The current Shamu show is called "Believe," and Dawn Brancheau was one of the stars. Music, video, and killer whales are wrapped around the story of a kid who paddles out to bond with a wild orca and is inspired to become a trainer. Every element is intimately choreographed, with whales exploding into the air and onscreen in perfect synchronicity. Even though Brancheau's death has prompted SeaWorld to temporarily reinvent "Believe" without trainers in the water, it is still absolutely mesmerizing. The show builds to a climactic finale with a pack of orcas lining up and using their flukes to sweep a tidal wave of water onto the shrieking and willing inhabitants of the splash zone.
After the show, I sit down with Brad Andrews in front of the underwater viewing area of G pool. Two killer whales are amusing a crowd of people who probably have no idea of the scene the same windows revealed a month earlier. Andrews is SeaWorld's chief zoological officer, and he's been with the park since 1986. He explains that while part of the goal is entertainment, SeaWorld's aim is to use the shows to educate and inspire visitors, as a way to help conserve the environment and support wildlife.
There's a lot of criticism that flies back and forth between SeaWorld and the hard marine-science community, but there's no question that SeaWorld's close contact with killer whales over the course of decades has contributed to the world's knowledge of them. "The gestation of killer whales was never known to researchers in the wild. It was always assumed it was like a dolphin, 12 months," Andrews says. "Then we found out it's 17 to 18 months. We supplied an answer to a part of their puzzle."
The advances SeaWorld has made in veterinary care have also paid off when it comes to rescuing stranded or sick marine animals, and SeaWorld's state-of-the-art breeding techniques could be useful in trying to preserve marine mammal populations on the brink of extinction, such as the vaquita porpoise in the Sea of Cortez. SeaWorld also nurtures multiple partnerships with leading conservation nonprofits, from the World Wildlife Fund to the Nature Conservancy. "Every year we spend $3 million to $4 million on research and conservation programs outside our park and another $1.5 million on rescuing stranded animals," Andrews says.
Head trainer Kelly Flaherty Clark still has faith in the benefits of SeaWorld's mission in the wake of Brancheau's death. One of her mantras, known around the park as "Kellyisms," is "Do the right thing." As we sit together in the stands of Shamu Stadium, "Believe" looks like pure family fun. But for the trainers, the shows are the product of countless hours of hard work and practice. They know there are risks. "These are not dogs," Flaherty Clark says. "Every day you walk into your job, you are walking into a potentially dangerous situation. You never forget that. You can't afford to forget that."
SeaWorld doesn't forget, and conducts safety and rescue training once a month. Among other things, trainers are taught to go limp if they are grabbed, so the whales will lose interest. The killer whales are taught to keep their mouths closed while swimming, and desensitized so they stay calm and circle the perimeter of the pool if someone accidentally falls in. They learn emergency recall signals—transmitted via a tone box and hand slaps—and are trained to swim to a pool exit gate if a net is dropped in. Scuba gear is always nearby. SeaWorld's intensive regime helped its trainers interact with killer whales more than two million times without a death. But when a killer whale breaks from its training, all bets are off.
It's hard to know exactly what triggers an incident. It could be boredom, a desire to play, the pent-up frustration of confinement, a rough night in the tank with the other orcas, the pain of an ulcer, or maybe even hormonal cycling. Whatever the motivation, some trainers believe that killer whales are acutely aware of what they're doing. "I've seen animals put trainers in their mouths and know exactly what the breaking point of a rib cage is. And how long to hold a trainer on the bottom," says Jeffrey Ventre, who was a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando from 1987 until 1995, when he was let go for giving a killer whale a birthday kiss, in which he stuck his head into an orca's mouth.
If you're a killer whale in a marine park, there's probably no better place than SeaWorld. Yet no matter how nice the facility, there's stress associated with being a big mammal in a relatively small pool. Starting at Sealand, Tilikum had developed the habit of grinding his teeth against metal pool gates. Many of his teeth were so worn and broken that SeaWorld vets decided to drill some of them so they could be regularly irrigated with antiseptic solution. And once again, he had to deal with the stress of hostile females, particularly a dominant orca called Katina. "Tili was a good guy that got beat down by the women," says Ventre, now a doctor in New Orleans. "So there are a lot of reasons he might be unhappy."