Could This Penalty Spell the End of Killer Whales Swimming With Trainers?

Miami Seaquarium, the last U.S. aquatic park to let employees work in the water with whales, was hit with a fine for putting workers at risk of death.

(Photo: Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

Jul 25, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued the Miami Seaquarium a citation for allowing killer whale trainers to come into dangerously close contact with its sole orca, Lolita.

OSHA made a similar move against SeaWorld Florida after the 2010 killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by the 12,000-pound whale Tilikum.

Though Miami Seaquarium could challenge the violation in court, the penalty could herald the end of trainers performing water shows with killer whales in the U.S.

"The employer did not furnish (a workplace) free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm (from) struck-by and drowning hazards," OSHA said in the citation, which was issued July 10.

OSHA gave Miami Seaquarium until Aug. 26 to fix the violation by prohibiting trainers from getting into the water with the orca. The water park also must install physical barriers or require that a minimum distance be maintained between trainers on land and Lolita. The agency proposed a fine of $7,000.

The citation sprang from a complaint filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund last January.

"OSHA has enforced [orca safety protocols] against only one such facility, SeaWorld of Florida, and only then after a trainer there was killed by an orca," ALDF said in a June 11 letter to OSHA's Enforcement Department.

"Enforcement, which came too late for the deceased trainer, is still denied employees of other marine entertainment facilities," ALDF wrote. "Rather than wait for the next fatality, OSHA should intervene now."

Neither OSHA nor Miami Seaquarium has responded to interview requests.

The news heartened captivity opponents because it could deal a significant blow to Miami Seaquarium's business model. When SeaWorld halted all "waterwork" with killer whales in 2010, Miami Seaquarium remained the only U.S. facility where visitors could watch trainers swimming with, riding on, or leaping from the body of an orca.

According to ALDF, Lolita "has given numerous indications that she could similarly physically injure or kill her trainers. A video posted to YouTube on December 20, 2012, shows Lolita lunging out of the tank and snapping her mouth at visitors." Another video showed Lolita nearly heaving a trainer into the wall of her small tank. In the 1970s, Lolita grabbed a trainer and pried off his wetsuit.

ALDF said Lolita might be even more dangerous than Tilikum, who has been involved in the deaths of three people, because she performs in a far smaller pool, with fewer escape routes for trainers. “She lives in a less stimulating environment than Tilikum, deprived of both space and companionship,” according to ALDF’s complaint.

In 2010, OSHA hit SeaWorld with a "willful" violation in Brancheau's death and mandated safety abatements identical to those being imposed on Miami Seaquarium. SeaWorld has unsuccessfully appealed that decision.

"After SeaWorld lost their appeal, we confirmed that trainers were still treating Lolita like a surfboard—risking their lives in the process—and sent a fresh complaint to OSHA," said Jenni James, a litigation fellow at ALDF. "We didn't want Lolita and her trainer to star in a Blackfish sequel," she said, referring to the 2013 documentary about orca captivity.

Lolita, who was taken from her pod in Puget Sound 40 years ago, has been the subject of an ongoing legal battle to secure her release back into the wild.

"It makes sense that the OSHA standards should be the same across this misguided (and hopefully dying) industry," former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg said in an email. "On the other hand, I can't help but hurt for Lolita, confined for almost 44 years in that small, miserable pool. Human contact is about the only thing she's got. All the more reason to push for her release."