SeaWorld's three theme parks are slowly working to get trainers back in the water with killer whales, one year after a 6-ton orca dragged a trainer off a platform by her hair and drowned her.
There is no timetable for getting trainers back to "water work," and it may not happen at all, said Chuck Tompkins, curator of zoological operations for the SeaWorld parks. But the first new whale show in five years, which debuts in April, is being planned to incorporate the interaction and play in the water that had become a staple of the iconic Shamu shows at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment attractions in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.
And SeaWorld is spending tens of millions of dollars on new safety equipment, including rising pool floors that can quickly lift people and whales from the water, underwater vehicles to distract the animals in emergencies and portable oxygen bottles for trainers. The exhibitions have continued since Dawn Brancheau's death on Feb. 24, 2010, with whales responding to commands, jumping in unison and splashing the giggling families in the front rows. However, the trainers remain on the pool deck, occasionally stroking the sleek black-and-white orcas that flop onto the platform.
For now, the orcas have to get used to having humans in the water again, Tompkins said. For instance, the animals are being retrained to swim the perimeter of the pools and ignore increasingly loud distractions created by trainers.
"We want to make sure we go slowly enough that we don't miss any steps," Tompkins said recently. "To assume a killer whale is going to respond the same way they did a year ago, I think we're comfortable saying that the majority of our water-work animals probably would, but we're not going to take that for granted. We're going to make sure every whale goes through a very basic program of understanding what to do. It's going back and learning fundamentals again."
Plans to get trainers back in the water will progress despite findings by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration last summer that accused SeaWorld of recklessly putting trainers in danger by allowing them "to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals." The company is fighting OSHA's citations and $75,000 fine, and it contends the parks had a good safety record over more than four decades of killer whale shows, Tompkins said.