SeaWorld Waterwork Desensitization Training (New Video)

It’s no secret that it has been going on. But here are two quick vids, shot by an enthusiastic guest, showing Orkid working with a trainer in the med pool (which has a floor that can be raised).

Orkid, or course, made a particularly dramatic appearance in Blackfish:

Here’s one section of SeaWorld’s investigation into the incident which illustrates how hard it is for SeaWorld to maintain situational control all the time:

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Of course, Orkid is no slouch when it comes to doing what she feels like doing, and ignoring protocol, either. Here’s the rap sheet from her SeaWorld profile:

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The renewed waterwork desense training is a good reminder that, despite claiming record revenues in 2013, SeaWorld is still determined to bring waterwork back into the show. I’ve always thought it was a long shot, because I always figured it would be hard to get anyone, most of all OSHA, to agree that being in the water with fast-rising floors (or any other safety mechanisms SeaWorld could throw into the mix) would be as safe as simply staying out of the water.

Which is perhaps why SeaWorld’s best hope is winning the federal appeal it argued last November, which in essence argued–to put it into layman’s terms–that OSHA had no right to butt into SeaWorld’s business, and that in any case waterwork was so central to SeaWorld’s brand and business that asking for a ban was akin to asking the NFL to ban tackling. That decision should come down in coming months.

If it doesn’t go SeaWorld’s way I’m not sure what SeaWorld’s options are. Steamroll OSHA into accepting fast-rising floors with some power lobbying and Congressional pressure? Resume waterwork at the California and texas parks, which weren’t cited by OSHA? None of the alternatives seem very good.

Perhaps A Shamu Pause To Install Some Fast-Rising Pool Floors?

SeaWorld has long been considering the use of fast-rising floors in its show pools to help alleviate safety concerns related to waterwork. Perhaps they are finally ready to proceed with the Florida installation:

“One Ocean,” SeaWorld Orlando‘s iconic killer-whale show, will be taking a break in early 2014.

The theme park will be doing routine maintenance on the main performing pool at Shamu Stadium, a SeaWorld official says. The work will begin in early January. “One Ocean” is currently on the park schedule posted on its website through Jan. 5.

The Dine With Shamu experience will also be suspended for the first part of next year.

During the closures, SeaWorld Orlando will offer “Shamu Up Close,” which will include above-water and underwater interactions and a look at training techniques.  It will be held in the Dine With Shamu space and accommodate hundreds of guests at a time, a spokeswoman says.

“One Ocean” and Dine With Shamu will return sometime in the spring, SeaWorld says.

Shutting down the cash-gushing Shamu show for a period of months is not “routine maintenance.” I have no knowledge that a fast-rising floor is on its way (previous on SeaWorld’s fast-rising floor here). But if I was a betting man….

[Also worth noting: this will be a very interesting experiment in how important the Shamu show is to SeaWorld’s gate revenue].

Waterwork, Calves, And Cadillac Killer Whales

A few weeks ago I dug into the details of a minor incident in which Taku gave former SeaWorld Florida trainer Jeff Ventre an unscheduled bump.

There were two aspects I have been meaning to follow up on, which further illustrate the complexities and subtleties of killer whale entertainment.

As I noted in the previous post, Taku’s little stunt was written off as “baby behavior.” Calves are naturally immature, inexperienced, and can be unpredictable. According to Carol Ray, another former SeaWorld Florida trainer from that era, Katerina and Taima were also well known for that sort of acting up as calves. Former SeaWorld Florida trainer Samantha Berg adds: “Taima had her way with Teri Corbett’s ponytail on more than one occasion, until management decided that women working Taima in the water had to wear their hair in a bun. But I don’t know how long that rule lasted.”

So when calves went off script it was tolerated–up to a point.

But the fact that calves are unpredictable and sometimes do not do what they are supposed to do created an interesting dilemma for SeaWorld regarding waterwork. On the one hand, a number of SeaWorld killer whale mothers have been sensitive to whether their caves were with them in the pool. The most notorious is Kasatka at SeaWorld California, whose profile notes that aggression was sometimes linked to “when she was separated from her calf and her calf was in distress.” Kasatka’s profile includes a pretty long rap sheet of incidents, a number of which were attributed to a calf being in another pool and/or vocalizing.

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Of course, the most dramatic incident was when she repeatedly dragged Ken Peters to the bottom of the pool in 2006, a scene which features in Blackfish.

So, for whales like Kasatka who liked to have their calves around, it could be an important safety measure to have a calf in the show pool if the Continue reading “Waterwork, Calves, And Cadillac Killer Whales”

Trainer Corner: John Hargrove On “Drywork” Risk

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.

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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.”

Another time, during a sonogram, Orkid came up out of the water and struck that same trainer as she stood poolside, knocking her over a wall. Continue reading “Trainer Corner: John Hargrove On “Drywork” Risk”

Is Orca “Drywork” Risky

I’ve said before that I don’t have a problem with trainers taking risks, including waterwork, as long as SeaWorld is honest and transparent with trainers regarding the risks and the aggression history of any given killer whale.

But how much risk attaches to “drywork” is a big question as SeaWorld continues to try to reach a settlement with OSHA on what sort of close contact between killer whales and trainers should be allowed in shows.

I’ll have a few things to say next week about what orcas are capable of even if a trainer is out of the pool. But in the meantime, here’s a (somewhat in jest) reminder that while waterwork definitely puts trainers at greater wisk, the stuff that happens out of the water doesn’t always go as intended.

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Anatomy Of A Minor Killer Whale Incident

“Woo-hoo, Jeff Ventre just dove into the pool!”

Alternate titles: “Taku’s Follies,” or “The Challenges of Killer Whale Calves.”

The more you dig, or get taken, into the art of killer whale training, the more you understand how variable and distinctive the killer whale personalities are, how context (what is going on in the back pool, what happened the night before, who has a calf, etc) is everything, and how killer whale trainers must constantly make subjective judgements about how to deal with the almost infinite challenges or wrinkles which can pop up at any time.

That’s why experience is so crucial. It’s also why the “risk” attached to killer whale training does not just involve the major incidents (which can mean severe injury or death) that are apparent to everyone, but runs through all the small decisions, or minor incidents as well. Because a small decision, or minor incident, if not handled with the right judgement can easily become a major incident, with major consequences.

Here’s a quiet case in point, from the film archives of former SeaWorld Florida trainer Jeff Ventre. It was filmed in November 1994 by the stadium producers, who have have watched enough whale behaviors to know something is not right, and shows a young Taku (just over a year old) coming up under Ventre and bumping him.

Here’s Ventre’s explanation of what you are seeing, and how he handled the situation:

From a safety/behavioral  standpoint I ignored Taku and elected to exit the scene by mounting Katina. I made a decision to get up on her and steer her away (you can see the touch steering stimulus and she makes a quick right turn). I felt that trying to exit the water right in front of Taku might become a game and he could pull me in.


Love the show director’s comment: “That’s gotta make you nervous, man.

So Ventre had to make a lightning quick judgement about how to exit the pool, and had the experience or presence of mind (or both) to Continue reading “Anatomy Of A Minor Killer Whale Incident”

SeaWorld Waterwork Update

Last month, I wrote about SeaWorld’s whale interaction protocols since Dawn Brancheau died, and the fact that waterwork desensitization with certain whales had advanced to the point of swimming with whales in the med pool.

This picture of Orkid in the med pool with a trainer in San Diego is now making the rounds online:

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Update: here’s one more.

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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?

SeaWorld Taking Steps To Resume Waterwork

Been getting word that at least one SeaWorld Shamu stadium has called a meeting for Monday to discuss beginning waterwork desensitization in the medical pool. That’s the first step to resuming waterwork with SeaWorld’s killer whales, which was stopped in the aftermath of Dawn Brancheau’s and stayed on hold through SeaWorld’s appeal of OSHA’s citation of SeaWorld Florida for exposing trainers to injury from orcas.

I don’t know if all of SeaWorld’s parks are planning to begin waterwork desense training, or whether the training will lead to the resumption of waterwork outside of shows (which Judge Ken Welsch’s OSHA ruling allows) or even in shows that either take place outside of Florida (which was the only park OSHA cited) or in shows everywhere based on a claim that fast-rising floors and other safety measures mitigate the dangers OSHA cited.

But I do know that SeaWorld management, including Brad Andrews and Jim Atchison, have for a while been telling trainers–many of whom have been discouraged by the lack of waterwork and considering moving on from Shamu Stadium–that, despite OSHA, waterwork will be back. And also that plans to install fast-rising pool floors will continue.

SeaWorld management has also been telling trainers that Judge Welsch erred in his ruling, so it seems likely that SeaWorld will appeal his ruling further (it has 60 days to file). In the meantime, SeaWorld is within days of having to demonstrate to OSHA the steps it will take to mitigate the dangers to trainers OSHA identified.

So lots of pieces are in movement, and only SeaWorld knows where it hopes to take them. But a plan to begin waterwork desense shows that waterwork in some form is still very much part of SeaWorld’s plan.

Stay tuned.