As SeaWorld and OSHA continue their backroom and courtroom dealings over what sort of interactions SeaWorld trainers should be allowed to have with SeaWorld’s killer whales, the question of the risks inherent in drywork is central.
“Drywork” is when trainers interact with the killer whales on slideouts, stages, and shallow ledges. That is in contrast to waterwork, which is interactions in which trainers are in the pools with the killer whales. SeaWorld stopped performing waterwork after Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum (even though Brancheau was in fact doing drywork according to SeaWorld’s definition). Given the OSHA citations and court rulings so far, it doesn’t seem likely that SeaWorld will feature waterwork again anytime soon.
However, SeaWorld, it appears, would like to work out a deal that would modify OSHA’s stipulation that trainers maintain a minimum distance or work from behind a barrier, and allow SeaWorld trainers during shows to have close contact with killer whales when the trainer (and often the killer whale, too) is out of the water on the stage or a slideout.
I think that we can stipulate that a trainer in the water with a killer whale is much more vulnerable than a trainer out of the water. But even if that is so, OSHA’s main concern has to be what sort of risks to trainers exist during drywork. OSHA’s expert witness when it faced off against SeaWorld in court in 2011, Dr. David Duffus (who also features in Blackfish) has long been of the view that a killer whale’s speed, power and intelligence means that the risks to trainers are inversely correlated to the distance that exists between a trainer and a killer whale. No distance = higher risk. Greater distance = lower risk.
As OSHA ponders how much risk there is in trainers getting close to killer whales, I thought I would ask an expert, John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld senior trainer with long experience at both the SeaWorld California and SeaWorld Texas parks.
Hargrove told me that the risk for trainers who are out of the water “is low.” But he also made clear that risks remain, and “that we have documented past incidents which prove trainers can be struck.”
He cited as an example an incident at SeaWorld California in which Orkid broke off a requested behavior underwater and instead came up on the stage and struck a trainer, sending her tumbling, and putting her in the hospital. “Orkid intentionally slid out and struck her,” Hargrove says, noting that any time a whale is sliding across the stage–which is a popular behavior–it has the opportunity to strike trainers. “The only safe place to be during a stage slide is far stage right or left, in a place where there is no set blocking the trainer from jumping back. Anywhere else the whale can crush you if they want to.”
One of the allegations in Killer In The Pool that SeaWorld pushed back hard on, was the assertion that Tilikum was abused by other killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando, and that aggression between killer whales in SeaWorld’s pools sometimes leads to serious injuries. Responding to the allegation, VP Of Communications Fred Jacobs said: “Injuries as part of the expression of social dominance are rare and almost never serious.”
Jacobs doesn’t say that serious injuries NEVER occur. Which is smart, because there is a pretty well known 1987 incident at SeaWorld Orlando in which a whale named Kotar bit a whale he did not get along with, named Kanduke, in the penis. The bloody result closed SeaWorld shows down for a period, and Kotar was eventually shipped off to SeaWorld San Antonio. He died there in 1995, when a pool gate he was playing with closed on his head and fractured his skull.
At the same time, Jacobs carefully worded response could easily give the impression that this is not a very serious phenomenon. And it would probably shock many in the public to see what some of the injuries actually look like. The second most notorious incident between two SeaWorld killer whales occurred in 1989, between two orcas called Kandu and Corky. Here is one description of what happened:
Kandu was a good performer, but she was also a moody orca. Waterworks were done with her but she showed aggressions to her trainers more than once. In 1984 she got pregnant with her first offspring. Unfortunately she gave birth to a dead calf on January 31, 1986.
Almost one year after, SeaWorld got 2 new orcas; Kandu immediately got along with the male Orky II and soon became pregnant with her second calf. On September 23, 1988, she gave birth to a female named Orkid. Kandu was a good and protective mother, so she wasn’t enthused when Corky, one of the other females showed interest in the new calf.
On August 21, 1989, Kandu was swimming laps in the back pool, while Orkid and Corky performed during a show. Kandu suddenly rushed into the show pool and rammed into Corky with her mouth being open. Corky was fine after the attack, but Kandu broke her jaw and started bleeding soon after. She immediately swam back to the back pool, where she died from severe blood loss. Orkid was by her side.
This incident is tragic because it led to the death of a killer whale. But someone recently sent me a photo of what the scene looked like after Kandu returned to the back pool, and it is pretty shocking. It tells a story about what can happen in the pools that is totally at odds with the impression that SeaWorld often conveys: that there is some social jostling, but it is “almost never serious.” This looks pretty serious:
I find this picture immensely powerful, because it conveys a mostly hidden reality. And while it is probably the most extreme event in SeaWorld’s history (that we know of), there are many injuries and incidents which never get seen or reported.
For example, this year at SeaWorld I have been told two killer whales named Kalina and Kayla have not been getting along. From what I have been told, it was these two killer whales, in fact, that shut down the Believe Show on February 24, just before Dawn Brancheau was killed. It is not necessarily surprising that SeaWorld has to cope with conflict between its killer whales, given that they are brought together in a pretty random way (aggression between members of a family pod in the wild is almost nonexistent). But, again, you get a critical level of understanding when you get an actual first-hand report, and some pictures.
Here is an account (with pics) of what happened between Kalina and Kayla at the Believe Show at SeaWorld Orlando in June this summer:
The show commenced as it usually does with the opening show. Then, Kalina came out for the first major breach, the start of the show.
Moments later, Kayla raced into the pool. I could instantly sense this was not part of the show, as Kalina suddenly seemed very skittish. Moments later, Kayla collided with Kalina in the centre of the pool, causing a scuffle that went on for several seconds, water thrashing about and squeals from the orcas.
Straight after, Kayla left and raced into the back pool, leaving Kalina to swim laps about the pool on her own, disobeying and refusing to listen to trainers orders, as one of the trainers came out to talk to the crowd, the show halting at this point.
The trainers attempted to place Kalina into the back pool, the same as the others (at this point it housed Katina, Kayla, Trua, Nalani and Malia), which Kalina flatly refused, opting to swim laps about the pool instead. The show continued, ignoring Kalina who ignored all instructions and just swam laps.
Anytime Kayla entered the pool, Kalina would approach the gate to the opposite back pool and cower there, as if trying to get away. The gate was never opened, despite Kalina flatly refusing to co-operate throughout the show, despite several times approaching trainers.
In the finale of the show, Kalina finally decided to start obeying orders. This was fine, but what disturbed me at the end, was that Kalina was again, sent to the same back pool as Kayla.
My sense is that this sort of fracas is not that unusual. But it’s hard to know, because they only become public when they occur during shows and are documented. Anyhow, here is the result. When Kayla initially rammed Kalina, she put a gash right above her eye (luckily she did not take out the eye):
So how did SeaWorld address the incident, and the lack off cooperation from the whales that resulted? Happily, my source filmed that, so we can listen to the trainer trying to explain it to the audience.
“There are just days that they just want to play with one another and be extremely social,” he says. I think that qualifies as stretching the definition of “play” and “extremely social.” Anyhow, watch for yourself, and observe one of the talents required to be a SeaWorld trainer: