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OSHA’s citation of SeaWorld suggests that some sort of air supply system could be used to allow waterwork to resume between SeaWorld’s trainers and the park’s killer whales. But a group of former trainers has approached OSHA to make clear that so-called “spare-air” will not keep trainers safe.
Their argument boils down to three points: 1) many of the incidents (partial list here) between trainers and killer whales involve physical trauma, where lack of air is not an issue (and that Dawn Brancheau was killed by traumatic injury; air would not have changed the outcome); 2) giving trainers new equipment, which involves hoses, squeaks and other noises, might just give killer whales something else to grab, and might also unsettle them, leading to more incidents, not fewer; and 3) that even if a trainer involved in an incident did manage to get a regulator in his or her mouth despite the violent motion and high speeds often involved, taking a lungful of air creates a danger of lung overexpansion (which can be deadly) if a whale with a trainer rapidly ascends from the bottom of the pool to the surface.
The trainers sent statements on spare air to OSHA, and have shared them with OrcaAware. You can read them here.
The Orlando Sentinel has taken note of the argument the former trainers are making, in this article.
And former trainer Samantha Berg appeared on Fox News’ Fox & Friends to discuss the issue, and trainer safety at SeaWorld.
We mostly hear about killer whales serving as amusement for people. So it’s nice to come across a story where humans appear to serve as the entertainment for an orca (via Candace Calloway Whiting’s blog). The beauty of this interaction is that both sides are having fun (or at least the kayakers, we’re sure, thought it was cool AFTER they were back ashore)..
By Martha Perkins – Bowen Island Undercurrent
Published: September 09, 2010 2:00 PM
Updated: September 09, 2010 3:01 PM
When Bruce McTaggart and Andy Hoppenrath went out in their kayaks to ride the waves for a little Saturday afternoon fun, they had no idea that an orca would decide to play along.
The two Bowen Island paddlers were about to discover what is was like to be treated like a whale toy. Exhilarating? Yes. Scary? Most definitely. One of those moments you will never, ever forget? Absolutely.
It started around noon on September 4. Northwesterly winds had created havoc for some boats that lost their moorings but to these experienced kayakers, the winds also created some fun metre-high waves to surf.
Planning on getting a little speed, they were in their lightest kayaks – McTaggart’s was a 21-foot Rapier, only 17 inches wide, and Hoppenrath’s was a sit-on-top 21-foot Kevlar surf ski.
They were on the northwest side of Worlcombe Island, just off Tunstall Bay, enjoying some “washing machine” waves. “It was really messy and soupy,” says McTaggart, who’s logged about 1,200 km of paddling this year alone. He looked out and saw some “weird wave action.” Seconds later he heard Hoppenrath shout, “Holy $@#!, there’s a killer whale.”
In December 2007, McTaggart had come upon a pod of orcas in very calm waters. There was a young calf and the whales were obviously having a lot of fun jumping in and out of the water. Those orcas had a “totally different energy” than the orca the two friends could see now a couple of metres from their kayaks.
“As soon as it found us, it decided to have fun,” McTaggart says. “He was like a sheepdog herding us.”
Thinking that they had disturbed the whale feeding on a group of nearby seals, the men decided to paddle away from the seals but the orca didn’t want them to go. The whale, which they estimate was 20 to 25 feet, dove underneath them again and again, sometimes riding alongside them, its outline clearly visible under the surface until it breached and sprayed them with water.
“I could see him swimming at high speed underneath me,” McTaggart says. “It was bizarre.”
“It was the number of times it surfaced and blew – it was like five seconds apart,” says Hoppenrath, who could feel the whale’s breath as it came out the blow hole. “He’s looking at you, then poosh! I didn’t know if he was mad or being a whale.”
“If he had nudged us, our boats are so small and lightweight we’d be in the water,” McTaggart says. However, although the orca came within a metre or two of the kayaks, it never touched them. “It was amazing how accurate he was.”
The orca separated the two kayaks by repeatedly breaching between them and then concentrated on McTaggart, who soon realized that he needed an exit strategy that didn’t include tipping over. What had started out as a bit of fun was now getting a bit more serious, especially since the waves were so high. “I was wondering how close will he play the game. I’ve seen orcas flip seals in the air. It had to be playing games but at the time we didn’t know that.”
It was the unknown that created such nervous excitement. McTaggart was reveling in the experience but at the same time aware of the precarious situation he was in. “A whale showing such energy and intensity was something I’d never experienced before.”
McTaggart started heading for Pasley Island but the whale kept heading him off.
Meanwhile, Hoppenrath was also trying to create distance between his kayak and the orca while keeping a close eye on his friend.
“I’m watching Bruce get harassed and then [the orca] came towards me,” Hoppenrath says. He saw nothing for about 40 seconds. (Cue the theme music from Jaws here.) “My big moment was when I was going down this wave and I saw him underneath me. The dorsal fin pops in front of me and then goes down.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to crash into this whale.’ Then the tail comes up and splashes and I’m being hit by some orca wave. It was all I could do to brace to avoid being knocked down. The whale did this a couple of times, all the while I’m travelling full speed.”
The whale was so close that at times Hoppenrath could look it in the eye; at other times, he could see scratches on the fin. And yet, Hoppenrath was strangely calm. “Although it got to a point where enough’s enough, I realized he wasn’t going to hit me,” he says. “I felt like I’d won a lottery.”
Watching the excitement unfold were Margot Williams of Richmond, her eight-year-old son Jack and her brother David Williams and his two kids from Toronto. They’d been walking on Pasley island when they heard that three whales – two adults and either a baby or a juvenile – had just swum through North Bay. They got in their boat and spotted the orcas between Hermit and the Pophams but then the orcas disappeared. The Williamses floated leisurely in the water until they saw one of the orcas “swimming like a porpoise” as it quickly headed towards Worlcombe Island. They followed at a safe distance and then slowed when they came across the kayakers.
“At first it seemed they were enjoying the encounter but then it looked like the whale was getting too close and was actually herding them,” Williams says in an email. “As one kayaker tried to turn away from it, it circled around the kayaker and made him turn back. This happened quite a few times and we actually thought the whale had bumped against the kayak on a few passes.
“One kayak eventually got away and the whale was working the other one when we slowly put the boat between them. The kayaker was then able to paddle safely around the back of a small island and join his friend.”
The orca circled the boat at least six times before swimming off. “My son Jack loves animals could not believe it as he watched the whale swim under the boat and come up the other side,” Williams says.
Everyone agrees that the incident lasted about 10 minutes.
The Undercurrent contacted Paul Cottrell, the marine mammal co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “It’s interesting behaviour,” says Cottrell, who also uses the word “unusual” to describe the orca’s behaviour.
Ken Balcomb, of the Center For Whale Research, explains to Carl Safina, of the Blue Ocean Institute, how the decline of the northwest salmon population is affecting the future of Puget Sound’s killer whales. Very moving.
It’s not uncommon for SeaWorld to take down comments, or ban commenters, from its Facebook fan page if it doesn’t like what’s being said. But it is nevertheless an interesting experience.
In case you have never been banned yourself, this is what you get back when you write a very reasoned objection to being banned. SeaWorld’s responses are in bold, and they came from none other than Fred Jacobs, VP Of Communications.
Pretty funny (and revealing):
Dear SeaWorld, I am writing for a couple of reasons and I will be honest in my position within this message. I am a Zoology student who, admittedly, is against the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. From my point of view, I think SeaWorld is a good park, apart from this aspect.
We appreciate your candor, but displaying cetaceans really is at the core of what SeaWorld is all about. You offer your position in clear terms, however, and we respect your opinion and your right to offer it.
This is my personal opinion but I wanted to be honest within my message. Pending the recent tragedy at the Orlando park, I was directed to email Fred Jacobs r.e. my questions on animal care and although I received an immediate response indicating that he will get back to me straight away, I am still to hear from him – this was over three weeks ago now.
I apologize for the delay. This, as you might expect, is a difficult time for us. I’ve had a lot of pressing matters to attend to.
I am quite upset at having just today been blocked from the SeaWorld Orlando fan page on FaceBook.
This is a SeaWorld fan site. You can say what you please where you please, but we are under no obligation to provide you with a forum that you then use to criticize us.
I have never used offensive or abusive language in any of my posts – rather I will put across my opinion on already existing threads in a passive way, with supporting evidence backing up my points. Only once have I started a thread on the wall and that was merely explaining a publication by Graeme Ellis which the SW admin team misquoted statistics from (I explained what the actual statistics were in reference to and I knew this because I had been in communication with Graeme Ellis myself).
Again, I’m not sure why you feel it is your right to criticize us on our own Facebook site. There are thousands of Web sites, and probably dozens of Facebook sites, devoted to the debate over marine mammals in captivity where your comments would be appropriate.
As far as Graeme Ellis’ work, we are familiar with it. I’m not sure of the precise context of your comments about longevity, but I can guess what they are. You should recognize that until every member of a group of animals is studied from birth to death, estimates of longevity in this species are just that, estimates. Ellis himself acknowledges the variability of wild life expectancy in this species: “During the period of growth, mean life expectancy of females was 46 years (31 for males)…” Mean life expectancy of his study group, the Northern Resident Group in British Columbia declined to 30 years for females and 19 for males.*
SeaWorld has been in existence for only 46 years. We have made continuous improvements in husbandry, veterinary care, life support, water quality and exhibit design for killer whales over that period. The question is this: Will the killer whale calf born next month at SeaWorld Orlando live as long as a calf born on that same day in the Northern Resident Group and will that calf live as long as a calf born on that same day in the waters off Iceland or Alaska or Argentina? The answer? No one knows. What I can tell you is that there are many, many species that live longer — far longer — in a zoological setting than they do in the wild. As technology improves so will captive lifespans
* “Life History and Population Dynamics of Northern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus Orca) in British Columbia — 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals.”
As someone who has a huge passion for orca, having worked with the likes of the WDCS, BDMLR and Dr. Ingrid Visser, I am deeply upset to have been treated in the way that I have by the SW admin team.
WDCS, like Ingrid Visser, has stated its opposition to SeaWorld many times. Both want places like SeaWorld to close forever. That is their right, but we disagree completely with what they stand for. I’m not sure why you feel that an association with WDCS or Dr. Visser gives you the right to criticize SeaWorld on its own Facebook site.
I have myself been to SW two or three times and even participated in two of the behind-the-scenes programmes. I am from England, not the USA, but I am under the impression that like in England, America believes in freedom of speech so long as it is respectful and polite.
You have a clear right to say what you please. You do not have a right to say anything you please on our Facebook site, however.
I have been nothing but respectful and polite and so am deeply upset to find that I have been removed from commenting on this page. I hope I can have at least some explanation as to what offence I have caused for this to have happened, if not a reversal of the situation. Many thanks for your time and I really do look forward to hearing from you. Yours sincerely, XXXXX.
But wait, our intrepid commenter was not satisfied with SeaWorld blowing her off on what she believed to be a distortion of Graeme Ellis’s work. So what did she do? She wrote Graeme Ellis, of course.
The reason why I am emailing you is because there is a bit of a debate going on on the SeaWorld fanpage (as well as a few other pages) on Facebook at the moment. There are a number of people who are trying to raise awareness about certain areas of research conducted which suggests that captivity isn’t great for certain animals (especially dolphins). I believe that it is important for people to make an informed decision about marine parks and captivity of certain animals and that education is so very important, so long as the information is presented in an honest and polite manner.
A recent rebuttal from the SeaWorld administration team recently quoted your research. However, myself and few others are under the impression that this research has been misquoted. It reads as follows:
“Peter F. Olesiuk, Graeme M. Ellis and John Ford, three of the world most respected marine mammal scientists and individuals who have studied longevity in wild whales for years, recently wrote in the peer-reviewed proceedings of the 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals that female killer whales in their study group had a mean life expectancy of 31 years and males just 19 years.”
They used this particular sentence as a defence for keeping orca (and other dolphins) in captivity when someone questioned how captivity can possibly be justified when captive mammals are dying at a faster rate than their wild counterparts. I believe they are quoting the following (although I can’t find the 31 years for females):
“For males, 77% survived to the mean age of physical maturity (19 years) during the initial period of unrestrained growth, but this dropped to 56% during the more recent period of no net change.”
I am finding it difficult to understand the article, but I am aware of statistics published in your 1990 report for the IWC suggesting that female orca have an average life-expectancy of 50.2 years (80-90 maximum longevity) and males have an average life-expectancy of 29.2 years (50-60 maximum longevity) and I am under the impression (from the WDCS report I mentioned earlier) that these findings were also published in your 1994 “Killer Whales” publication.
There is much argument going back and forth about this, as well as about your opinion on captivity. So I thought, who better to ask than Graeme Ellis himself!
Yes, who better? And back came Graeme Ellis’s response:
Hi XXX, If you go to the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat web site (CSAS) and check out document 2005/045 you will see where the SeaWorld types picked the statement that met their needs. Basically the mean life expectancy for the resident type killer whales dropped during a time when both N&S resident populations went into decline caused by increased mortality rates which correlate strongly with a decrease in Chinook salmon abundance (their primary food). See attached publication. I hope this helps explain what appears to be a change in life expectancy. Since about 2001 the populations have reversed this declining trend, so life expectancies should return to what was previously published. Cheers, Graeme
So go the PR wars over the morality and humanity of captivity of marine mammals.
We think SeaWorld, and Fred Jacobs, are going to be in trouble when this fact-loving, and admirably persistent, student graduates and has more time.
One of the problems for orcas in captivity is that they tend to die young. So it was sad, but not surprising, to hear of the death of 12-year old Sumar at SeaWorld San Diego earlier this week.
Here’s part of the report from San Diego’s 10News.com:
SAN DIEGO — A killer whale died Tuesday afternoon at SeaWorld, prompting the cancellation of whale shows at the park, officials told 10News.According to SeaWorld officials, trainers noticed that the whale named Sumar was not feeling well on Monday. Veterinarians were notified and blood samples were taken.Despite being given antibiotics, Sumar’s condition worsened Tuesday and he was declared dead shortly before 1:45 p.m., park officials said.
“Unfortunately … he did not respond,” said SeaWorld spokesman Dave Koontz. “His condition continued to deteriorate today. … Whatever illness he had, it moved very fast.”Park officials told 10News the 12-year-old whale had no prior history of major health problems.The whale was removed from the park grounds and a necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death, 10News reported.
Koontz said it was a “very sad day” for trainers and other staff members at SeaWorld.”They love these animals,” Koontz said. “They are devoted to these animals, and (the death of one is) like losing a member of their family.”Killer whales in captivity routinely live into their 30s or 40s, according to Koontz.
It would be nice if SeaWorld would release the results of the necropsy, because the reasons killer whales in captivity die suddenly are not very well understood. And despite what Koontz says, they DO NOT routinely live into their 30s and 40s. Of the 41 orcas still alive in captivity, only two have survived long enough to reach the age of 40, and only three have survived long enough to reach the age of 30. More than 130 have died before reaching those ages (details here).
To give you a sense of how young orcas in captivity mostly are when they die, here is a list of orcas that have died at SeaWorld over the years, and their age at death (which doesn’t include more than a dozen stillbirths or miscarriages).
1. Shamu (F) – lived 6 years
2. Ramu – (M) lived 15 years
3. Kilroy (M) – lived 11.5 years
4. Kandu (F) – lived 4 years
5. Orky 2 (M) – lived 20 years
6. Nootka (F)– lived 20 years
7. Winston (M) – lived 15.5 years
8. Kandu 3 (F) – lived 4 years
9. Sandy (F) – lived 4.5 years
10. Kona (F) – lived 6 years
11. Canuck (M) – lived 2.5 years
12. Frankie (M) – lived 5 months
13. Kanduke (M) – lived 15 years
14. Kenau (F) – lived 15 years
15. Gudron (F) – lived 19.5 years
16. Canuck 2 (M) – lived 4 years
17. Kona 2 (F) – lived 10 years
18. Kandu 5 (F) – lived 12 years
19. Winnie (F) – lived 24.5 years
20. Kotar (M) – lived 16.5 years
21. Shawn (F) – lived 1 year
22. Kahana (F) – lived 12.5 years
23. Nootka 4 (F) – lived 12 years
24. Haidi 2 (F) – lived 19 years
25. Samoa (F) – lived 8.5 years
26. Bjossa (F) – lived 21 years
27. Katerina (F) – lived 10.5 years
28. Splash (M) – lived 15.5 years
29. Taku (M) – lived 14 years
30. Nyar (F) – lived 2 years
31. Baby – lived 38 days (Haida 2)
32. Hayln (F) – lived 2 1/2 years
33. Taima (F) – lived 21 years
34. Baby Shamu 2 – lived 11 days (Kenau)
45. Sumar – 12 years
There are lots of pics of Sumar here. And here is some video of Sumar doing what Sumar was trained to do.
There is an excellent new blog called “The Orca Project.” The author recently spent two days at SeaWorld Orlando observing Tilikum to try and see how isolated his life is in the aftermath of the Dawn Brancheau tragedy. The reality is predictably sad. Go over to “The Orca Project” to read the full report (and see pics and videos), but here is an excerpt:
As a person who has been monitoring the SeaWorld Orlando fan page of FaceBook over the past 6 months, what you are being told is happening with him, and what is actually happening are two very different stories. When you ask SeaWorld, “What are you doing with Tilikum?”, they give you the same answer. “He is still interacting and socializing continually with the other whales, he gets just as much interaction, play, stimulation from the trainers and is doing very well.” – then they post this blog for reference.
Here it says that “Tilikum is no exception”, however, he is an exception. He is now linked to 3 deaths and clearly has issues with a couple of the other females who do not blend well socially so, therefore, they are separated. Taima, who in June of 2010 died due to complications while trying to give birth for the 4th time in her short 20 years of life – was Tilikum’s “best friend”. The two were often together and now that she is gone, he really has no one like her.
Trua (a male orca) and Tilikum are friendly, however, in the 2 days I watched them – they were not put together one time. In fact, Tilikum was alone from 9 am on the morning when we arrived, until 7 pm the on the second day. After viewing Tili for nearly 10 hours – two days in a row – I witnessed him in total isolation from the others over the course of those 20 hours. The others were allowed to mingle with each other, however, Tilikum was not given that opportunity on those two days.
This photo–in which Tilikum floats alone in a position of crucifixion–says it all:
This past week we have seen a number of developments that may spell the end for the marine mammal park “entertainment” industry as we now know it. SeaWorld, Orlando finds itself under fire from Federal Agencies, former employees and witnesses following the February attack and death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Tilikum, a 13,000 pound orca (killer whale) who has been the main attraction of the theme park’s “Shamu” shows was implicated in the deaths of two other people prior to pulling Dawn Brancheau into her watery grave. The horrifying attack which included dismemberment and scalping of the defenseless trainer was witnessed by unsuspecting park-goers and SeaWorld staff as she struggled to free herself from his powerful jaws. As the details of that fateful day emerge, the public is taking notice and SeaWorld may not escape this latest tragedy without undergoing a transformation leading to the abolishment of orca/trainer interactions which may in turn bring an end to the captivity and confinement of this amazing species.
The fallout began on Monday, August 23 as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued citations to SeaWorld for apparently placing profit above employee safety. These citations opened the floodgates for further legal action by Dawn’s family, terminated employees and witnesses. It has also sparked a growing number of former SeaWorld employees to speak out about the culture of working with Orcas and the secrecy that shrouds the marine mammal entertainment industry.
Triggering the flurry of claims was the stunning announcement that OSHA fined SeaWorld Orlando $75,000 for safety violations including the maximum $70,000 penalty for the “Willful” act of knowingly placing it’s employees at risk… Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel picks up the story:
“SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals,” Cindy Coe, the OSHA administrator in charge of the Southeastern U.S., said in a prepared statement. “Nonetheless, it required its employees to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals.” In its written statement, OSHA added that its probe “revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities. Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees.”
The agency proposed fines totaling $75,000 for Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks, which generated approximately $1.4 billion in revenue last year.
On the heels of OSHA’s actions, Linda Simons, SeaWorlds former Health and Safety Administrator, spoke out in reports by ABC News and the The New York Daily News with claims she was fired for assisting OSHA in their investigation, a charge SeaWorld denies, but may be faced with legal action should SeaWorld be implicated for impeding the Federal investigation:
Linda Simons is now speaking out on what she calls questionable or even dangerous safety practices at the Florida park that could result in another tragedy. Simons’ lawyer, Maurice Arcadier, said she was prevented from giving all of the documentation she wanted to OSHA for their investigation. He suggested an impartial panel be appointed to investigate separately.
“I want to make sure that it is investigated and that the safety of the team members that remain is not jeopardized,” Simons told “Good Morning America”. “I think that if they’re put into that close proximity [with the whales] it could easily happen again.”
Simons said everyone who came to work at Sea World was given what she called the “Tili talk” — a warning about the killer whale that had killed a Canadian trainer in 1991 and a man who sneaked into his holding area in 1999. “They talk to you about going into the water with Tili,” she said. “That if you go into the water with Tili you would come out as a corpse.”Simons told the Daily News she was fired for talking too much with the federal investigators who were probing the February drowning of trainer Dawn Brancheau by the killer whale Tilikum. Simons, who started work at SeaWorld in Orlando one week before the drowning, has filed a federal whistleblower complaint.
SeaWorld denies Ms Simons claims. You can be the judge as to where the misconduct lies…
“Linda Simons worked for SeaWorld for only a few weeks and was fired not for the reasons she cites, but rather for poor performance during the OSHA inspection of Dawn Brancheau’s death,” the statement read. ” During those critical weeks, Ms. Simons repeatedly demonstrated an inability to conduct herself to the acceptable standard of competence, transparency, integrity or professionalism demanded of an inspection of this magnitude.”
Another block buster revelation came in the form of an announcement that the family of Dawn Brancheau has retained the services of a law firm specializing in wrongful death suits. SeaWorld has maintained that their relationship with the Brancheau family is amicable, however this action will indeed strain that relationship…
Dan O’Connor, a partner with O’Connor & Nakos, declined to discuss whether his firm will bring a suit against SeaWorld. The law firm says on its website that it represents “injured persons and their families in matters of wrongful death and severe personal injury” and lists scores of multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements won on behalf of injured workers and other accident victims.
The violations included one that OSHA deemed “willful” — its most severe category, reserved for businesses that OSHA says demonstrate “plain indifference to or intentional disregard for” worker safety — because the agency said SeaWorld routinely exposed its trainers to the threat of attacks from killer whales without adequate safeguards in place. OSHA proposed $75,000 in fines.
OSHA was especially critical of SeaWorld for allowing trainers to work in close contact with Tilikum, who is about twice as large as any other orca at SeaWorld Orlando and who was involved in a separate drowning of a trainer at a Canadian marine park nearly 20 years ago. OSHA said the orca had “known aggressive tendencies.”
O’Connor said Scott Brancheau’s lawyers are analyzing OSHA’s materials.
“It’s not every day that OSHA issues a willful citation for plain indifference or intentional disregard for human life,” O’Connor said. “It is clear, after reviewing the willful finding, that more of the true facts will be brought out regarding the fatal attack upon Dawn.”
Adding to the mounting actions against SeaWorld, the Connell family, who witnessed the horrific attack and filmed the final moments of Dawn and Tilikum’s interaction in their now infamous recording, are seeking unspecified damages for the trauma they and their 10year old son endured. The New York Daily News reports:
Todd and Suzanne Connell, who took their son Bobby to Florida in February to celebrate his 10th birthday, say the boy looked straight into Dawn Brancheau‘s eyes as the doomed trainer briefly freed herself from the orca’s jaws.
Bobby Connell “saw the look of horror and desperation on Dawn’s face as she was swimming for her life,” the complaint reads. “He then saw Tilikum violently yank her down again to the depths of the pool.”
The boy, who became hysterical as Brancheau’s broken body was dragged around the tank, has been plagued by gruesome nightmares ever since, the family says.
The media spotlight continues to shine and expose these revelations as additional witnesses, former employees, Marine Mammal Professionals and Animal Rights Organizations speak out. The facts, as they are revealed, will continue to shed light on what goes on behind the scenes and what future actions and/or inaction may mean for the safety of trainers and the captivity of orcas. It is Orca Aware’s view that these developments WILL lead to major changes in the captive orca programs and eventually phase out that portion of the marine mammal entertainment business.
Is this the beginning of the end for the Killer Whale Shows? Tell us what you think.
SeaWorld’s ex-safety chief Linda Simons claims gross negligence led to the horrific drowning of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau by killer whale Tilikum in February. Amidst the probe into the attack, Ms Simons claims she was fired for cooperating with federal OSHA investigators, a claim that could bring obstruction charges against SeaWorld. In response, SeaWorld called Ms. Simons an extortionist, saying she threatened to go public with “false allegations” unless she got paid. Simons has filed a federal whistleblower complaint.
Simons told the Daily News she was fired for talking too much with the federal investigators who were probing the February drowning of trainer Dawn Brancheau by the killer whale Tilikum. Simons, who started work at SeaWorld in Orlando one week before the drowning, has filed a federal whistleblower complaint. She says that just two weeks before the drowning, SeaWorld held a safety drill that went so badly – staffers didn’t show up or barely paid attention – that it was scheduled to be repeated a month later. “It went so poorly that they stopped the drill and were going to have another one.”
They never did have the opportunity to have the rescheduled safety meeting as Tilikum’s attack attack on Dawn Brancheau took place on February 24, just two weeks after the failed safety meeting. The News continues with Ms Simons account:
When the 6-ton killer whale pulled Brancheau under by her ponytail on Feb. 24, the response was “very chaotic,” she said. As tourists watched in horror, Tilikum dragged Brancheau around the tank, scalping her and breaking her neck as well as drowning her. It took 30 minutes to retrieve her body. Simons claims SeaWorld withheld documents from Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators and blocked interviews with trainers that might have been critical. Brancheau, 40, broke park rules by lying on a submerged ledge in the tank with Tilikum, who had previously killed two other people by pulling them under water. Simons said the whale was considered so dangerous that new workers were routinely warned that anyone who entered his pool would “come out a corpse.” But Brancheau regularly was allowed to play with the orca as if he were “her puppy dog,” Simons said.
And SeaWorld pushes back with their claims:
Late Sunday, after Simons talked to The News, SeaWorld issued a statement saying she has been using “the threat of negative publicity to seek a sizable monetary payment from SeaWorld in exchange for her not going public with these false allegations.” SeaWorld said Simons was fired for “poor performance” during the OSHA inspection of Brancheau’s death, and that she “demonstrated an inability to conduct herself to the acceptable standard of competence, transparency, integrity or professionalism.”
The OSHA report is being delivered to SeaWorld today. SeaWorld has repeatedly claimed it has fully cooperated with investigators. Simons is flatly contradicting that. Watch her appearance on Good Morning America this morning and let us know what you think.
There has been a lot of chatter and rumor that SeaWorld is working on personal SCUBA air systems for its trainers, and is hoping that OSHA–if SeaWorld adopts this technology–will allow trainers to continue to work in the water with killer whales.
John Jett, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, weighs in on the proposed technology, arguing that it will not really do much to improve a trainer’s chances if a killer whale goes after a trainer, as Tilikum did with Dawn Brancheau.
The scuba bottle solution Sea Word is likely to propose to OSHA represents, in practical terms, nothing. In other words, this is a false solution.
First of all, there are issues with mouthpieces and hoses dangling off of trainers as these will be something for the whales to become focused on and to grab. After all, Sea World is claiming that Tilikum initially grabbed Dawn’s ponytail, which ultimately lead to her death. I’m not sure how an air hose and a ponytail differ, at least from the perspective of Sea World’s story regarding her death. Do whales differentiate ponytails from air hoses?
Secondly, let’s assume a trainer who was being thrashed by a whale was somehow able to get the mouthpiece into his/her mouth and begin breathing from the tank (an assumption I think is faulty as it would be difficult to get a mouthpiece in place while being tossed around). The bottom of the front pool represents about two atmospheres of pressure. The volume of a lung full of air taken at this depth doubles while one ascends to the surface. In the event a trainer takes a breath at the bottom (off of a tank) and is then rushed to the surface by the whale then his/her lungs expand beyond capacity and are ruptured. Whales move quickly. This scenario is a real possibility.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this approach would not have saved Keltie Byrne, Alexis Martinex, Steve Aibel or Ken Peters. Additionally, this approach would have in no way saved Dawn Brancheau from her horrific death.
What Sea World is doing is trying to create the illusion that they have fixed a problem which they have no real control over. That is, whales do what they want sometimes, without human consent, and in ways immune to man-made interventions. OSHA shouldn’t buy it.
UPDATE: Some other former SeaWorld trainers are weighing in on this issue.
Samantha Berg worked as an animal trainer at SeaWorld Orlando for 3-plus years, 1990-1993:
I think spare air or any kind of SCUBA gear that a trainer has to be wearing would likely CAUSE more problems than it prevents. It gives the whales something else to grab on to. As JJ said, what’s the difference between a dangling ponytail and an air hose?
One of the problems all marine parks deal with is how to keep things out of the mouths of the dolphins and whales. I know of at least one dolphin at SW that died from ingesting coins (zinc poisoning) that were thrown into its pool by tourists who didn’t know better (or who didn’t read the signs that specifically state not to throw things in the pool).
And let’s just say a trainer is wearing SCUBA gear, the whale grabs the gear, the trainer gets away, and the whale swallows some of the gear. So, the trainer is OK, but now the whale is in jeopardy.
So, even if the SCUBA gear or spare air provides some kind of safety for the trainer (which I don’t think it does), it puts the whales at higher risk of injury and death.
Carol Ray also worked at SeaWorld Orlando for about three years, starting in 1987. She worked in the education (tour) department before becoming a trainer and working at both the Whale & Dolphin Stadium, and Shamu Stadium:
I’m absolutely in agreement with JJ’s comments about spare air and lack of benefit to any trainer who ends up in a situation with any killer whale who is no longer under control, as per the videos we can see of prior incidents.
I’m sure SW will assert that they can desensitize the whales to the spare air that trainers would be required to wear. This is as meaningless as their previous attempts to assure us that “call backs” will be trained and ingrained so that the killer whales will come back to stage/control despite what is happening in a pool. As we can see with all of these incidents, the call backs are not succesful during real life (life-death) events, when they count, despite their ‘success’ in training sessions.
I believe the spare air solution will do nothing other than give the whales another means of potentially harming trainers, either by easy access to pull/drag or, as JJ says, by forcing the trainers to take in air which could eventually lead to bigger problems as per any SCUBA diver who is rushed to the surface. Spare air? Spare me. This is NOT a solution, and would not have prevented Dawn’s recent death or the majority of injuries that have occured as a result of the recent incidents we are aware of.
Here’s a video report on Dawn Brancheau’s death that goes back and looks at previous incidents with trainers. Watch John Sillick get crushed at about 2:35 and see if you think “spare air” would have helped him much.