SeaWorld Looks at Putting Trainers Back in Water with Killer Whales

milan.boers, flickr

SeaWorld is exploring putting trainers back in the water with killer whales in its new show "One Ocean" at its parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, despite earlier statements to the contrary.

After trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged into the water and killed by a six-ton orca named Tilikum shortly after a "Dining with Shamu" event one year ago in Orlando, SeaWorld took its trainers out of the water.

Now, for its first new whale show in five years that debuts in April in Orlando, SeaWorld may bring back the interaction and play in the water stunts that had become a staple of the popular Shamu shows, reports Associated Press.

Chuck Tompkins, curator of zoological operations for the SeaWorld parks, says there is no timetable for getting trainers back to "water work" and it still might not happen at all.

But SeaWorld has invested 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.

Since the accident, trainers have remained on the pool deck during exhibitions, putting the orcas through their paces without getting into the pools with them. Now, the orcas are being trained to get used to humans in the water again, the news source reports.

"We want to make sure we go slowly enough that we don't miss any steps," Tompkins said. "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."

Trainers, for their part, seem eager to get back in the water with the whales, despite being devastated by Brancheau's death.

"We were in the water a lot, and that is a big change for us. It was the closest you could get to an animal, it was a great way to display them, and it's also a very safe way to interact with them," said Kelly Flaherty Clark, director of animal training at the Orlando park.

Last summer, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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." It fined the company $75,000 fine, which it is fighting.

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