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article imageSeaWorld trainers prepare to swim with killer whales again

By Kim I. Hartman     Feb 25, 2011 in Entertainment
Orlando - SeaWorld officials say they are preparing trainers to re-enter the tanks with the park's killer whales for the first time in a year following the death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by the orca Tilikum in full view of an audience.
Brancheau, 40, died of drowning and traumatic injuries after a "12,000-pound killer whale grabbed her ponytail in its mouth and dragged her underwater," reported USA Today. The Orlando medical examiner ruled the death was accidental.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited SeaWorld of Florida LLC for three safety violations, including one classified as willful, following the death of Brancheau in February 2010. SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by OSHA.
"SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals," said Cindy Coe, OSHA's regional administrator in Atlanta, Ga. "Nonetheless, it required its employees to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals."
"The OSHA investigation revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities, including its location in Orlando. Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees."
SeaWorld announced they are spending "tens of millions of dollars on safety upgrades at its killer-whale facilities in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio," reported the Orlando Sentinel. "The upgrades range from custom-designed, fast-rising pool floors in large show venues to underwater vehicles that can distract an out-of-control killer whale with pulsing lights and whale vocalizations." The upgrades are expected to make the working conditions safer for the trainers.
"SeaWorld officials insist they have already put new safety procedures in place, but this has been strictly for behind the scenes work with the whales, not for public shows. For the last 12 months, SeaWorld's killer whales swam only with each other, but that's about to change, at least during daily training sessions," according to WFTV 9 in Orlando.
"We've always said, from the very beginning, we plan on getting back in with our animals. But we don't really have a set date or time," SeaWorld Curator Chuck Tompkins told Channel 9 reporters.
"A spokesman for SeaWorld told the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday that trainers in its three U.S. marine parks will begin limited "water work" with whales within the next few months, with the interactions initially restricted to small medical pools equipped with false-bottom floors that can be lifted out of the water."
SeaWorld recently announced the opening of a new killer-whale show at its three marine parks – but the conservation-themed shows won’t feature trainers working in the water with the whales, reports the Tucson Citizen. Trainers have not been permitted in the water with the whales since Brancheau death. The signature show has been reworked and will be conducted "exclusively from the stage, trainers will no longer perform maneuvers such as the iconic “rocket hops” in which a whale propels a trainer out of the water."
One Ocean”, which will replace the 'Believe' killer-whale show, is scheduled to premiere at SeaWorld Orlando at the end of April, SeaWorld San Diego on Memorial Day weekend and SeaWorld San Antonio in June, reports the SeaWorld blog.
WFTV reported that "SeaWorld's legal battle with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will go back to court in April. "We disagree with what they think and what they think they will find. And we'll continue to work toward making sure we show them and everyone else that our process of training our whales, our whale program, is extremely safe," Tompkins said.
While limited training with the killer-whales at the three theme parks bearing the SeaWorld name could begin in a few months, WFTV reports, "the company can't say when or even if trainers will go back in the water with the whales in public shows."
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