Killer Whales and Kindness

*After reading articles in the Orlando Sentinel over the last few days regarding the Sea World vs. OSHA trial, I decided this post, recycled from last year, was once again relevant and appropriate.  In a citation issued by OSHA after a six-month investigation, the agency has recommended that trainers never again have close contact with Sea World’s killer whales without a physical barrier or an equivalent level of protection. Sea World is challenging the finding.  Original publication date: April 27, 2010.



Sunday the Kiddo and I escaped to Sea World for one of our Mommy & Son bonding days full of sharks, sandboxes, and, of course, Shamu. We have had annual passes since the Kiddo was not even two, and although we cannot go nearly as much as we used to due to school schedules, we cherish these days of fun and learning.

Our local news has been in an uproar over the death of  killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau last month  (February 2010) at Sea World.  Brancheau, an experienced trainer, was dragged underwater by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound orca with a “questionable” past.  The press has been playing a vicious blame game with Sea World, accusing them of unsafe working conditions, animal maltreatment and exploitation. Now OSHA and PETA are also going after them, and even Capitol Hill is supposedly holding a hearing Tuesday to determine if marine mammals should be held in captivity.

Amidst all this unnecessary brouhaha, I made it a priority to see Believe, the current orca show which highlights not only the majesty of these animals but their integral relationships with their trainers. I have seen the show dozens of times over its 4-year run, and it is always different. Some days the whales were ON, seemingly feeding off the audience’s energy, amazing me with their synchronized jump, flips, and splashes. Other days they seemed distracted or perhaps a bit lazy, showing off only a few behaviors, yet still delighting the crowds of first-time watchers. I love it, no matter what they do. Just to be in their proximity is enough. I secretly yearn to be one of the lucky trainers in the water with these awe-inspiring creatures, communicating with them, stroking their shiny skin, feeling their power, their intelligence, their affection.

Sea World trainers during the Believe show May 2009
(before the current “no interaction” policy).

The changes in the show we witnessed Sunday were drastic. The trainers were no longer allowed in the water with the orcas (which was the main component of the show) and they had to stay several feet back from the water even when feeding them. The “show” element did not disturb me however, our entertainment was not the priority, but the lack of physical attention these animals were now receiving saddened me. They are used to getting rub downs, hugs, tongue scratches and genuine affection from their trainers and now it was being forcefully withheld from them. I always believed that the attention, affection, and positive rewards that they received was one of the main reasons they tolerated captivity.

Later that day, we walked around to the rear of Shamu Stadium to the underwater viewing tank. Some days we are lucky and one or more of the whales would be swimming around in the rear tank and we would see them only a few feet away from us. I saw a glimpse of black passing by so the Kiddo and I ran down for a closer look. Kiddo was up right against the glass when the whale swam by and bumped the glass.

Now, when a creature weighing several tons “bumps” anything, it is a bit forceful and quite a surprise. Everyone crowded around the window jumped back a little and gave an amazed laugh. The whale came back again, and bumped a bit harder. When it circled back the next time, it paused directly in front of Kiddo and opened it’s mouth wide before moving on. Even though there was a thick glass, I clamped onto him and gave a very nervous laugh. A visitor behind us asked Kiddo if the whale had any cavities, because he sure saw ALL her teeth. We stayed there for one more loop of the tank and window bump before I decided I had enough. This was not normal behavior. It seemed aggressive, and thought we were perfectly safe, I was uncomfortable.

We started to leave when I spotted the employee usually stationed at the viewing area to educate guests and answer questions. I casually asked, “What’s up with the glass bumping? I’ve been here dozens of times and never seen that.” She gave a very nervous laugh, pasted a fake smile on her face, and said she had never seen it either. She had just called the behavior in to the trainers. Maybe the whale had a toothache and was trying to get someone’s attention. She was obviously trying to communicate something, but what?

I left feeling very sorry for these orcas and the people that love them.

Not because these whales and other animals live here in captivity. I firmly believe that Sea World does an outstanding job of caring for their animals and educating the masses about the wonders of these creatures. No, their lives are not the same as if they were in the wild. Many of the animals in the park have been rescued from certain death in the wild, and if possible they are rehabilitated and released.

Each person that has the opportunity to see one of these magnificent animals (which they would never have the chance to see in the wild) leaves with a better understanding, a greater appreciation, and a heart more willing to help protect them and the conserve their environment. There is just no comparison between watching a nature show on t.v. versus actually seeing a dolphin, making eye contact, watching it frolic and play (sometimes with real toys) to gain an understanding and respect for these amazing mammals. The few kept in captivity are essentially ambassadors for their species.

OSHA and the press need to chill on their witch hunt as well. They are treating the trainers as if they are children who don’t know they are playing with fire and that fire can burn. No one becomes a killer whale trainer without knowing the inherent dangers of the job. It is not a career one chooses because they are tired of flipping burgers. It is a passion, a lifestyle, chosen by compassionate and intelligent individuals whose love for these animals overshadows the risks involved. The bond between the animals and their trainers has now been stretched, and all parties are suffering.

Perhaps that is what she was trying to tell us…with all of the bureaucratic bumbling, please show us some kindness and don’t forget what we need…



8 thoughts on “Killer Whales and Kindness

  1. Caitlin MidAtlantic

    Agreed. You don't take a job working with KILLER whales without realizing that you are taking certain risks. Imagine if fire fighters were required by OSHA to stay several feet back from a blazing building because, OMG they are at risk. Imagine if OSHA said preschool teachers weren't allowed to interact with the children, because OMG sometimes children flail or bite?
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  2. catherine

    I completely agree. The animals obviously thrive when they are cared for and touched by the trainers. It is amazing the freedoms that are being taken away from our society in the interest of 'protecting us.' I am sure these trainers know full well the dangers they are facing but pursue their careers in spite of the potential risks. Well written and glad you said it!

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  3. Anne

    Just sad all around. I do believe that killer whale was trying to communicate and with your son. My son always has dolphins and snakes and other zoo animals come up to him with interest. Maybe your son put his hand to the tank. I do believe that these creatures want contact and thrive on it. That whale was aware and cognizant of your son being there.


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