Seaworld Is Fined For Safety Violations Related To Trainer’s Death: What It Means For Captive Orca “Lolita”

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On the face of it, Seaworld’s fine related to the death of Dawn Brancheau by one of their captive orcas, Tillicum, seems like a meaningless slap on the wrist. $75,000 is not much money to them, and because Seaworld was investigated by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), they were fined for safety violations only, and no mention was made of the treatment of the orca whale “Tillicum” which is at the root of this unfortunate event.

The tank where an L-pod member (“Lolita”) is confined. Photo by Peter Pijpelink.

Even so, Seaworld is going to fight the government on this finding, which will doubtless cost them more than the fines. Why? Because the consequences of that finding are going to roll through the amusement park industry, affecting all the parks which display marine mammals like circus animals – and the Miami Seaquarium, where one of the Southern Resident orcas “Lolita” lives, will have to make substantial and costly improvements to her illegal and substandard conditions.

What OSHA found is that Seaworld has to do a better job of keeping their trainers safe, and by extension, so will the Miami Seaquarium. (The ruling came despite political pressure by Florida U.S. Representative Alan Grayson, who admittedly intervened in OSHA’s investigation, as he states in a press release: “As everyone knows, working with sharks and whales is inherently dangerous. But SeaWorld has done what it could to make that work as safe as possible,”… “Beyond that, SeaWorld has raised people’s knowledge and understanding of cetaceans enormously, and contributed greatly to the well-being of Central Florida and our community.”)

Endangered for our amusement (Creative Commons Photo)

Seaworld was fined $5000 for not having a stair railing (a potential 10′ fall for employees) on the “Believe” stage in Shamu Stadium, a violation ranked as ‘serious’ – but the real heart of the finding is in the $70,000 “Willful” violation:

a) “At the Shamu Stadium pools, animal trainers working with Tilikum, a killer whale with known aggressive tendencies and who was involved in the 1991 death of a whale trainer at a marine park in Vancouver, British Columbia, were exposed to struck-by and drowning hazards in that they were allowed unprotected contact with Tilikum while conducting “drywork”performances on pool ledges, slideouts and platforms, on or about 2/24/2010.”

and – relevant to all marine amusement parks, including the Miami Seaquarium:

b) “At the Shamu Stadium pools, animal trainers working with killer whales other than Tilicum, were exposed to struck-by and drowning hazards in that they were allowed to engage in “waterwork” and “drywork” performances with the killer whales without adequate protection, on or about 2/24/2010. “

OSHA defines ‘adequate protection’ as a physical barrier, or any other engineering solution that gives the trainers the same level of protection as a physical barrier – in effect putting an end to whale shows that involve humans swimming with whales. It will also inhibit the amusement parks from being able to endanger the trainers working at the edge of the pools – no more holding fish out for whales to jump up and grab, etc.

That means that, lacking the carnival appeal of human mastery over big animals, the amusement parks such as Seaworld and Miami Seaquarium are going to have put their money where there mouths are and present true educational shows – and any educational show will only underscore that the whales in their care have dismal lives, nothing like the wild animals they represent.

Seaworld and Miami Seaquarium can see the writing on the wall, so they will fight tooth and nail to be allowed to endanger human lives and maintain their circus acts. For many of the whales born in captivity, the options are few and the best that we can hope for is that the amusement parks redirect their focus and enhance the quality of life for those magnificent and intelligent whales.

But the L-pod whale they call Lolita has a home in the wild, we know her family, and her mother still swims by our boats and the shores of Washington. Lolita can come home to her family, with our help.

Even Seaworld’s blog on the subject has this comment:

I have visited Sea World Orlando many times and always found the Shamu shows to be very entertaining.

This past week, however, I had the amazing opportunity to watch many (20) members of the resident Orca pods in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, WA. These resident orca travel up to 100 miles per day in search of salmon. For more than 30 minutes, our boat drifted with the travelling orcas as they searched for King Salmon (their only food source). It must be noted our boat always stayed at least 100-400 yards away in order to respect the natural movement of these beautiful animals.

After watching these magnificent creatures in the wild, I cannot help but feel my opinion on keeping orcas captive for our enjoyment has changed. Research can easily be done on these animals in the wild (they are easy to find). Any pretense of keeping them captive for scientific reasons now seems to be purely a cover for the true purpose of making $$$$.

As a lifeling, but newly-educated, fan of “Shamu” I can no longer in good conscience frequent Sea World. There was once a time for captive Orca research and entertainment, but that time has passed. For now, I will really miss the great roller coasters and other exhibits.

Submitted by Jim on Tue, 2010-08-24 00:19.

“Lolita the Whale”, taken from the Southern Resident Killer Whale clan

Contact: Orca Network and Save Lolita.
More information: OSHA ruling, U. S. Rep Grayson’s actions

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