SeaWorld Arms Orca Trainers With Inflatable Air Vests

But critics contend the device wouldn’t save lives in an encounter with a killer whale.

SeaWorld Arms Orca Trainers With Inflatable Air Vests

(Photo: Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Four years after the orca Tilikum killed SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, and just two weeks after a federal appellate court rejected the company’s attempt to overturn government-imposed safety measures, SeaWorld debuted an inflatable vest for its killer whale trainers. The safety device is equipped with a small scuba tank to provide the trainers with air in case of emergency.

Critics say the vest would not have saved Brancheau—who died from trauma and not a lack of oxygen—and decry the move as window dressing that will be of limited value when a killer whale goes on a rampage.

SeaWorld dismissed the criticism. The devices “provide trainers with buoyancy and on-board air, and they are the result of three years of collaborative effort between safety experts, engineers, and my own training team," Kelly Flaherty Clark, curator of animal training at the Orlando park, told WESH-TV.

Earlier this month, a federal appellate court ruled against SeaWorld and upheld an Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandate that trainers stay out of the water and maintain minimal distances from the whales during shows.

SeaWorld has also adopted new rules requiring trainers to stay 18 inches away from the whales while standing poolside and three feet away while kneeling near them. The company does, however, allow trainers to touch the animals in the slide-out area, as long as they approach from the side and stay away from the mouth and the tail.

SeaWorld officials said previously that they wanted to return trainers to the water, but Flaherty Clark denied that assertion this week. “Right now, that’s not something we’re even considering,” she said. “This is just a piece of equipment to maybe make that environment a little bit safer.” The only apparent explanation for the vests, then, is SeaWorld’s concern about what might happen if a trainer fell into a pool or was dragged underwater by an orca, as was the case with Brancheau in February 2010.

John Hargrove, who worked at SeaWorld in San Diego and San Antonio until 2012, said he trained with the vest since its conception in late 2010. “I immediately brought up the concern that they created a drowning hazard, because you could not break free from the device if a whale chose to grab it and pull you in,” Hargrove, who was featured in the documentary Blackfish, wrote in an email.

“I knew this system was flawed, and they finally went back in and made adjustments making some, but not all, of the device able to break free,” he wrote.

In December 2010, four other former SeaWorld trainers, including Samantha Berg, sent affidavits to OSHA expressing concern about the spare air system.

“The depth of the main show pool at Shamu stadium is 36 feet, which translates to a pressure of two atmospheres,” wrote Berg. “This means if you take a breath at that depth, the air expands to double the volume on ascent. Anyone who is trained to scuba dive will know that the key to avoiding a lung over-expansion injury is a slow, steady ascent while exhaling or breathing normally.”

A trainer dragged to the bottom of the pool would be subject to this pressure. “If, by some miracle, the trainer was even capable of getting access to their air, he or she would be in serious danger if the whale suddenly decided to make a rapid ascent with the trainer still in his mouth,” Berg wrote.

Like many critics, Berg pointed out that an inflatable vest and scuba gear would not have spared the life of Brancheau: “A marginally conscious, hypothermic, badly injured trainer in shock in the jaws of a 12,000-pound whale would be just as dead if he or she were carrying extra air or not.”

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