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Court Could Take Trainers Out Of Marine Park Waters


A case in a Florida court could fundamentally change the way Sea World and other marine parks operate. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, cited Sea World last year for safety violations after a trainer was drowned by one of the killer whales.

If the judge rules in favor of OSHA, trainers at Sea World and other parks like it may no longer be able come into direct contact with whales unless there's a barrier between them. That means no more water shows with trainers riding whales or leaping into the pools with them.

Tim Zimmermann has been covering that trial for Outside magazine and he joins me now. Tim, welcome.


RAZ: First some background, this stems from a horrific accident in 2010. It killed the trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Remind us what happened.

ZIMMERMAN: Dawn Brancheau was one of Sea World's most experienced trainers. She was working with Sea World's largest killer whale, Tillikum, in February of 2010. While she was lying down next to him, according to Sea World, he grabbed her hair, pulled her into the pool and brutally killed her. And that led to an investigation by OSHA, as well as investigations by many journalists into what goes on in killer whale shows at marine parks.

RAZ: This was not the first time that that whale, Tillikum, was involved human death, right?

ZIMMERMAN: That's what caught my attention and that's what caught the attention of OSHA is that Tillikum, over the course of his lifetime in marine parks, was involved in the death of two other human beings. One was a trainer at the first marine park he was at, Sealand in 1991, who slipped and fell in the pool and was killed by Tillikum and two other whales.

And then, in 1999, after Tillikum had moved to Sea World, a park guest stayed after dark and for some reason put on his him swim trunks and jumped in the pool with Tillikum, seemingly wanting to swim with the killer whale. And the next morning he was found dead in Tillikum's pool.

RAZ: After Dawn Brancheau was killed, OSHA basically cited Sea World for safety violations, telling it to end direct human-to-whale contact, is that right?

ZIMMERMAN: That's right. After Dawn's death, OSHA investigated extensively how Sea World works with killer whales. And they issued what was called a willful citation saying that swimming with killer whales and working as closely as Sea World did with them is a risk to trainers and that Sea World had been indifferent to those risks when it put employees in close contact with the whales. And they recommended a series of safety improvements that Sea World should make which would fundamentally change the nature of Sea World shows.

RAZ: Sea World obviously said - forget it, no way. If the court rules in OSHA's favor, what could it mean for all of these marine mammal parks all over the country?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, Sea World - there are, I think, of 42 killer whales in captivity all around the world, Sea World owns 25 of them. So, Sea World is really the prime marine park. If OSHA wins this case, Sea World will have some chances to appeal it further. But if, in the end, OSHA prevails, then Sea World will be in a position where they will have to likely stay out of the water with killer whales because if anything ever happened again, you can imagine the liability. And they will also have to step back from the whales when they're not in the water and keep barriers between them. And that will change the relationship that they have with the whales, there's no doubt about it. Sea World has attracted trainers and attracted sort of the imaginations of people by basically hugging whales, swimming with whales, being very close. And so the essential image that people have of killer whales and Sea World whales will change, and that will affect their business for sure.

RAZ: In the course of your reporting, you have met former trainers, some of whom have said this is very dangerous work and expressed anxiety about doing that kind of work.

ZIMMERMAN: That's right. I mean, it's been very interesting to talk to trainers. Well, they express two things. One is the absolute thrill of diving 20 feet down into a pool and having a 6,000 to 10,000-pound animal come up underneath you and launch you into the air. So, that's the adrenaline, that's the appeal. At the same time, they understand that killer whales can injure you, and many of them suffer injuries that they don't even necessarily report because they don't want to be benched. So, it is controversial, even within the trainer ranks, the degree to which, you know, there are risks. And some trainers, they are after the thrill and they'll work with the killer whales regardless, and others are much more cautious.

RAZ: They have suspended these shows since the death of Dawn Brancheau. They have not been doing these water work shows since then, right?

ZIMMERMAN: Yes. Well, they've had shows. They have a new show called One Ocean. But what they do in the show is they no longer swim with the whales. So, the trainers are out on stage, they are with the whales when the whales slide out of the water onto the stage, but they are not jumping off the whales' noses, they're not riding the whales, they're not doing all the classic tricks that Sea World used to do to thrill the audiences.

RAZ: Tim Zimmerman is a correspondent for Outside magazine. He's been covering a court case that could change the way Sea World and other marine mammal parks operate. Tim, thank you.

ZIMMERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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