SeaWorld Spare Air Update

Shamu at SeaWorld Orlando lifting a trainer ou...
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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).

Alexis Martinez and Dawn Brancheau

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.

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SeaWorld Safety Upgrades Running Into Problems

Shamu at SeaWorld Orlando lifting a trainer ou...
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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...
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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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Did Dawn Brancheau Make A Mistake, Or Was SeaWorld Taking Risks With Tilikum?

One of the key questions that I wasn’t able to resolve in Killer In The Pool was: given the fact that Tilikum had been involved in two previous deaths, and had been deemed unsuitable for waterwork and desensitization training, why was Dawn Brancheau lying down so close to him on a slideout following the Dine With Shamu show?

Dawn Lies Down With Tili Moment Before He Grabs Her

This is clearly a vulnerable position, and she was a very experienced trainer who presumably knew how to take care around Tilikum. So it seems puzzling.

SeaWorld repeatedly said that it had very specific protocols when it came to working with Tilikum, but declined to detail what the exact protocols were (beyond that fact that no one was allowed to get in the water with him; being on a slideout apparently was not defined as in the water). SeaWorld also declined to say whether Dawn Brancheau had violated any of those protocols by lying down with Tilikum in that manner.

Without knowing the details it was not possible to determine whether Dawn Brancheau was violating SeaWorld’s protocols for working with Tilikum and had made a mistake, or whether she WAS NOT violating protocols and in fact was in fact doing something which she and other trainers had done before with Tilikum.

My gut leaned toward the latter: that the position Dawn took with Tilikum on the day he killed her was similar to positions she (and maybe other trainers) had taken with him before, for two reasons: 1) Everyone who knew Dawn that I spoke with, said she was very committed to her job and known for following the rules; and 2) SeaWorld runs a pretty tight ship, and it seemed unlikely to me that Dawn would suddenly be doing something that she and others had never done before (and if she had, how come the other trainers acting as her spotters didn’t flag it?).

Still, Thad Lacinak, who was part of the killer whale management team at SeaWorld Orlando until 2008 and often seems to act as a surrogate spokesperson for SeaWorld, told me (and other journalists) that Dawn had made a mistake and that she never should have put herself in such a vulnerable position with Tilikum. Here is how the AP reported his view right after Dawn died:

Thad Lacinak, who helped train Dawn Brancheau, said she was very good but made a mistake by lying down on a watery shelf next to the 12,000-pound animal and letting her long hair get in front of the 22-foot orca named Tilikum – the largest killer whale in captivity…

Lacinak said he’d been told how the attack happened by other trainers who were at the scene Wednesday, when Tilikum dragged Brancheau into the water as she gave him pats and other rewards after a midday show. Based on their description, he said the rules for handling the giant orca that were in place during his tenure had either been broken or changed.

He said the same thing to me, and added: “Staying on your feet and avoiding proximity around the mouth is better.”

SeaWorld–Dawn’s employer for 16 years–has said nothing to dispute his judgment. Thus, the prevailing outside view of what happened was that–experienced as she was—Dawn Brancheau made a mistake that got her killed.

Now, thanks to a remarkable set of Tilikum photos, taken by a photographer who is clearly dedicated to documenting SeaWorld’s killer whales, we can start to divine the real truth regarding whether Dawn Brancheau made a mistake, or whether she was simply doing something with Tilikum that she and other trainers had done before (something that SeaWorld management knew had been done before, and presumably authorized or tolerated).

The photos are in an album devoted to Tilikum, and were shot over the past few years. You can peruse the whole thing here. But I have selected a series of photos that appear to make clear that SeaWorld trainers had been getting very close to Tilikum on slideouts well before the day Tilikum grabbed Dawn, pulled her into the pool, and killed her (one caveat: I am trusting the photographer correctly identified Tilikum and placed only pictures of Tilikum in this album).

Here is one photo, which is a haunting reminder of the position Dawn was in when she was grabbed. It was taken in July 2008:

A trainer, with a ponytail, lies down with Tilikum

Continue reading “Did Dawn Brancheau Make A Mistake, Or Was SeaWorld Taking Risks With Tilikum?”

Diary Of A Killer Whale: What Motivated Tilikum’s Attack On Dawn Brancheau?

Now that “Killer In The Pool” is on news stands and online, thanks to Outside, I want to take some time to start digging a little deeper into some of the questions surrounding the tragedy of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau. I met and interviewed some incredible trainers and scientists, and there is so much more that I would have loved to fit into the Outside piece. Getting into those issues, and posting additional news about orcas and killer whale entertainment will become one of the missions of this website, and I hope you will become part of the conversation.

The first question it makes sense to address, to the extent that it is even possible, is Tilikum’s state of mind on the day he killed Dawn Brancheau. Killer In The Pool has some relevant details about Tilkum’s life at SeaWorld: the abuse he receives from some of the female killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando, his physical health, his relative isolation (which has only increased since Taima, one of his most frequent companions, recently died in childbirth).

But the question of what triggered Tilikum to pull Dawn Brancheau into the pool, on that day as opposed to any other day over the years of close interaction with Dawn and many other trainers, is a key question which bears close analysis. It could have been a spur of the moment response to specific stimuli present while Dawn lay close to him on the slide-out. But it is also important to try and understand whether there might have been anything going on with Tilikum that day that might have made him MORE LIKELY to grab her, and then thrash her violently once she was in the pool with him.

So: was anything in particular going on with Tilikum and the other seven killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando that day? Anything that might have impacted his behavior and state of mind, beyond his general experience at SeaWorld and the specific way in which Dawn interacted with him?

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: What Motivated Tilikum’s Attack On Dawn Brancheau?”