MIAMI - The electrifying in-water duet between trainer and killer whales at SeaWorld will never be quite the same after a judge ruled recently that animal trainers must be better protected from the fearsome mammals during performances.
The animal trainers - who not so long ago kissed, rode on, hugged, and were thrust into the air by the killer whales - must either remain at a greater distance from them, stand behind a physical barrier, or use other devices to keep them safer during performances.
The ruling last week by Ken S. Welsch, a federal administrative law judge for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, came more than two years after the death of Dawn Brancheau, a trainer who was dragged underwater and killed by an orca at the SeaWorld park in Orlando. Visitors who were leaving the “Dine With Shamu’’ event watched the terrifying scene unfold.
The death forced SeaWorld to suspend in-water interactions between whales and trainers during shows and prompted the company to erect a physical barrier for trainers standing poolside. But executives at SeaWorld have pushed to reinstate its “waterworks’’ performances, which it views as the park’s most thrilling and best-loved shows, contending that its safety protocols are sufficient to keep trainers safe.
Welsch disagreed, saying the protocols had failed to protect Brancheau. Tilikum, the whale who killed her, ignored slaps in the water and other signals devised to bring him under control. It took 45 minutes to recover Brancheau’s body, after he scooped her into his mouth.
After Brancheau’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration spent six months investigating the park’s killer whale shows and the safety of its trainers. The agency issued several citations, saying barriers and other precautions were needed for the shows. SeaWorld appealed the citations and a hearing was held last November.
Last week, the judge sided mostly with OSHA, delivering a stinging assessment of what he said was the company’s inclination to blame trainers when something went wrong and the faith the park placed in the predictability of a whale’s behavior.
The judge also said it was implausible that SeaWorld - the leader in the training of killer whales - did not know, as it had claimed, that the orcas could pose a hazard to employees. Killer whales have been involved in the deaths of four people at marine parks.
Before killing Brancheau, Tilikum, who weighs 12,000 pounds, was involved in the death of a trainer at a marine park in Canada in 1991. The next year, SeaWorld bought Tilikum and brought him to Orlando. But trouble appeared to follow. In 1999, park employees found a dead man draped across Tilikum’s back in the pool. The man had hidden from security personnel after the park closed and entered the pool somehow. He died of hypothermia, and Tilikum’s role in the death was undetermined.
Captured in the wild, Tilikum, who resumed performing at the park 13 months after Brancheau’s death, has long been handled very carefully by trainers; they did not interact with the whale in the water, only outside.
But the ruling was not all bad for SeaWorld. Welsch downgraded one major violation from willful to serious and reduced the fines SeaWorld must pay to $12,000 from $75,000.
“We have maintained all along that the allegations of ‘willful’ were meritless and are vindicated that the judge agreed,’’ said Jim Atchison, president and chief executive of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, in a statement.
“The judge also unequivocally states that SeaWorld is a ‘safety-conscious employer’ with a ‘highly detailed and thorough’ safety training program,’’ the statement said.
The marine park is working on other safety features, like a pool floor that can be raised to beach a whale and breathing devices for trainers, in the hope that trainers can get closer to the whales again.