SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is preparing to put trainers back in the water with its killer whales for the first time since a trainer was battered and drowned by the company's largest orca one year ago today.
SeaWorld told the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday that trainers in its three U.S. marine parks will begin limited "water work" withwhales within the next few months, with the interactions initially restricted to small medical pools equipped with false-bottom floors that can be lifted out of the water.
The company said it also will spend tens of millions of dollars in coming months on safety upgrades at its killer-whale facilities in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio — from custom-designed, fast-rising pool floors in its larger show venues to underwater vehicles that could be used to distract an out-of-control killer whale with pulsing lights and whale vocalizations.
Company officials said they intend to proceed slowly and have not decided when — or even if— trainers might once again go back into the water with killer whales during public shows. SeaWorld trainers have not been permitted in the water with the whales since veteran SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a 6-ton orca named Tilikum on Feb. 24, 2010.
"We've never been in a situation where we've been out of the water a year with our whales. I would like to be able to tell you that I think our whales are going to be very comfortable doing this," Chuck Tompkins, corporate curator of zoological operations for SeaWorld Parks, said Wednesday. "But that's the reason we're taking our time. We're taking nothing for granted."
SeaWorld must strike a delicate balance as it moves forward. The company is battling federal regulators who have accused it of recklessly placing trainers in danger, and it faces a potential wrongful-death lawsuit from Brancheau's widowed husband. But it also wants to eventually resume the iconic, in-water performances that have helped build SeaWorld Parks into a $1.2 billion-a-year theme-park giant and are also, officials say, an important part of building relationships between whales and trainers.
"We do feel that that's the best way to not only showcase those animals but to care for the animals, as well," said Julie Scardina, also a corporate curator of zoological operations for SeaWorld Parks. "It's something that we've been successful doing throughout our history. We know it inspires people, and we know that it allows us the best access to the whales, as well."
Preparations to return to water work are already well under way. Trainers, for instance, have in recent weeks been going through seminars on topics such as whale aggression.
The killer whales themselves, meanwhile, are gradually being re-trained through a process SeaWorld calls "water desensitization training." The whales are taught to swim around the perimeters of their pools while ignoring progressively greater distractions — from unusual objects to noises being made in a neighboring tank.
That training will soon progress to desensitizing the animals to the presence of a trainer in the water. Tompkins said that will happen "within the next couple of months," though only in the medical pools.
"Water 'desense' is a very methodical process," Tompkins said. "You don't immediately jump in the water and go, 'What are you going to do with me?' You literally go to the other side of the pool and you put your foot in the water and you make sure the whale doesn't pay attention to the fact that there's a foot in the water."
SeaWorld said it has not decided when training might progress beyond the medical pools. The company says its timetable is not dependent on its ongoing legal battle with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration; hearings before an administrative law judge are scheduled to begin April 25.
SeaWorld said it eventually plans to put all of its killer whales through the desensitization training save one — Tilikum, the large whale that killed Brancheau. The adult male is considered especially dangerous because he has been involved in three deaths over 20 years and is by far the biggest orca in SeaWorld's collection.
Tilikum, whom Tompkins said had been put through "some very basic sessions of water desense" before Brancheau's death, will undergo some further limited work. But trainers will not get into the water with him at all, even in the medical pool.
Trainers have, however, begun working with Tilikum on behaviors to be used in a new killer-whale show that will debut in SeaWorld's marine parks this spring. That show, at least for the foreseeable future, will be conducted entirely by trainers working from the stage. SeaWorld has kept Tilikum out of performances since Brancheau's death.
Even as it moves forward with water work, SeaWorld said it is in the midst of making sweeping safety improvements at its orca complexes. The most ambitious project: Rising pool floors that can lift killer whales out of the water in perhaps less than a minute's time.
SeaWorld said it has designed the new floors in conjunction withOceaneering International Inc., a Houston-based deep-sea engineering company that works primarily with offshore oil- and gas-drilling companies. The floors are designed to rise much faster than the cabled lift stations in SeaWorld's medical pools, which take approximately 60 seconds to rise from 8-foot-deep water.
"Upon initiation, it would immediately release and rise to the surface, lifting multiple killer whales, and then obviously could support multiple individuals," said John Linn, SeaWorld Parks' senior director of engineering services.
Linn said the first floor will be installed by June in the 28-foot-deep "Dine with Shamu" pool in Orlando — the same pool that Brancheau was in when she was killed. Once SeaWorld has tested the mechanism and ironed out any kinks, it intends to install similar floors in all of the company's orca pools, including the largest performance pools, which are nearly 40 foot deep.
Although SeaWorld would not discuss specific costs, it said it expects to spend "tens of millions" of dollars installing the floors — putting the project's price tag at least on par with, and potentially more expensive than, a major new theme-park ride.
SeaWorld said it has also worked with Oceaneering to develop what is essentially a remote-controlled underwater vehicle that could be deployed to distract a whale in an emergency. The device, which SeaWorld will begin testing in about a month, will be able to swim patterns, float to the surface, flash with a strobe light, vibrate and emit sounds, including, potentially, whale vocalizations.
In addition, SeaWorld said it intends to eventually outfit its trainers with emergency air supplies, initially designed for the U.S. military, that will feature automated breathing regulators and provide two-to-five minutes of air for a trainer trapped under water. And the company says designers are researching rapidly expanding mechanisms that trainers could use in an attempt to quickly pry open a whale's jaws in an emergency.
SeaWorld said it has also overhauled oversight of its animal-training department by assigning both Tompkins and Scardina to focus solely on training in its 10 theme parks and water parks. The company eliminated a similar corporate-level training position several years ago, opting instead to fold responsibility for animal training in with the rest of its zoological disciplines.
Those changes are on top of other safety improvements SeaWorld has made in recent months, including installing removable guardrails around stage ledges and "net boxes" that can more more quickly deploy in an emergency.