Investigators from the Tampa offices of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) arrived at Sea World Orlando yesterday to investigate the death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was attacked by the largest orca (or killer whale) in captivity during a live performance.
Park visitors witnessed the tragedy from the show stadium and from underwater pool viewing areas. Brancheau, 40, had worked at the park since February 1994. She was at the edge of the pool rubbing the whale’s head at about 2:00 p.m. when the incident occurred. Witnesses say that Tilikum, a 6-ton orca, took Brancheau in his mouth and swam the length of the pool, shaking her violently.
Some park guests who were watching the show said that Tilikum and the other orcas seemed to be agitated and were not following Blancheau’s commands. Blancheau petted the whale as she told the audience that they would wait and see how the whales responded when Tilikum grabbed her.
Alarms sounded and park visitors were evacuated from all viewing areas. Orange County firefighters responded to a 911 call within 5 minutes, but Brancheau was already dead.
Yesterday’s incident was not the first time OSHA investigated Sea World’s operations, nor was it the first time Tilikum had been connected to the death of a trainer.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Tilikum, whose name means “welcome,” “greetings,” or “friend” in the Chinook language of the Pacific Northwest, pulled a trainer underwater and drowned her at Sealand Park in British Columbia in 1991.
In 1999, the dead body of 27-year-old Daniel Dukes was found in the pool with Tilikum. Authorities reported that Daniel apparently wanted to swim with the whale and entered the pool after-hours unnoticed by park security. He had bite marks and scrapes on his body.
OSHA investigated Sea World San Diego in November 2006 after a resident killer whale named Kasatka grabbed trainer Ken Peters by the leg and pulled him beneath the water twice, pinning him to the bottom of the pool. Peters survived that attack.
OSHA officials met with the marine park’s management for two days after the Peters attack before announcing that its initial report would be retracted and rewritten, according to a report by San Diego’s 10News.
The original report contained concerns by other trainers that the whales experienced too many interactions with humans and too many shows and were under a great deal of stress.
One trainer interviewed by OSHA suggested that managers “Don’t ask so much from trainers and whales,” while another trainer who had been attacked by an orca previously said that Sea World experienced aggressions from whales in the past and that the creatures aren’t “100 percent predictable,” adding that attacks weren’t a matter of “if” but “when.”
Brad Andrews, Vice President of Zoological Operations with Busch Entertainment, which owns the Sea World parks, said the trainers were mistaken.
“There are adequate precautions with the animals we work with. We have a long history of being as safe as we can with these animals,” Andrews told 10News.
However, 10News San Diego obtained a copy of the OSHA report before it was retracted. Allegedly, SeaWorld successfully argued that OSHA investigators weren’t qualified to make conclusions about marine mammals, even if they were based on the observations of the park’s senior trainers.
OSHA’s assessment was killed and SeaWorld’s operations resumed normally. After yesterday’s attack, however, the orca shows at all three SeaWorld locations have been canceled. There is no word yet when or if they will resume.
The incident has attracted the attention of marine biologists who say that SeaWorld’s captivity of whales is wrong. Other evidence suggests it is also very dangerous.
“It’s just inappropriate to catch these large animals that are free swimming over a huge range and put them into a little tank,” marine biologist Ken Balcomb told 10News after the SeaWorld San Diego attack.
Balcomb, who runs the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbour, Washington, said that whales swim about 75 miles per day and that Sea World’s tanks are like keeping the whales in a bath tub for life. The confinement creates mental suffering and physical strain on the animals.
Balcomb told 10News that whales could live 80 years or so in the wild, but SeaWorld maintains its resident whales are healthy, despite what other records indicate.
During a SeaWorld San Diego show in 1987, a 20-year-old male orca named Orky grabbed and crushed veteran trainer John Allen Sillick. The whale died a year after the incident from “acute pneumonia and chronic wasting,” according to court records. The whale also suffered from a limited ability to jump and failing eyesight.
According to 10News, the Peters incident prompted a lawsuit because the park did not inform the trainer of the whale’s problems. SeaWorld’s attorneys had the courtroom cleared during the trial whenever Orky’s health, medications, and physical limitations were discussed. They then “managed to convince the judge to seal those parts of the records from public view, forever,” 10News said.
Yesterday’s attack, however, may help cast light on SeaWorld’s adorable but artificial façade of human-whale interactions. SeaWorld’s inspirational family-oriented show “Believe,” the very show Blancheau was leading when she was killed, may be entertaining on the surface, but it is fraught with deadly risks for trainers and tragic, inhumane treatment for intelligent animals.
As of Thursday morning, Sea World made no mention of the incident on its website.