#Blackfish Archives: Keto/Alexis Martinez Incident Reports

After Alexis Martinez was killed by Keto, both SeaWorld/Loro Parque and the Canary Islands OSHA equivalent launched investigations into the incident. These reports are the most detailed and revealing accounts of exactly what happened between Keto and Alexis Martinez (and you can read my reporting and analysis of what they mean in my story about Alexis’ death).

Here is the SeaWorld/Loro Parque corporate incident report:

Here is the Canary Islands Dept. Of Labor Report (Spanish):

#Blackfish Archives: Alexis Martinez Case Files

Continuing to archive documents and reports related to the tragic death of trainer Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque in December, 2009, this upload includes (in Spanish): Preliminary Pathology; Police Interviews; Hospital Summaries; Autopsy Report; Excerpts From Alexis’ Diary Of Work At Loro Parque; Timeline Summary of Loro Parque video of incident; Labor Dept. Investigation.

Blackfish Archives: Profile Of Keto

Loro Parque Killer Whales

In December 2009, killer whale trainer Alexis Martinez was killed at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands by Keto, an orca that had been transferred there by SeaWorld. At the time, Martinez’s tragic death got little attention. But when SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed just over two months later at Sea World in Orlando, Martinez’s death became the warning that no one listened to.

I wrote a story investigating how and why Martinez was killed,  how it was handled, and why it was relevant to Brancheau’s subsequent death. In the course of my reporting, I collected a lot of documentation. As part of my ongoing effort to post documents and materials collected during my reporting on killer whale captivity to a publicly accessible Blackfish Archives, I am posting Keto’s SeaWorld profile as the initial document which helps tell the story of Keto and Alexis Martinez (at the time my story was published I also posted a detailed and troubling review of the many problems at Loro Parque written by Suzanne Allee, who worked at Loro Parque). .

Headline Of The Day: SeaWorld IPO Edition

Business Insider comes up with this classic:

SeaWorld: Our Investors Should Know That It’s Bad For Business When Our Killer Whales Kill People

And then BI cites this important, but unusual, section of SeaWorld’s IPO filing:

Below is the aforementioned section of the prospectus (emphasis added):

Featuring animals at our theme parks involves risks.

Our theme parks feature numerous displays and interactions that include animals. All animal enterprises involve some degree of risk. All animal interaction by our employees and our guests in attractions in our theme parks, where offered, involves risk. While we maintain strict safety procedures for the protection of our employees and guests, injuries or death, while rare, have occurred in the past. For example, in February 2010, a trainer was killed while engaged in an interaction with a killer whale. Following this incident, we were subject to an inspection by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which resulted in three citations concerning alleged violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and certain regulations thereunder. We have appealed certain of these citations and the appeal process is ongoing. In connection with this incident, we reviewed and revised our safety protocols and made certain safety-related facility enhancements. This incident has also been the subject of significant media attention, including television and newspaper coverage, a documentary and a book, as well as discussions in social media. This incident and similar events that may occur in the future may harm our reputation, reduce attendance and negatively impact our business, financial condition and results of operations.

In addition, seven killer whales are presently on loan to a third party. Although the occurrence of any accident or injury involving these killer whales would be outside of our control, any such occurrence could negatively affect our business and reputation.

That about covers it, no? So the investors can’t say they weren’t warned.

Blood In The Water (Spanish Version)

Loro Parque is again in the news, thanks to the fact that a Dutch judge has decided that the orca Morgan will be sent there rather than be returned to the wild.

So it is a good time to publish a Spanish translation of my article, “Blood In The Water,” which goes into great detail on the lives of the killer whales at Loro Parque and the tragic December 2009 death of trainer Alexis Martinez.

Many thanks to Sebi McLean, a diver who worked at Loro Parque for a time, for taking the trouble to to do the translation.

Morgan Heading To Loro Parque

Morgan, the killer whale “rescued” in the Wadden Sea, and nursed back to health at the Dolfinarium at Harderwijk, won’t be going back to the ocean, a Dutch judge has ruled. Instead, she’ll be sent to Loro Parque, where she will join the five orcas owned by SeaWorld.

It will be a challenging transition. Loro Parque is where trainer Alexis Martinez was killed in 2009, by Keto (my story on that tragedy is here). And it is a marine park with a very unstable social grouping, with the most visible manifestation being the severe scarring on the male, Tekoa.

Loro Parque also has a young calf, Adan, who is just over a year old. And to add to the potential complexity of adding Morgan to the Loro Parque mix, there is a lot of speculation among people who follow orcas and the marine parks closely that Kohana, the mother of Adan, is pregnant again. There has been no confirmation or comment either way from Loro Parque about this. But this is what Kohana looks like these days.

I am no expert, but here are some recent videos of Kohana a friend sent me, with the following comment:

She’s starting to get chunky enough that you should be able to pick her out as being the fat one even if you can’t ID her well otherwise. She looks way too big now for it to just be some change in her weight or something.

What do you think?

UPDATE: I just got solid confirmation that Kohana is in fact pregnant. So, with the addition of Morgan, Loro Parque is headed toward seven orcas, unless they move one or more out over the next year.


How Did SeaWorld Florida Handle Waterwork After Alexis Martinez Died?

Credit: Rishi Menon/Flickr

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).

Seaworld Trainer - Dawn Brancheau
Seaworld Trainer - Dawn Brancheau This is a picture I took on Christmas day 2009 whilst on holiday with my family in Florida. It was a great show and we were really impressed with the whales and trainers. This is Dawn Brancheau who was tragically killed during an accident at the park Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

And here is a waterwork photo from Dec. 26, and another from Dec. 28.

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:

Dec. 25:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/44625881@N08/4279674888/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/sworrall/4388833228/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/neil_rushil/4221947595/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaxphoto/4411356791/

Dec. 26:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/breitbach/4249861535/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/rxmflickr/4276198656/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/staypeach/4794099753/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/fadhe2/4273561912/

Dec. 27:

No photos found

Dec. 28:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/starexplorer/4246743494/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/starexplorer/4245971115/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aimanflames/4259413407/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aimanflames/4223935304/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aimanflames/4223167005/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/starexplorer/4246745388/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/25477222@N06/4245064452/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/49886501@N06/4577573028/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/starexplorer/4245972073/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/42955861@N05/4232754394/in/photostream
http://www.flickr.com/photos/42955861@N05/4231983945/in/photostream
http://www.flickr.com/photos/eggsngrits/4241636599/

SeaWorld Safety Upgrades Running Into Problems

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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A Close-Up Look At Loro Parque

Orcas at Loro Parque.
Image via Wikipedia

In my recent story, “Blood In The Water,” I told the story of the tragic death of Alexis Martinez at a marine park in the Canary Islands, drowned by a killer whale called Keto on December 24, 2009. One of the key sources for that story was a woman named Suzanne Allee, who supervised the audio-visual department of Orca Ocean, the killer whale complex at Loro Parque, from early 2006 into the summer of 2009.

After Suzanne heard about the death of Martinez, whom she knew quite well, she was moved to write up a report on what she had witnessed at Loro Parque, believing that Loro Parque was not a safe environment for the four killer whales there (on loan from SeaWorld), or for the trainers who continue to work there. I highlighted the key elements of Suzanne’s testimony in my article, but her report has much more detail than I could include. With her permission, I am posting the full report here, as it is of great interest and importance to anyone who would like to know more about Loro Parque, and the events that led up to the death of Alexis Martinez.

Loro Parque’s response to Suzanne’s report and her interviews with me was included in Blood In The Water. In upcoming posts I will dig deeper into some of the issues Suzanne raises, and what my reporting and dialogue with SeaWorld and Loro Parque uncovered beyond what I wrote in Blood In The Water. I also want to get into greater detail about the condition and experience of Tekoa, another killer whale at Loro Parque.

But as a start, here is Suzanne’s full report (some names have been redacted for privacy reasons):

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