Good news for one kind of dolphin lover is bad news for another. Take the way SeaWorld is bouncing back from a rough year last year with an all-new killer whale show that premiered on Friday, April 22 —Earth Day, 2011.
If you’re the kind of dolphin lover who sees nothing wrong with keeping dolphins and whales in tanks and thinks getting close to them, swimming with them and watching them perform in captivity is cool, you’ll probably be pleased to learn that SeaWorld seems to be doing so well.
If, on the other hand, you think dolphins and whales belong in the ocean and not in tanks, consider captivity cruel and degrading, and would like to see marine parks, aquarium displays and swim programs shut down, you won’t be happy about how well SeaWorld is doing, but you may find the news enlightening in a disheartening kind of way….
Thought captivity might be on its way out after what happened last year at SeaWorld Orlando? Think again.
For more than 45 years, ever since the first SeaWorld park opened in San Diego in 1964, SeaWorld has ranked right up there with Disney as a beloved American institution and provider of wholesome family fun.
For almost as long, marine-mammal advocates and anti-captivity activists have tried to get people to focus on some of the less wholesome aspects of this popular and lucrative form of entertainment. Like:
• The brutality of wild captures, which is how SeaWorld once aquired all its killer whales — first from the Pacific Northwest, then from Iceland — and which are now banned in so many places that SeaWorld has no choice but to focus on captive breeding.
• How many killer whales have died in captivity over the years and how young all but a very few are when they die….
• What a sterile, stressful, unnatural existence captivity imposes on these highly intelligent, sensitive, family-oriented, deep-diving, far-swimming creatures….
• How often killer whales have injured or killed humans in captivity, whereas, except for one hard-to-track story of a California surfer being bitten in the 1970’s, no killer whale has ever harmed a human in the wild.
Didn’t matter. Didn’t make a dent. Families visited SeaWorld, they went to see the Shamu show….
They watched trainers and captive killer whales (orcas) doing all sorts of amazing things in the water together, and they saw happiness and fun.
SeaWorld said everyone was happy and having fun. People believed.
The illusion was shattered in the most horrific possible way on February 24 2010, when a 30-year-old killer whale named Tilikum — captured off Iceland in 1983 at around age two and now the biggest orca in captivity — grabbed, rammed, thrashed and killed 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando during a “Dine with Shamu” demonstration between performances of SeaWorld’s long-running “Believe” killer-whale show.
Few people know that a 15-year-old killer whale named Keto, born at SeaWorld Orlando and later sold with three other captive-borns to a marine park in the Canary Islands, had killed 29-year-old trainer Alexis Martinez there on Christmas Eve two months before.
That incident didn’t make much news in the United States.
Tilikum’s attack on Dawn Brancheau made huge news. To watch some of the coverage, click the images below.
The ongoing coverage also revealed a noticeable increase in anti-captivity sentiment among media commentators in the years since Keiko, the orca star of “Free Willy,” captured people’s hearts and made them care a little about captive orcas during his eight-year sojourn from a substandard tank in Mexico City, to a specially built rehabilitation tank in Oregon, to a sea pen in Iceland, to release back into his home waters, to voluntary association with the residents of a coastal village in Norway until his death in December 2003.
SeaWorld got nothing but praise from the people involved in the “Free Willy-Keiko” effort — for helping out a little with Keiko’s care, and for operating parks so vastly superior to the one Keiko came from that, as the film’s director Simon Wincer said at the time, you couldn’t compare them.
You could, actually, but no one did. The Project needed all the help it could get.
This time for the first time, SeaWorld was coming under attack —SeaWorld! — especially when it emerged that Tilikum had been involved in two earlier deaths: one before he got to SeaWorld, and one after.
SeaWorld had kept Tilikum anyway — though it never let trainers get in the water with him — because he’s so good at making captive orca babies: some 18 to date, at least two through artificial insemination, most still living, including a little female named Sakari born at SeaWorld San Antonio on January 7, 2010.
SeaWorld scrambled to contain the damage from the attack. Tilikum was immediately banished to a back pool….
The “Dine with Shamu” program was cancelled at all three SeaWorld parks (Orlando, San Diego, San Antonio), and trainers were banned from getting in the water with any killer whales until further notice. SeaWorld said it would conduct an internal investigation that could take months, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began its own investigation SeaWorld Orlando’s worker-safety conditions, and the talk on TV talk shows was all about why Tilikum did it: Was he angry? About what? Living in a tank? Maybe killer whales, at least, didn’t really belong in captivity at all.
Click the images below to watch two of many TV debates that took place at the time between SeaWorld associate and defender Jack Hanna, of “Into the Wild,” and various long-term and newly-minted opponents of keeping dolphins and whales in tanks.
Opponents and proponents of captive-display watched and wondered: How much was this going to hurt SeaWorld? Enough to turn the public against captive killer whale shows for good?
If SeaWorld fell, the entire captive killer whale business could fall with it. Not the dolphin or beluga businesses — there are too many other places people can go to see these animals. But SeaWorld holds 19 of the 21 orcas in captivity in the U.S. and has bred and sold or been instrumental in the conception of at least six others in Canada, the Canary Islands and Antibes, France.
It’s not simple or inexpensive to breed, keep, house, feed, train, transport and care for these huge, highly sensitive and intelligent creatures. You can imagine how much money must be in it for SeaWorld to make the endeavor worthwhile — and how much it had riding on getting past the Tilikum debacle asap and keeping the public willing and eager to come see captive killer whale shows.
Pro- and anti-captivity partisans monitored each new development: Good for SeaWorld? Bad for SeaWorld? The televised press conference SeaWorld President and CEO Jim Atchison held two days after Tilikum’s attack was definitely the latter.
Atchison didn’t want to be there, that was clear. He didn’t expect the reporters present to act like reporters, either. Until Tilikum’s attack, the media had mostly been fine with taking the press releases and videos SeaWorld sent out when it wanted to promote something and running or printing them as is, no questions asked.
This time, for the first time, reporters were asking real questions and coming back at Atchison instead of sitting down and shutting up when he refused to answer them: What have you learned so far about how the attack happened? You say SeaWorld’s shows are educational. What does watching killer whales do tricks in tanks teach people about these animals, really? Atchison was not a happy camper. It was all he could do not to storm off. As CNN host Ali Velshi commented during a break in live coverage, “That was remarkably defensive. I don’t think he made SeaWorld any friends.”
The cobbled together version of SeaWorld’s “Believe” killer whale show that resumed the day after the press conference, following a brief video tribute to Dawn Brancheau, didn’t help SeaWorld’s cause of getting past the incident, either.
No trainers cavorting in the water with orcas anymore? Bummer. Boring. Big disappointment. And why were paying customers now being asked to settle for so much less than what they wanted to see? Everyone knew why. Killer whale shows lost their luster. Attendance slipped.
When a congressional subcommittee next made so bold as to schedule a late April hearing to assess if captive display facilities genuinely educate people about dolphins and whales, as they’re required to do to keep their permits, or just fill people’s heads with pro-captivity propaganda, concerned parties on both sides of the issue took note….
What’s this? Big, powerful, moneyed, connected, the industry in general and SeaWorld in particular are accustomed to bending public agencies to their will. As marine mammal advocate and Humane Society International senior scientist Naomi Rose said at the time, hearings involving the industry didn’t happen unless the industry requested or approved them. It hadn’t requested this one — didn’t want this one. And the hearing was happening anyway? Whoa.
Click the image below to watch HSI Senior Scientist Naomi Rose and other researchers and advocates testify about what’s seriously wrong with what captive facilities do and don’t tell people about dolphins and whales and/or to watch members of the industry defend what they do. You can watch and listen to the entire hearing or go right to the testimonies you most want to hear.
Who knows how much more pressure and scrutiny SeaWorld might have come under and what might happened as a result if Tilikum’s attack had remained major news for a while longer. But then the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, the media and public turned all attention to the Gulf, captivity came to seem a ridiculously trivial matter in comparison, SeaWorld began running commercials reminding people that it does some rescue and release work, too (manatees, birds, turtles), and that was that. SeaWorld was basically off the hook.
Positioning yourself as an environmental good guy doesn’t necessary bring paying visitors back to the park, though. With the school year ending and summer family vacation season approaching, Seaworld Orlando had to find a way to do that, too.
Two of its female killer whales were pregnant by Tilikum at the time. The park had known that for a while but had kept the news quiet, as marine parks usually do, in case something went wrong with the pregnancies before the babies arrived.
As a rule, captive facilities don’t bother identifying who a baby’s dad is, either, because it’s nobody business and nobody cares. Babies! That’s all people care about! But SeaWorld Orlando needed to do something to make people want to come see killer whales again, and it needed to do something to soften the image of the now notorious killer whale it still planned to keep. So it tossed out the rulebook and made the announcement on May 17: Orca babies coming soon! Two of them! And Tilikum’s the dad!
The tactic backfired less than three weeks later when one of the two pregnant females died giving birth on June 4 and her full-term calf died with her. (Orcas are pregnant for about 17 months.) But the mainstream media was rightly too preoccupied with the Gulf spill by then, and the deaths didn’t get much coverage. They got some, but not much….
Not enough for the average Shamu fan to get any real sense of the young adult female who had died as an individual animal: 20-year-old Taima, one of Tilikum’s close consorts, mother of two sons and a daughter, not a great mom to her boys — an intelligent, complex, unique killer whale with her own personality and life story….
…. and not just another indistinguishable, interchangeable, generic, replaceable Shamu.
It surfaced a while later that SeaWorld Orlando completed its internal investigation of Tilikum’s attack some time in July. Nobody outside SeaWorld really knows what that report found. A privately held company, SeaWorld reveals nothing it doesn’t have to.
OSHA’s ongoing investigation was more worrisome to the company. The last time SeaWorld had tangled with OSHA in any highly public way was when another killer whale named Kasatka, captured off Iceland like Tilikum, attacked and injured but didn’t kill a trainer named Ken Peters at SeaWorld San Diego on November 29, 2006.
To watch a CBS News report on the attack, click the image below:
In his original report on the attack, a California OSHA investigator wrote that it was “only a matter of time” before a captive orca did kill a trainer and that SeaWorld should be ready to kill an orca if necessary to save a trainer’s life. SeaWorld didn’t like that at all, got the message across to the right people, and the offending passage was promptly removed — with Cal/OSHA’s apology for “the difficulties” it may have caused “SeaWorld, its staff, and its patrons.”
SeaWorld tried to head off a full-blown OSHA report after Tillikum’s attack by its signaling willingness to work out a negotiated settlement that wouldn’t involve official citations and fines. But, this time — fired up, perhaps, by the recent change in administrations or the all the media attention the attack had received — OSHA stood firm.
As the August deadline for completing the report approached, U.S. Congressman and SeaWorld supporter Alan Grayson (D-Orlando) made a friendly call to OSHA to find out where things stood. Grayson took heat for meddling, but if he was trying to get OSHA to back off, it didn’t work.
On August 23, OSHA released its findings. The agency cited and fined SeaWorld Orlando $5,000 for the “serious” safety violation of not having handrails on two staircase bridges flanking the Shamu stage. It imposed a second, $70,000 fine for the two-part “willful” violation of (1) letting trainers get anywhere near Tilikum, even at tank side, without a protective barrier between them….
…. and (2) letting trainers work in the water and on water-covered tank ledges called slide outs with other killer whales without any real system in place to prevent trainers from being injured or killed.
Until SeaWorld fixed these “willful” violations, OSHA concluded, it would be better if trainers should kept their distance from all killer whales. Not just Tilikum….
All of them.
The fines are pocket change to a family of parks that took in an estimated $1.2 billion in revenues in 2010 and called it a bad year. The “willful” citation is the problem. “Willful” left SeaWorld open to a massive wrongful death suit by Dawn Brancheau’s husband Scott, who hired a law firm the next day, and other killer whale trainers who’ve been injured on the job.
And OSHA’s admonishment that all trainers should keep their distance from all orcas until SeaWorld cleans up its act strikes at the heart of how SeaWorld makes its money. They don’t come just to see captive orcas perform, beautiful and thrilling as these animals are. No. People come to see trainers perform with and on killer whales….
… as if they were giant puppy dogs or personal pets.
Seaworld released a statement the same day OSHA released its report, calling the agency’s findings unfounded and vowing to contest them. “OSHA’s allegations… reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care,” the statement read in part….
Which sounds very much like what a SeaWorld VP said back when the killer whale Kasatka attacked trainer Ken Peters at SeaWorld San Diego in November 2006 and that Cal/OSHA investigator dared to opine that it was “only a matter of time” before a trainer got killed. “We are the experts on whale behavior,” this SeaWorld exec told a Los Angeles Times reporter. “We know it is safe here…. They are gentle, social animals.”
To watch a good TV news segment on OSHA’s report and SeaWorld’s response to it, click the image below.
SeaWorld requested a formal hearing, as it was entitled to do. The request was granted, and the hearing was eventually scheduled to take place in Orlando on April 25. Around mid-February, word began circulating that SeaWorld was asking a judge to sign an order banning the press and public from attending the hearing and keeping everything revealed about how SeaWorld runs its business under wraps.
Advocates and activists rallied: Sign the petition! Don’t let SeaWorld hide behind closed doors! As HSI scientist Naomi Rose told Change.org, “Most people get their education about marine mammals from marine facilities like SeaWorld,” so it’s “only proper” that they be allowed to learn something about their educators, too.
It looks now, though, as if the buzz about pushing for a closed-door hearing was incorrect or incomplete and SeaWorld Orlando was really pushing or also pushing to get the hearing postponed for as long as possible while it presses ahead with efforts to weaken OSHA’s case against it and win back audiences and public trust.
The postponement was granted in mid April, and the hearing won’t happen now until September 19 — five months later, after summer family vacation season is over and kids are back in school.
Is this significant? Should marine-mammal advocates and anti-captivity partisans be concerned? Yes. The postponement seems to have taken them by surprise, for one thing, suggesting that SeaWorld is back to its old ways of influencing people in high places.
And the longer the hearing is postponed, the more time SeaWorld has to develop and install new safety systems — or at least say it’s doing it — launch new shows and positive publicity campaigns, and just generally get the public, media and government agencies to forget the whole sorry incident involving Dawn Brancheau and any other unpleasant events that did or might follow (more on that below) and relax back into loving SeaWorld again.
Heck, SeaWorld’s almost there already. A partial timeline of events since OSHA released its report on August 23:
• Sept 7: Three months after Taima dies giving birth to a full-term calf at SeaWorld Orlando, her firstborn son Sumar, one of Tilikum’s many offspring, dies suddenly at SeaWorld San Diego at the tender age of 12. A SeaWorld San Diego spokeperson says all the right things about how shocked and saddened everyone is, how much everyone loved and will miss Sumar and how officials of course plan to do a necropsy to determine the cause of death. And then the media forgets about it and everybody moves on.
Read more here, here and here. Click here or click the image below to see footage of Sumar’s body being lifted from a partially drained tank while another orca identified in some stories as Sumar’s older female friend and protector Corky looks on.
Corky, by the way, is one of only two of the estimated 44 killer whales captured in the Pacific Northwest before those captures were banned who are still alive. The other is Lolita, who lives with no killer whale companions in a substandard tank at the Miami Seaquarium.
Both females are in their 40’s now. No other captive killer whale has lived anywhere near as long.
• Sept 11: Ex-killer whale trainers who’ve left SeaWorld’s employ criticize SeaWorld’s idea of tucking mini oxygen bottles into trainers’ wetsuits to give them spare air to breathe if an ornery orca pins them underwater. Forget it, these ex-trainers say. It won’t work for all kinds of reasons. SeaWorld’s just looking for fast fixes to get trainers back in the pool. SeaWorld says it’s simply exploring options and has already installed low, removable guardrails around the Shamu show pool to prevent orcas from grabbing trainers when they get close to each other at the edge of the tank. Read more here , here and here.
• Sept 17: Ex-SeaWorld Orlando health and safety director Linda Simons files suit claiming her bosses asked her to obstruct OSHA’s investigation, fired her when she refused, offered her money to shut up about it and accused her of demanding money to keep quiet after she talked to the press. SeaWorld says Simons was fired for incompetence. The two sides are trying to settle out of court. Read more here, here, here and here.
• Oct 4: Less than a month after Sumar dies at SeaWorld San Diego, another captive orca dies suddenly at SeaWorld Orlando, bringing SeaWorld’s total to four deaths in four months: a mother and her full-term calf, a young adult female and, now, another young adult female. This time it’s 25-year-old Kalina, the original Baby Shamu, the first orca born in captivity to survive.
Kalina and her mother, Katina, 34, have shared a tank in Orlando ever since Kalina returned from a tour of SeaWorld Parks (“Come see Baby Shamu!”) in 1994. Katina, captured off Iceland like Tilikum and Kasatka, is SeaWorld’s champion female breeder. She is the second of the two females SeaWorld Orlando announced were expecting Tilikum’s babies. She is hugely pregnant and about to give birth for the seventh time when her firstborn, Kalina, dies. Read more here and here.
Oct 9: Katina gives birth to a healthy, 350-pound male calf at SeaWorld Orlando, breaking SeaWorld’s string of bad fortune — killing, death, death, death, death — and giving the park something to crow about, which it immediately does.
SeaWorld Orlando releases a video of mother and infant during and immediately following the birth that shows Katina for the tender, wise, caring, experienced, patient mother she is.
To watch the video of Katina giving birth and bonding with her new infant, click the image below:
The video also features SeaWorld Orlando Director of Animal Training Kelly Flaherty Clark stationed in front of the tank’s underwater viewing window, sharing her feelings about the birth and saying that staffers are all going to just leave Katina and her new baby alone for a while and “stay out of her world” until she invites them in.
Touching. But clarification: A tank in Florida is not Katina’s world — not the one she was born into, that is. She was born in the wild, in the waters off Iceland. That’s her rightful, natural world.
It’s her baby’s world, too.
Read more about the birth of Katina’s baby here and here. See footage of Katina swimming with and nursing her newborn as SeaWorld Orlando staffers try to determine the infant’s sex here. See more photos of mama and baby here.
• Nov 1: SeaWorld Orlando says it has installed and is testing a new, more streamlined net deployment system after the one it had been using proved so tragically inadequate to the emergency challenge of netting Tilikum and saving Dawn Brancheau’s life. Read more here.
• Nov 15: SeaWorld announces plans to replace its long-running “Believe” killer whale show, or what’s left of it, with an all-new production. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment president and CEO Jim Atchison won’t discuss details and won’t say if SeaWorld will put trainers back in the water in the new show. He does say, though, that it’s going to be really great, really exciting and will “have a big impact on the guest experience.” Read more here and here.
• Nov 18: News leaks out of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attraction’s 2010 convention in Orlando that attendance at Florida’s main amusement and theme parks picked up a bit in 2010 after dropping in 2009 — everywhere except at SeaWorld Orlando, that is, where attendance has dropped again. The killing, the deaths — these things take a toll. Read more here.
• Nov 20: SeaWorld Orlando raises ticket prices by about $1 for a one-day adult pass, $10 for an annual pass for Florida residents, and $10 and $20 for a one-year and two-year pass for out-of-state visitors, bringing ticket prices up to $80, $80, $110 and $170 respectively before taxes. Read more here and here.
• Dec 2: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announces it’s eliminating some 350 jobs at the 10 parks it runs, including 80 jobs at SeaWorld San Diego and 129 at SeaWorld Orlando. Not to worry, though, a SeaWorld San Diego spokesman tells the San Diego Union Tribune. There’ll be “no impact on the high quality of care we continue to provide to our animals.” Read more here.
• Dec 8: Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee sends SeaWorld Orlando president Terry Prather an open letter on behalf of himself and his “friends at PETA” expressing outrage at SeaWorld for insisting on keeping and using Tilikum as its “chief sperm bank” and revulsion at SeaWorld’s alleged method of collecting Tilikum’s sperm by masturbating him “with a cow’s vagina filled with hot water.” A SeaWorld rep responds that PETA and Lee don’t know what they’re talking about. Lee says, Oh yeah? What about this article and this video, and SeaWorld decides to let the matter drop. Read Tommy Lee’s letter, SeaWorld’s response and Tommy’s response to SeaWorld’s response here , here, and here. Learn more about what Lee got right, what he got wrong and why it matters here.
• Dec 22: Now that Katina’s baby is almost three months old and doing well, SeaWorld releases a video of smiling Kelly Flaherty Clark standing again in front of an orca tank’s underwater viewing pane and inviting SeaWorld fans to help name this newest member of “our killer whale family.” SeaWorld has pre-chosen three names — one Greek, one Hawaiian, one Japanese. Go to SeaWorld’s Facebook page to vote for the one you like best. See the video here, or click the image below.
• Dec 30: SeaWorld Orlando adds all kind of special shows and entertainment to draw visitors to the park during Florida’s high-tourism holiday season in hopes of ending a bad year on a good note, and it seems to work. Seaworld announces that more people visited the park on Christmas Day 2010 than on any other Christmas Day in its 37-year history. Read more here.
• Jan 4: SeaWorld release another video of Kelly Flaherty Clark in front of an orca-tank viewing pane, there this time to thank “each and every one of you” who helped choose a name for Katina’s baby. “Are you ready?” she asks, sounding super excited. “The name chosen by you, our Facebook fans, is Makaio, Hawaiian for gift of God, and I have to tell you it was one of our favorites too. We think it’s a wonderful name, and we can’t thank you enough for your help.” See the video here.
Not sure what kind of dolphin lover you are? Click here or click the image below to watch another video of Katina performing with a trainer during a January 2 show while her baby boy watches and learns what life holds in store for him. If you think what you’re seeing is adorable, as many people do, you’re Type 1. If the video breaks you heart, you’re Type 2.
• Jan 8: Demonstrators gather outside SeaWorld Orlando, not for the first or last time, to protest keeping and breeding dolphins and whales in tanks. A protest is supposed to take place outside SeaWorld San Diego the same day, but if it does, it gets no coverage. Read about the Orlando protest here. See a photo here.
• Jan 13: SeaWorld announces it’s resuming the “Dine with Shamu” program it cancelled at all three parks the day Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau during a DWS program in Orlando. The money-making attraction — enjoy a meal on a poolside patio as a trainer puts an orca through his or her paces just for you — will resume in Antonio on February 26 (two days after the first anniversary of Brancheau’s death) and in San Diego and Orlando later in the spring. Tilikum won’t be used in Orlando’s DWS program, SeaWorld says. At least, not at first. Read more here, here and here.
• Feb 3: SeaWorld announces that its new killer whale show now has a name, “One Ocean,” that it will debut in Orlando in late April and in San Diego and San Antonio in May and June, and that it’s going to be absolutely spectacular and have a really strong conservation theme. “Shamu’s gonna actually be the one that inspires us to connect to the ocean, ” SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Curator of Animal Training Julie Scardina says in another SeaWorld video, standing before the customary orca-tank viewing pane. SeaWorld has always been about inspiring people to “make a difference,” after all, she says. The new show just bumps that up a few notches so after seeing it, people will want to go right out and do something to “make sure that the oceans are protected not only for all the marine life but for ourselves as well.” Watch the video here, or click the image below.
• Feb 5: PETA responds to SeaWorld’s attempt to seize the environmental high ground by staging a demonstration outside SeaWorld San Diego during which four protesters dressed in killer whale costumes lay down in the road, blocking cars from entering the park and angering a few drivers to the point where one tries to drag a demonstrator off the road and another threatens to “start kicking f’ing whales on the ground.”
Read more here, here, here and here. To watch a lively NBC San Diego news report, click here or click the image below, then scroll down and click on the Multimedia window on the left side of the page.
• Feb 10: SeaWorld decides it will no longer pay trainers extra for working in the water with killer whales, a policy it started after Kasatka attacked trainer Ken Peters at SeaWorld San Diego in November 2006 and one that critics say SeaWorld is now canceling because it buttresses OSHA’s charge that SeaWorld knew putting trainers in the water with orcas was dangerous and “willfully” exposed them to that danger. Right around the same time, Seaworld shuffles marketing officers and moves to refinance about $1 billion in debt so less revenue will go toward interest payments and more can go toward expanding and upgrading parks. Read more here, here and here.
• Feb 19: SeaWorld San Diego announces that local K-12 teachers will be admitted free for the rest of the calendar year, excluding major holidays. “Education is one of our core values,” San Diego Park president John Reilly tells San Diego’s Union-Tribune, “…and we want to thank teachers for their devotion.” Read more here.
• Feb 24: On the one-year anniversary of Dawn Brancheau’s death, news breaks that SeaWorld does want to put trainers back in the water with killer whales and is hard at work developing, testing and installing new safety devices to hurry that day along: fast-rising tank floors to strand an orca who attacks, remote-control mini-subs that flash lights and make noise to distract a rampaging animal, new training for trainers and orcas…. Trainers won’t get in the water with Tilikum, of course, but he’s being trained, too — though for what isn’t clear. Read more here and here.
• March 21: SeaWorld San Diego announces it will resume its “Dine with Shamu” program on April 23 — reservations advised. More good news: Now visitors can also have breakfast with Shamu, Easter Brunch with Shamu, Mother’s Day Brunch with Shamu and Father’s Day Brunch with Shamu! Space is limited! Reserve now! Read more here and here. Learn more here.
• March 22: SeaWorld Orlando announces that Florida K-12 teachers will be admitted free for the rest of the year, too, even on holidays, and will also get a $20 per ticket discount on up to six one-day tickets until May 31st — you know, in case a teacher wants to bring a group of students to visit before school lets out so they can learn what SeaWorld wants to teach them about killer whales. Like: That killer whales live as long in captivity as they do in the wild — which they don’t. And: That dolphins and killer whales (the largest species of dolphin) are “intelligent enough to be worth paying money to see,” as researcher Lori Marino said when she testified at the April 27 hearing, but not so intelligent, sensitive and self-aware that people should feel bad about keeping them in tanks — which they should. Learn more about Orlando’s teacher-appreciation program here and here. Learn more about the difference between what captive facilities teach people about killer whales and what researchers know to be true here.
• March 29: News breaks that SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment President and CEO Jim Atchison has okayed letting Tilikum perform again after more than a year spent mostly in isolation in a back tank and that Tilikum will make his first appearance the very next day. The short notice starts news crews scrambling and takes critics by surprise. Read more here. Watch a WESH2 TV news report here.
• March 30: SeaWorld Orlando’s Shamu Stadium is packed when Tilikum appears for the first time in more than a year to leap as best he can in his unconditioned state and slam his huge body down on the water’s surface and circle the pool pushing waves of water out over the stands with his giant flukes. CBS News reports that the crowd gives him “a standing ovation.” ABC News reporter Matt Gutman reports later that he’s struck by the crowd’s reaction, how little Tilikum actually does and how far trainers stay away from him. Gutman also reports that SeaWorld officials won’t talk to him but do assign a “minder” to follow him around.
See Gutman’s report here and other ABC videos here. Watch CBS Early Show co-anchor Erica Hill interview an ex SeaWorld trainer about Tilikum’s return to performing here, and watch a CBS follow-up report here. To watch an AP video, click here or click the image below.
• April 4: Dawn Brancheau’s family — mother, sisters, brother — break media silence and appear on all three network morning talk shows to reminisce about what a beautiful person Dawn Brancheau was and how much she loved working with killer whales, promote the foundation they’ve established in her honor and the kick-off event they’re holding at SeaWorld Orlando on what would have been Dawn Brancheau’s 42nd birthday on April 16, and basically get the message out that they hold no grudge against SeaWorld and have no objections to Tilikum returning to shows.
The timing of the family’s TV appearances couldn’t be better for SeaWorld — a few days after Tilikum returns to performing and a few weeks before the OSHA hearing, then still scheduled for April 25. Pure coincidence? Is it true that SeaWorld has contributed to the Dawn Brancheau Foundation? Has it asked anything of the family in return? Why isn’t Dawn Brancheau’s husband, Scott, making the rounds with the family? He was considering suing at one point. Is he still? The morning show interviewers don’t ask any of these questions. They could have — gently, directly, respectfully — but they don’t. They don’t ask any questions, really.
• April 4: The same day Dawn Brancheau’s family is making the morning talk show rounds, SeaWorld announces it will debut its new show, “One Ocean,” at SeaWorld Orlando on April 22 —Earth Day, 2011.
SeaWorld releases a sparkly behind-the-scenes video about all the enthusiastic, dedicated, best-of-the-best of everything that’s going into the new show — including the best of the best from the captive orcas. “We learn from the whales each and every day,” Kelly Flaherty Clark says, oozing sincerity. “A lot of the behaviors we come up with come from watching them interact… They’ll play with one another in a certain way…. expressing their power or their curiosity, and we’ll say ‘How can we get that to an audience so they can appreciate it as much as we can?’” Watch the video here, or click the image below.
• April 16: Dawn Brancheau’s family is on hand at SeaWorld Orlando to host the Dawn Brancheau Foundation’s first 5K-run fundraising event and attend the renaming of SeaWorld’s educational pavilion after the pretty, bubbly, petite, blond-haired killer whale trainer who would have turned 42 today if she hadn’t been killed by a captive orca who’s now back performing in shows. Read more here. See photos here.
• April 20: Seaworld reminds the public that tomorrow, Thursday, is the last day to catch Tilikum in what’s left of the old “Believe” killer whale show and then it’s bye-bye, “Believe” and hello “One Earth.” New sets! New music! New costumes! New killer whale behaviors! Plan your visit now! Read more here and here.
• April 22: SeaWorld debuts its new show, “One Ocean,” on Earth Day 2011 with five schedule performances, Tilikum’s in it, and even before the first show begins, SeaWorld has fed video to all the major news outlets, and the media is mostly back to lapping it up.
During a pre-premiere, early-morning live feed, Chicago’s ABC 7 News This Morning co-anchor Judy Hsu asks SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Curator of Animal Training Julie Scardina how the death of Dawn Brancheau, who’s from the Chicago area, has influenced this new show, and Scardina answers ever so sincerely that the show was “really created with Dawn’s spirit and her passion in mind… Dawn had an incredible passion for not only these killer whales but with teaching as well… and sharing that passion… is really a way for us all to celebrate Dawn’s spirit, and we know that she’s here with us today.”
Awwww. Co-anchor Hosea Sanders actually says that: “Awww, what a nice sentiment.” Watch the video here, or click the image below.
In another pre-premiere video, SeaWorld Orlando Director of Animal Training Kelly Flaherty Clark tells a reporter for the Orlando Sun-Sentinel that she’s super excited about the new show, too, because it’s going to give audiences “a totally different way of experiencing our killer whales. It’s a way to experience them like you never have before.” Read the Orlando Sentinel story and see that video here, or click the image below.
You know what, though? Judging from the photos and videos of the premiere of “One Ocean” that have emerged so far, the show doesn’t really seem that different or special at all. The pre-show segment apparently does flash some interesting facts about marine life on the giant, moving LED screens. And the pre-show video apparently also tells some story about how a single drop of water eventually becomes part of the great big ocean….
Nice. Sweet. Safe. There may be more to the “conservation” message. It’s hard to know from partial reports. But judging from what’s emerges so far, at heart, it’s mostly emperor’s new clothes, old wine in new wine skins.
Get past the new wetsuit designs, new music and set, new “Lion King”-like theme song, “One Song,” (Hey ya na na na), the big LED screens flashing technicolor footage of waves and sunsets, corals and fish — and in the show tank itself, it seems to be pretty much the same captive orcas, brought and bred their against their will, doing pretty much the same tricks as always for human profit and amusement.
That includes Tilikum, of course — a bigger star and money-maker for SeaWorld now than ever. Everybody wants to see the biggest, baddest killer whale in captivity! Everybody wants to get soaked by him when he throws that wall of water out over the stands with his mighty tail. Yaaaay, Tilly!
Judging from these and other photos and videos, SeaWorld is back to relaxing its standards for trainer safety, too. Remember the low, removable guardrails SeaWorld said it had installed along the edge of the show tank in September to make sure orcas couldn’t grab trainers when they got close? Nowhere in sight.
And remember’s OSHA’s recommendation that trainers stay away from all killer whales at least until OSHA and SeaWorld settle their beef? That doesn’t seem to be happening, either.
To watch a six-minute video of the premiere performance of “One Ocean,” click the images below.
To watch another 7.5 – minute video, click below.
But all is not completly back to the way things used to be at Shamu Stadium before Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau. And there are signs that perhaps they never will be.
Trainers do get surprisingly close to the orcas in the new show. But they don’t get in the water with them — not yet, anyway. And that matters. Kelly Flaherty Clark is right that the new show lets visitors experience SeaWorld’s captive killer whales in a different way. But it may not be a way that works to SeaWorld’s advantage.
When trainers performed in the water with the orcas — riding on their backs and diving off their noses and stretching out on their gorgeous white bellies — the circusy nature of these performances encouraged people to see killer whales as mere circus animals too, instead of as the beautiful, powerful, majestic, intelligent creatures they are.
With trainers out of the water, SeaWorld has had to fall back on letting the animals show and be a little more of who they really are, which gives people who pay attention some small opportunity to see them more clearly: Oh, wow. Look at them. Look how beautiful they are, just swimming together like that. Like a family.
And look at those jumps and leaps and flips — three, four, five killer whales all jumping at once. How do they do that? They must be communicating, don’t you think? Amazing. Really amazing. And we’re doing what to them? Keeping them in tanks?
Even the tricks the orcas still do with the trainers have the potential to spark questions about whether they should be there doing tricks at all if people really think about what they’re seeing: Look at how aware they are, how attuned they are, how much they clearly comprehend, how swiftly they respond to even the subtlest cues. Yes, they’re intelligent —incredibly intelligent. And we’re doing what? Keeping them in tanks?
You don’t have to take trainers out of the water for people to start having these thoughts and asking these questions, but it makes it easier when the show they’re watching focuses less on trainer-orca interactions and more on the animals themselves.
Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just a Type 2 dolphin lover’s fantasy. There are certainly still enough silly tricks and sad stunts to distract.
But a dreamer’s gotta dream. And a person so inclined could spot other signs in videos of the premiere of the new show that the media and, more important, the American public haven’t quite forgotten, forgiven or gotten past the shock and disillusionment of what happened at SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010, that people may never be able to watch a captive killer-whale show with the same innocent joy and wonder again — and that SeaWorld knows it. Three indicators:
1. Jack Hanna seemed awfully combative/defensive as he introduced “One Ocean,” going on in one video about how he and his family have returned to Orlando to see the Shamu show every year since the park opened in 1973 so don’t tell him these shows don’t pack an emotional and educational wallop because he knows they do, and delivering a strange little lecture in another video about what a huge form of recreation visiting zoos and aquariums is in the U.S. — the very biggest, bet you didn’t know that, right? — and how many animals SeaWorld rescues and returns to the wild every year: more than all the other zoos and aquariums combined! As for exactly how many — “So let’s have a round of applause for this magnificent organization!”
He sounded angry, desperate, determined — as if he were fighting a battle for American hearts and minds that he never expected to have to fight and was beginning to understand but wasn’t ready to accept couldn’t be won. It almost made you feel bad for him, until you remembered what he was out there, trying to defend.
2. All through SeaWorld’s new “One Ocean” captive killer whale show, as audiences watch the orcas perform in the Shamu pool in the foreground, they’re also seeing beautiful, technicolor film footage of waterscapes, waves, reefs, fish and other marine life on the large LED screens above and behind the pool — footage that at one point includes underwater views of wild dolphins swimming free. Yes, it does.
Very smart. Very sneaky. Even just seeing parts of the live performance and accompanying LED screen show in video clips and photographs confuses the senses to the point where the blue water in the tank and the blue water on screen seem to merge, creating an illusion that the orcas in the foreground aren’t really stuck in a tank. No! They’re really swimming and jumping and playing in the boundless freedom of the open sea!
Take heart, though, Type 2 dolphin lovers. There was a time when SeaWorld parks felt no need to create any such illusion of orca freedom to help audiences relax and enjoy a captive killer whale show. It’s a sign of something that now they do.
3. Shamu Stadium was not filled to capacity for the premiere performance of “One Ocean.” There was a good-sized crowd in attendance, yes — swelled, according to reports, by the presence of 580 members of a “flash mob” choir, recruited beforehand to stand up, clap, sing and get the audience in the spirit as recording artist Spencer Lee sang the show’s theme song, “One Song.” And still many seats were left empty.
Meaning: Despite all the money SeaWorld poured into mounting this new show and all the effort SeaWorld put into hyping it, the premiere performance of “One Ocean” did not play to a sold-out crowd.
Is that significant? Is SeaWorld concerned?
One can hope.