Some ex-trainers say SeaWorld downplays risks of working with killer whales

Trainer Dawn Brancheau with a killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando in 2005. (Orlando Sentinel file photo)

The February 2010 death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled underwater and killed by the 12,000-pound killer whale Tilikum, triggered the most exhaustive safety review in SeaWorld history and changes that are still being implemented across the company's three namesake marine parks.

And yet, in SeaWorld's profile of Tilikum — an internal document that chronicles the whale's history, his behavioral tendencies and more — the tragedy is summarized in a dozen words. The entry does not even note that Brancheau was killed.

Tilikum's profile is not unique. The profile for Ulises, a 9,000-pound killer whale at SeaWorld San Diego, notes that trainers were forced to stop swimming with the animal in November 2006 after an "incident" that is never described. The profile for Kyuquot, an 8,000-pound whale at SeaWorld San Antonio, notes that trainers are not allowed in the water with the animal — but, again, does not say why.

To SeaWorld's critics, including some of the company's former killer-whale trainers, the lack of detail in the profiles is evidence that SeaWorld attempts to minimize or mask — both from the public and its trainers — the true extent of the danger facing those who work with the world's largest marine predator.

"In retrospect, it's very disturbing how little information was conveyed to me about the relative risks associated with working around captive orcas," said John Jett, a SeaWorld trainer from 1992-96 who is now a professor at Stetson University. "I was never fully informed of the real risks I faced working around Tili [Tilikum], nor was I ever fully informed of the risks I faced with being in the water with any of the animals.

"In hindsight, I was extraordinarily naive, but my naiveté was fueled by a fabricated sense of safety constructed from a gross lack of detail."

SeaWorld says it takes numerous steps to ensure its trainers are informed and safe. The company says the individual animal profiles are only a small piece of an overall safety and animal-care program for its whales and trainers.

"The program includes, among other things, many forms of documentation, record-keeping and communication to deliver a safe working environment for our trainers, as well as preventative veterinary care, social enrichment, behavior training and overall health and fitness of our whales," the company said in a statement. "The safety of our team members and guests and the health of our animals are SeaWorld's highest priorities.

"We maintain an extensive archive of information related to the development and behavior of our animals," the company added. "Our sole objective is to allow our industry-leading zoological team to properly care for our animals in a safe manner."

The safety of SeaWorld's killer-whale trainers is at the center of a legal battle between the marine-park operator and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which last year accused the company of willful safety violations — its most severe category — for not adequately protecting trainers. The agency recommended that trainers never again have direct contact with Tilikum or be allowed to swim or work in close contact with SeaWorld's other killer whales without safety improvements. SeaWorld is contesting the agency's findings before an independent-review commission; hearings are scheduled to begin Sept. 19.

The profiles for Tilikum, Ulises and Kyuquot are among a dozen profiles — representing about half of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment's corporate collection — obtained by the Orlando Sentinel. SeaWorld did not dispute the authenticity of the documents, though it said the profiles could not be evaluated without proper context.

"Profiles of individual animals are dynamic records of an animal's progress and behavioral tendencies over its lifetime," SeaWorld said in its statement. "The documents themselves and entries within those documents are snapshots in time and, without context, cannot be used to draw meaningful conclusions about killer-whale display generally or individual animals specifically."

The documents offer a glimpse into the personalities and idiosyncrasies of SeaWorld's individual whales. Corky, a killer whale at SeaWorld San Diego, "tends to get antsy when ignored." Nakai, another San Diego whale, sometimes baits birds, including pelicans, by regurgitating fish. Tuar, a SeaWorld San Antonio whale, has been observed picking at paint at the bottom of the pools.

The documents also show that dangerous encounters between animals and trainers are not unusual. Among the incidents mentioned are whales biting or "mouthing" trainers, head-butting them or striking them with tail flukes. Whales have jumped on top of trainers, pulled them into pools and blocked them from getting out.

Only a fraction of the incidents are described in detail. Few say whether a trainer was injured.

The profile for Tilikum, the largest and most dangerous animal in SeaWorld's collection, is especially striking. Even before the Brancheau tragedy, Tilikum had been involved in two other human deaths: the 1991 drowning of a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia, and the 1999 drowning of a man who sneaked into SeaWorld Orlando's whale enclosure after the park had closed for the day.

Neither incident is explained or analyzed in detail in Tilikum's profile. On the first death, which occurred about a year before SeaWorld acquired Tilikum, the profile states only that the animal "was involved in the accidental drowning of a trainer." The second death is summarized as "drowning — no specific behavior noted." The document does warn that "it is important to remember his previous history and potential."

Jeff Ventre, a SeaWorld Orlando trainer from 1987-95, said the profiles fit what he says was a broader pattern of shielding details about dangerous or violent incidents.

"Trainers generally understood that there are risks in swimming with large marine mammals," said Ventre, now a doctor in New Orleans. "But there was also a false sense of security that came from a lack of pertinent information."

Some other former trainers disagree. Mark Simmons, a SeaWorld trainer from 1987-96, said trainers had access to multiple sources of information, including daily interaction logs that were kept "in ridiculous detail." He said dangerous incidents were discussed and deconstructed with all trainers on staff.

Trainers, Simmons added, understand the risks they face.

"I am not stupid and always respected the potential of the animals I worked with," said Simmons, who now works at an Orlando marine-park consulting business.

"And, at least in the time I worked there, if you had any reservations whatsoever about working with an animal — tired, unfocused, just 'off' for any reason — you were not harassed in any way should you decide to sit out of an interaction," he said. "It was taboo to pressure anyone into anything they weren't comfortable doing."

jrgarcia@tribune.com or 407-420-5414