SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment has revealed that trainers are set to begin entering the water with killer whales again, one year on from an incident which resulted in a high-profile death.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that SeaWorld will gradually re-introduce its orcas to the concept of working with trainers in their pools, with public shows are unlikely to involve in-water stunts for some time. Initially, interactions will be restricted to smaller, backstage pools that will feature modified floors that can be lifted out of the water in the event of an emergency.
The company says that it will invest "tens of millions" of dollars to install new safety features at its parks in Orlando, San Diego and California. These will include similar false-bottom floors in major show venues, as well as special underwater vehicles that could be used to distract whales in the event of trainers running into difficulties. Trainers will also be equipped with breathing regulators that will provide two-to-five minutes of air for trainers in emergencies.
SeaWorld has not put a timescale on when trainers might return to the water during live shows, but has stated that it sees close-up interaction as essential to building relationships with the orcas. Trainers have now begun a series of training seminars to learn about killer whale behaviors, while the whales themselves are undergoing a process of "water desensitization". This is designed to help the whales learn to ignore distractions in the water around them.
Trainers have not entered the water with whales at SeaWorld parks since the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau on February 24, 2010. Brancheau, a 12-year veteran at SeaWorld Orlando, was killed when 30-year-old whale Tilikum pulled her into the water by her ponytail and drowned her following a show. The pool in which Brancheau died will be the first to be equipped with the new safety floor technology.
Although SeaWorld's Curator of Animal Training, Julie Scardina, has previously said that Tilikum will return to live shows "when the time is right", the whale will be the only one not to undergo full water desensitization training. It is seen as to dangerous for trainers to return to the water with Tilikum, who is the largest orca in SeaWorld's collection.
All three SeaWorld parks will open an all-new killer show dubbed One Ocean in 2011, replacing the long-running Believe show. One Ocean will feature water fountains, and the orcas will continue to splash guests in the audience as in previous SeaWorld shows. Spectacular aerial stunts and sections featuring multiple whales will help compensate for the lack of human-whale in-water interaction.
The new show has been in development for over a year, and will feature an educational message that is designed to inspire guests to "celebrate, connect and care" for the ocean. It will debut at SeaWorld Orlando in late April, at SeaWorld San Diego on Memorial Day weekend (May 28-30) and at SeaWorld San Antonio by June.