September 2012, a news helicopter captured video of trainers hugging and petting killer whales on pool ledges at SeaWorld Orlando behind-the-scenes and during a show. Such close proximity violates a ruling made by Judge Welsch last summer which requires that trainers be separated from whales via physical barriers; a ruling that SeaWorld is currently fighting to appeal in federal court.
This video footage may have helped launch the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s follow-up investigation of SeaWorld Orlando, which aims to determine whether or not they are following court orders to abate the hazards in the park. One component of this follow-up investigation is SeaWorld’s responsibility to provide witnesses which must prove that the hazards are abated. So far, SeaWorld has refused to provide witnesses and as a result, OSHA is launching another suit to force them to comply. All that is known about the latest investigation into the park’s safety practices so far, is that OSHA inspectors have found more unsafe working conditions.
Yesterday, a photo was published on Facebook, depicting a trainer swimming with a whale behind the scenes at SeaWorld San Diego. So far the photo has been linked on Tumblr and has generated a lot of attention as it makes its rounds. The whale in the photo has been identified as Orkid, an extremely dangerous animal that has been banned from waterworks since 2006 due to her aggressive tendencies, though in 2008, SeaWorld attempted to train her for waterwork again. Orkid’s official profile lists 14 different behavioral incidents between 1990 and 2007. These incidents range from biting trainers to multiple instances of dunking and holding trainers underwater.
The photographer claimed that the photo was taken on 1/6/13 while on a sky-walk overlooking the pool, and that the trainers were riding on the back of Orkid, perhaps as part of waterworks desense training. Another photo taken by an anonymous photographer also surfaced, showing a similar scene from a different angle, this time a trainer is in a medical pool with Keet. There are rumors that the photos may be paired with video, though no footage has so far been published.
The question many people are asking is whether or not SeaWorld runs a risk by allowing trainers in the water at San Diego, even though Judge Welsch’s ruling appears to only apply to SeaWorld Orlando, and allows for behind-the-scenes husbandry procedures. The short answer to this question is: yes.
In 2006, Cal OSHA investigated SeaWorld San Diego after a trainer was attacked by a killer whale. This investigation was discussed in court during the SeaWorld Orlando hearing and influenced the Judge’s final verdict in regards to whether or not SeaWorld willfully put their trainers in danger. For SeaWorld to begin waterworks in San Diego, while it is legally restricted due to its dangerous nature in Orlando, reflects the Corporation’s attitude toward trainer safety overall, which could come back to bite them when they face OSHA again in court.
Outside Magazine has also addressed the issue of liability in allowing trainers to resume waterworks in one park, while it is banned in another: “…since Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld has ceased waterwork at all its parks. Therefore Welsch’s rejection of SeaWorld’s appeal is likely to shape how all SeaWorld’s parks operate in the future, especially given the liability considerations that would come into play if SeaWorld resumed waterwork in San Diego or San Antonio following Welsch’s ruling in Florida, and another trainer was injured or killed.”
The past few months SeaWorld has been walking a fine line with the government regarding its safety protocols, some claim they are flaunting the Judge’s ruling and are still putting trainers at risk. SeaWorld is already on OSHA’s radar, and the publication of these photos could potentially spell trouble for them if they permitted the trainers to ride Orkid. If they did not permit the trainers to do this, the employees depicted in the photo could suffer severe repercussions. The response to these photos from captivity supporters is overwhelmingly positive. Reactions are of celebration for the long-awaited return of waterworks. But what about the trainer’s safety? There have been no attacks, injuries, and certainly no deaths in the three years that waterworks has been banned. Regardless of what the law says about waterwork stunts, the photos raise questions as to why the trainer’s lives are needlessly put in danger through these unnecessary practices.