re just going to keep dying young, becoming neurotic and showing aggression. Anyone that knows anything about wild Orcas should know that this highly un natural environment is a recipe for disaster.

  5. Nice article laying out all the options. Will certainly be interesting to see what course they take. Just one comment – unfortunately for whoever’s stuck in the whale’s mouth, a fast rising pool will only aggravate an already aggravated whale. ken peters would not be alive today if when trying to calm kasatka down, a fast rising bottom was employed. he’s already stated that even their call-back measures (slapping water, tones, etc.) were agitating her more, making her clamp down harder on him. neither would it have saved alexis or dawn.

  6. SW’s nonstop efforts to put trainers back into the pools is nothing short of maniacal. It has nothing to do with education, conservation, or whatever politically correct terminology they toss around. It’s all about the “show”…The callous disregard for the lives of the trainers AND the animals is stunning. I just don’t understand how current trainers aren’t seeing this too..The Ken Peters / Kasatka video finally released to the public HAS to have caused trainers to question whether SW really has their safety or best interests at heart. Unbiased, thoughtful and documented research is available to anyone who will take the time to read it, and it shows time and again – Sea World will stop at nothing to make a buck. Whether whales die, or people die – as long as folks pay money to see someone surf a whale – the show must, and will, go on. At this point, Seaworld’s behavior borders on criminal..

  7. Ok, the floor rises, the whale is beached; but how are you going to take the trainer out of is mouth? Do you say “Excuse me Mr. Killer Whale; but would you mind handing over the human in your mouth??? Also could you please stop biting him.” If ScumWorld seriously thinks the new floors are going to save anyone they are seriously delusional.

  8. This article is actually quite encouraging. I have wanted to work with the orcas at SeaWorld for four years now and a huge part of that dream is swimming with them… so thanks!

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