Last September, journalist David Kirby sat in an Orlando courtroom and watched a deadly ballet unfold.
On screen, in a video that’s never been released publicly, an underwater camera silently captures the movements of a 2.5-ton killer whale that’s grabbed a trainer by his foot. She drags him around the pool, up and down, refusing to let him breathe, refusing to listen to commands from the trainer’s desperate co-workers up above.
Although his foot was broken, the trainer would survive. So would the Shamu killer whale shows at SeaWorld San Diego.
The shows continue today, but something is different: trainers aren’t allowed in the water with the killer whales during performances. Certain tricks are history, at least for now: The trainers don’t “surf” on the killer whales or get pushed high into the air by their noses.
That’s been SeaWorld’s choice since a killer whale attacked and killed a trainer in 2010 at its theme park in Orlando. But SeaWorld is fighting to return to the days of fantastic stunts that spotlight the bond between animal and human.
Just last week, SeaWorld announced it’s appealing a federal ruling that strictly limits contact between trainers and killer whales during shows and could forever ban the traditional stunts.
In “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,” due out at bookstores Tuesday, New York City journalist Kirby — who’s previously written books about vaccines and the food industry — digs into the endless debate over the captivity of killer whales and the safety of the people who work with them.
In an interview, I asked Kirby about SeaWorld San Diego’s history of killer whale attacks, the horrific death in Orlando, and the future of the shows that turned the original Shamu — who turned violent herself — into a star. We also talked about the park’s remarkable system to respond to potentially deadly emergencies in the water at Shamu Stadium.
How does SeaWorld San Diego fit into the big picture of safety at killer whale shows?
Both of the most high-profile human deaths at the hands of killer whales occurred in Florida, but there were many incidents at SeaWorld San Diego, beginning with the initial Shamu back in 1971.
They asked a secretary — in no way qualified or skilled — to get on the original Shamu’s back in a bikini. Shamu started to dunk her, wouldn’t let her out of the pool, clamped down on her legs and left her with horrible wounds. She required many, many stitches. (Reports say she needed 200 stitches. You can watch the victim recall the incident and see video of the attack — be aware that it’s somewhat graphic — here.)
This was the first killer whale attack on a human in history.
The worst spate of attacks was in San Diego in 1987. There were probably a dozen or more, some of them quite serious. People were getting hurt, going to the hospital and suing.
What happened in the 2006 incident at SeaWorld San Diego when a killer whale named Kasatka attacked a trainer?
Kasatka had neuroses and was rather unpredictable. She was very protective of her calves. When her calf was backstage, she’d often go out of control, especially if her calf was calling her. She would swim around the pool, obviously furious.
She’s a mother — these animals have strong bonds — and her calf was calling for her.
On a couple occasions, she grabbed the trainer and took him down to the bottom. Then in 2006, it happened again. This time she didn’t let go.
You’re one of the only people to ever see the underwater video taken by SeaWorld in the 36-foot-deep pool of that incident, which the trainer survived. What did the video, which is expected to be publicly released eventually, show?
There will be nothing, and then you’ll see this killer whale swim across this screen with a trainer being dragged by his foot.
The trainer, trained to be extremely calm, is almost limp as she has his foot in her mouth, dragging him up and down. It’s spooky, eerie, surreal and horrifying.
How much danger was he in?
She seemed to hold him down for 90 seconds. That’s a long time. Try holding your breath for that long.
It was a very serious attack.
What happened next?
The employees throw the nets in that are supposed to separate the trainer from the whale, and signal the whale to calm down, just stop and go to the stage.
He finally got the whale to stop rampaging — you see this from the above-water camera — and the whale calms down as he gets out of the water.
The trainer sits there, trying to catch his breath, thinking he’s safe, and Kasatka sees him, turns around, swims right at him, jumps right over the net, and comes right over him. He scrambles to get up, but his foot is broken. She’s coming.
He told Cal-OSHA that he was thinking he’d never see his children again. He thought he was close to death.
Finally, two of his colleagues grab him and pull him out just in time.
SeaWorld said everything worked according to plan. But obviously it didn’t, and the nets were useless. It was a disaster.
The Cal-OSHA agency issued a scathing report about employee safety at SeaWorld San Diego. What did it say?
It said that if nothing is done, this will happen again, and someone is going to die.
They issued this report, and it had all of these recommendations, even ones to consider killing the whale that was rampaging, an extremely difficult thing to do. SeaWorld was horrified by that, I’m sure.
It was a very damaging report, and SeaWorld mustered all of its political clout. The report was retracted. Cal-OSHA even went to the extreme step of apologizing to SeaWorld.
The killer whale in the fatal Florida case, named Tilikum, had killed two people before the death of the trainer in Orlando. How did he end up still starring in shows after the first two deaths?
In the first case, the first person fell into his tank and didn’t get out in time. That was back in 1991 in British Columbia, and Tilikum hadn’t been trained to be around people in the water.
The idea then was that it’s safe when that whale is in the water, and the people are out of the water.
In the 1999 incident, in Florida, a trespasser swam in Tilikum’s pool and was killed.
The third time, in Orlando in 2010, the trainer was on her stomach in the water, virtually completely submerged, and Tilikum was right next to her, yet that was not violation of protocol.
That was not considered water work. And that was a fatal mistake.
How much responsibility does SeaWorld have for her death?
If anybody’s at fault, it’s SeaWorld. It basically relied on the trainer’s own judgment and ability to recognize precursors to aggression in a killer whale. It was their own skill that was supposed to save their skin.
But I’m not a judge, and I’m not a lawyer.
It’s hard to analyze the emotions of animals without turning them into four-legged (or in this case, finned) versions of humans. Even so, do you think the killer whales know what they’re doing when they hurt or kill people at water theme parks?
Every act of aggression has a different trigger. In Tilikum’s case, the first time he killed somebody was probably a case of curiosity, rough play and a toy he didn’t want to give up. The second time it was maybe almost the same thing — an intruder, someone he’s never seen before in his life.
As for Dawn Brancheau, the victim in Orlando, you can’t read the account of what happened to her and call that playing. It was deliberate and really brutal. He saw Dawn almost every day of his life, yet he killed her. It was like a crime of intimacy.
If he was a human, we might say he’s a sociopath.
Yes, a sociopath, a psychopath. Or just a guy who’s had his best companions die on him, who’s kept alone a lot, and doesn’t get to perform in the shows very much. All he does is come out and splash people.
What are the aggressive killer whales trying to tell us?
They’re just aggressive with people because they’ve flipped out and can’t handle captivity anymore. They need to be retired to a much more natural environment.
What’s the situation now at SeaWorld, where Shamu shows continue?
At this point, the trainers are out of the water.
If you go there, you will see a Shamu show where the trainers all stand on the side of the pool. They’ll occasionally give the killer whale a fish or use a hand signal to tell them to do a backflip or something. Most of the commands are coming from an underwater tone.
What happens if things go wrong?
Assuming there’s an emergency where someone does get pulled into the water, an employee sounds the alarm, which triggers a park-wide emergency alert system. That lets people know something went wrong in Shamu Stadium.
I believe that ever since Tilikum, there’s always somebody on stage with their finger on the button during a performance.
People are trained to come running. Everyone is supposed to have a role. Some people are in charge of distracting the whale, try to call it back under control, using signals, underwater tones, food, hand-slapping on the water. A certain number of people are employed to unfurl the nets, designed to separate the trainer from the whale, or try to get it to go into a different pool.
And others are there to try to use shepherd’s hooks, floatation devices and what are called pony bottles of air for the trainer. The main task is to separate the whale from the human who’s in trouble.
Now they’re putting spare oxygen systems in frogmen suits and false bottoms in the pools that rise rapidly and are supposed to lift both the whale and the trainer out of the water.
Honestly, this all strikes me as insane, that mere entertainment requires this level of precaution to prevent someone from getting killed.
Its a really good question: Why are these risks allowed? It’s remarkable that SeaWorld was as able to do it as long as it did even with the incidents that happened.
At the moment, SeaWorld is fighting OSHA regulations that could mean the end of stunts in the water between trainers and the animals.
The restrictions are focused on shows. But aren’t there risks at other times too, when the whales are being trained or treated medically and a show isn’t going on?
SeaWorld has a really good point: What’s the difference in whether there’s an audience or not?
Ultimately the issue is whether these shows will continue with trainers in the water. They can continue as long as they want with trainers out of the water.
Even if they can still fall in the water?
We had our own federal case here in San Diego in which PETA called for five killer whales — two who live at our SeaWorld — to be released. They claimed that their captivity violated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; a judge threw the case out.
The case seemed to be a joke. Was it?
I don’t think the 13th Amendment is the right way to go.
But what’s interesting is that they were talking about the only five killer whales held in captivity in the U.S. that were born in the wild.
Those five whales remember the ocean. And Kasatka, who attacked the trainer at SeaWorld San Diego in 2006, is one of those five.