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SeaWorld's Recent Fatal Accident Leads to Important Questions

Craig McClellan

What was once primarily considered a jaw-dropping, inspiring show that demonstrates a seemingly magic connection between human and animal, the Shamu show now inspires more worry than fascination.

The recent February death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau has many concerned with the safety of whale trainers around the country's SeaWorlds and other marine parks. Concern is so great that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is conducting a new investigation into the safety of the parks' practices regarding trainers working with the orca whales.

A similar investigation has been conducted by OSHA previously, in 2006, in response to a separate San Diego SeaWorld accident involving an orca and its trainer. That investigation found several instances of injuries due to interaction between human and orca whale, including the following San Diego cases:

  • In 2006, a San Diego trainer was bitten by an orca, dragged underwater and a tore a ligament in his ankle.
  • In 2001, an orca dragged his San Diego trainer into the pool and broke his arm.

More such incidents have taken place, some resulting in injury and some not. The most serious case remains to be the fatal accident of Brancheau--the only fatal accident to ever occur between a SeaWorld trainer and orca.

Debate surrounding how to increase trainer safety consists of opposing viewpoints. Some insist that the whales are being pushed too hard and working too much. They believe that the whales' response to that schedule is stress, which perhaps leads to dangerous behavior.

Some disagree with that idea, or part of it at least. They think that the more contact the whales have with trainers the better. More time together means more trust and familiarity between the orca and the trainer.

The questions of why and what to do regarding orca trainer injuries are difficult to answer. The whales cannot tell us what they want or what they are thinking, and trainers can only use their best judgment when working with the animals. In general, trainers understand the assumed risk of working with the large animals and do their jobs safely by always keeping that risk in mind.

One former trainer points out the danger of focusing too heavily on the incidents of trainer injury related to working with the whales. He says that most of the time, injuries occur due to an error on the trainer's part and that most of the time, the whales are not attempting to hurt their trainers during these incidents. They are merely being playful and don't understand the danger they pose to humans. He also adds that considering the amount of shows and human/orca interactions that have taken place during the over 45 years that SeaWorld has been open, the parks' safety record is pretty solid.

February's recent fatal injury, however, certainly warrants the current investigation into trainer safety that will hopefully result in more effective ideas regarding training practices at the SeaWorld theme parks.