Judge Says: SeaWorld Must Protect Trainers From Killer Whales

Trainers will no longer be placed in dangerous situations or forced to share water with captive whales.

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killer whale at sea world
(Photo: Staff Photographer / Reuters)

Been to SeaWorld lately? Paid to see a show where trainers ride the backs of killer whales? That particular aquatic ballet could be coming to an end, reports Reuters.

A federal judge has ordered SeaWorld to enact safety measures to protect its trainers.

Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch upheld violations cited by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration against SeaWorld. The case came after the death of Dawn Brancheau, a trainer who was killed by a killer whale during an Orlando SeaWorld show.

Fans of the park should expect a number of new protections, including the erection of physical barriers between the whales and the trainers, and providing oxygen tanks for the trainers.

In 2010, Brancheau was pulled underwater and drowned by Tilikum, an Orca who has been held captive and forced to perform at SeaWorld for decades. 

The case—SeaWorld vs. OSH—was SeaWorld’s attempt to overturn citations leveled against them by OSHA. But Welsch upheld OSHA’s report and ordered SeaWorld to pay a $12,000 fine.

Welsch both reduced the original OHSA penalty and changed the language of the citation, saying that SeaWorld’s responsibility for Brancheau’s death was not “willful” but “serious.” 

The citation outlines the risky, unnatural working conditions for both humans and whales at SeaWorld:

The gravity of this violation is very high. Trainers were required to work in close contact with killer whales during performances. The killer whales sometimes engage in unpredictable behavior, including seizing trainers with their mouths, holding the trainers under water, and ramming the trainers while in the water. SeaWorld’s operant conditioning program places an unrealistic burden on trainers to recognize precursors and react appropriately to forestall undesirable behavior.

Click here for a more detailed look at the citation and SeaWorld’s irresponsible policies that endanger both captive cetaceans and their human trainers.

Should killer whales be held against their will in cramped tanks, like those found at SeaWorld?


Jocelyn Heaney is an English instructor, animal activist and freelance writer for L.A. Review of Books and Warner Bros. Pictures, among others. Her favorite animals are great white sharks, horses and all cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. Email Jocelyn | @JocelynHeaney