Beluga Gone Bad? Gentle Giant Appears to Attack Trainer at Marineland

But the performance continues, as the young worker writhes in pain before a packed house.
(Photo: LibertyGrace0/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Aug 9, 2013· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A trainer was injured on Thursday, August 8 at Marineland, in Ontario, Canada, during a show featuring two beluga whales. The injured trainer, a young female, was taken to the hospital after the incident, according to the blog Everyone Hates Marineland.

The incident was also videotaped and posted on YouTube by someone named Tom Blake. In it, at around 1:45 minutes, it appears that something is not right with the female trainer and the whale she is working with. Then, instead of springing up vertically out of the water and onto the “slideout” area, as her male counterpart does, she needs to be helped from the pool by her colleague, before collapsing in what appears to be serious pain.

“Reports came in today that a rookie trainer was injured at Marineland. An ambulance was called to the Niagara Falls abusement park early this afternoon,” the anti-Marineland site said. “Marineland has made no comment confirming the accident but sources say the trainer was a female and injured while performing a stunt. No word on which animals may have been involved in the show at the time.”

Attempts to reach Marineland and Tom Blake were not immediately successful.

Phil Demers, another former trainer, who is being sued by Marineland for defamation, says it is not clear how the injury occurred. “I have it broken down into two scenarios,” he explains. “The first is that the inexperienced trainer appears to be performing a slide-out dismount and hits her knee against the wall. This hurts; I’ve done it.”

The other scenario, Demers says, “is that the beluga actually bites and holds onto the trainer’s leg. I’ve never seen or known a beluga to do that, but they have mouths, so it’s possible. The reason I even suggest this scenario is that it appears from the video that the beluga in fact does have (trainer) Sydney’s thigh or knee in his mouth, as you can also clearly see the trainer immediately tries to get the other inexperienced trainer’s attention prior to the likely moment of impact with a wall.”

And, Demers adds, the male trainer appears to notice something going on, “and he recalls the whale back to stage rather frantically. This leads me to believe she may have been bitten, but I don’t know with certainty. What I do know, is the ambulance was called and that a witness told me Sidney was screaming in pain—and the injury was to the knee.”

Beluga whales, those gentle white cetaceans with the mysterious faces, are not typically known as aggressive animals. Indeed they are a favorite of marine mammal display facilities because of their otherworldly beauty, and their general docility around adults and children. In nearly three years of researching cetacean captivity for Death at SeaWorld, this writer had never come across any incidents of beluga aggression against humans.

But Demers says he has “received and witnessed many injuries by belugas. They’re big animals and can thrash with tremendous force when put in compromising and stressful situations.” He says he personally witnessed injuries such as fractured knees, ankles and toes. “I had a tooth go through my bottom lip when a beluga’s fluke struck me in the face like a right hook,” he says. “I’ve also seen belugas clamp down on trainers’ hands during a force feed medical procedure. That hurts.”

If it was an act of aggression, there may be something about the tiny habitat and living arrangements for the belugas. “In all my years of working with belugas, there was never the dynamic of exclusively two whales, with one being male and one female, in a small pool adjacent to dolphins,” Demers says. “Maybe there is more stress on these two belugas than they’ve experienced in their former pools, consisting of many belugas. Certainly the stress to perform five times a day could get to them, because they’re only been show animals for two seasons.”

Whatever the cause of the injury, one thing is clear at Marineland: the show doesn’t stop, even for a serious injury.

“This is an unfortunate example of how the show must go on, despite an apparent injury to this trainer,” says Jeffrey Ventre, a former whale and dolphin trainer at SeaWorld Orlando. “Keep in mind this is an entertainment production, and not an educational one.” Ventre worked with belugas for three and a half years at SeaWorld and once saw a saw a beluga grab a trainer’s hand and forearm and not let go for nearly a minute.

While at SeaWorld, Ventre adds, “we were always encouraged to just keep smiling and bring as little attention to acts of aggression as possible. Looking at stuff like this makes me sad, and reminds me of how the trainers are almost as exploited as the animals in their care. Lastly, it goes to show how placing even gentle belugas in unnatural environments can lead to aggression.”

Alex Dorer, the leader of the anti-captivity group Fins and Fluke, who recently visited Marineland and attended a protest there, also thinks the stress of captivity can even lead a docile beluga to acts of aggression.

“Both of these belugas reside in the small holding pool to the right. It really doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that it took it upon itself to bite its trainer,” she says. “This animal is probably extremely depressed, very unhappy and probably frustrated living in such cramped quarters with another large beluga—they don’t have the space to roam or spread out the way they would in the wild.”

The video comes at a bad time for SeaWorld, which is suing OSHA in Federal Appeals Court in an attempt to allow its trainers to get back in the water with whales—but this time, of the killer, not beluga variety.

Generally speaking, people and cetaceans are not supposed to come into close physical contact with each other. When that happens, bad things can happen, and people get sent to hospitals. Is captivity responsible for this particular young woman’s injuries? That will be left up to public opinion.