SeaWorld Putting Orca Trainers Back in the Water

For the first time in nearly two-and-a-half years since the 12,000-pound orca Tilikum brutally killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando, the company is now allowing certain trainers to reenter the water with its captive killer whales, at least for veterinary and animal husbandry purposes.

The news was first reported by journalist Tim Zimmerman on Monday morning, and confirmed by Jason Garcia, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel.

Senior-level orca trainers will slowly begin to desensitize captive killer whales in the SeaWorld collection at Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio. For now, these activities will take place only in "medical pools" with rising false bottoms that can lift an orca out of the water in an emergency.

But rising bottom pools have also been installed in at least one performance tank in Orlando, G-pool, site of the smaller, more intimate "Dine with Shamu" show, in which Brancheau died in February, 2010.

Following Brancheau's death the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hit the company with a willful violation in the incident, a citation that prompted SeaWorld to sue the feds in court to overturn the violation and vacate OSHA's imposed safety measures. Those abatements would essentially amount to a permanent ban on trainers getting in the water with orcas, at least during shows.

It is not clear if SeaWorld will try to get trainers back in the water during shows, though such a move is widely expected. It could take a year or more to accomplish that goal, and it's unclear how much opposition OSHA might bring to bear on a return to"water work" during performances with the ocean's top predator.

But the initial OSHA finding, recently upheld by a federal administrative law judge, does not apply to non-performance activities such as training sessions and veterinary and animal husbandry procedures.

SeaWorld claims that it must "desense" its orcas to having trainers in the water, not only to allow staff into the med pools to provide better veterinarian care, but also to prevent an attack on a trainer who accidentally stumbles into the water.

But both of these arguments have holes in them.

For one, by insisting that trainers must be physically next to orcas in the water, in order to provide optimum care to the killer whales, SeaWorld is, by default, admitting that those orcas deemed too dangerous to approach (such as Tilikum, who killed Dawn Brancheau and two others; and Kasatka, who almost killed her San Diego trainer in 2006) cannot thrive in captivity without human contact, which is ostensibly essential to their longevity and well-being.

Many observers also doubt whether the "desensing" of SeaWorld's orcas to not react when a trainer falls in the water will truly save lives. There are several incidents in the past where such training failed to prevent trainer injury.

SeaWorld has not said whether it will try to get trainers back in the water with its killer whales during live performances, though such a move is expected. Meanwhile, OSHA will be watching the company's every move, determined to prevent another tragic death at SeaWorld.