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Could "Spare Air" Save Marine Park Trainers During Orca Attacks?

August 22, 2010

Trainer John Sillick Was Crushed When This Orca Landed On Him

There has been a lot of chatter and rumor that SeaWorld is working on personal SCUBA air systems for its trainers, and is hoping that OSHA–if SeaWorld adopts this technology–will allow trainers to continue to work in the water with killer whales.

John Jett, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, weighs in on the proposed technology, arguing that it will not really do much to improve a trainer’s chances if a killer whale goes after a trainer, as Tilikum did with Dawn Brancheau.

Here’s Jett:

The scuba bottle solution Sea Word is likely to propose to OSHA represents, in practical terms, nothing.  In other words, this is a false solution.

First of all, there are issues with mouthpieces and hoses dangling off of trainers as these will be something for the whales to become focused on and to grab.  After all, Sea World is claiming that Tilikum initially grabbed Dawn’s ponytail, which ultimately lead to her death.  I’m not sure how an air hose and a ponytail differ, at least from the perspective of Sea World’s story regarding her death.  Do whales differentiate ponytails from air hoses?

Secondly, let’s assume a trainer who was being thrashed by a whale was somehow able to get the mouthpiece into his/her mouth and begin breathing from the tank (an assumption I think is faulty as it would be difficult to get a mouthpiece in place while being tossed around).  The bottom of the front pool represents about two atmospheres of pressure.  The volume of a lung full of air taken at this depth doubles while one ascends to the surface.  In the event a trainer takes a breath at the bottom (off of a tank) and is then rushed to the surface by the whale then his/her lungs expand beyond capacity and are ruptured.  Whales move quickly.  This scenario is a real possibility.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this approach would not have saved Keltie Byrne, Alexis Martinex, Steve Aibel or Ken Peters.  Additionally, this approach would have in no way saved Dawn Brancheau from her horrific death.

What Sea World is doing is trying to create the illusion that they have fixed a problem which they have no real control over.  That is, whales do what they want sometimes, without human consent, and in ways immune to man-made interventions.  OSHA shouldn’t buy it.

UPDATE: Some other former SeaWorld trainers are weighing in on this issue.

Samantha Berg worked as an animal trainer at SeaWorld Orlando for 3-plus years, 1990-1993:

I think spare air or any kind of SCUBA gear that a trainer has to be wearing would likely CAUSE more problems than it prevents.  It gives the whales something else to grab on to.  As JJ said, what’s the difference between a dangling ponytail and an air hose?

One of the problems all marine parks deal with is how to keep things out of the mouths of the dolphins and whales.  I know of at least one dolphin at SW that died from ingesting coins (zinc poisoning) that were thrown into its pool by tourists who didn’t know better (or who didn’t read the signs that specifically state not to throw things in the pool).

And let’s just say a trainer is wearing SCUBA gear, the whale grabs the gear, the trainer gets away, and the whale swallows some of the gear.  So, the trainer is OK, but now the whale is in jeopardy.

So, even if the SCUBA gear or spare air provides some kind of safety for the trainer (which I don’t think it does), it puts the whales at higher risk of injury and death.

Carol Ray also worked at SeaWorld Orlando for about three years, starting in 1987. She worked in the education (tour) department before becoming a trainer and working at both the Whale & Dolphin Stadium, and Shamu Stadium:

I’m absolutely in agreement with JJ’s comments about spare air and lack of benefit to any trainer who ends up in a situation with any killer whale who is no longer under control, as per the videos we can see of prior incidents.

I’m sure SW will assert that they can desensitize the whales to the spare air that trainers would be required to wear. This is as meaningless as their previous attempts to assure us that “call backs” will be trained and ingrained so that the killer whales will come back to stage/control despite what is happening in a pool. As we can see with all of these incidents, the call backs are not succesful during real life (life-death) events, when they count, despite their ‘success’ in training sessions.

I believe the spare air solution will do nothing other than give the whales another means of potentially harming trainers, either by easy access to pull/drag or, as JJ says, by forcing the trainers to take in air which could eventually lead to bigger problems as per any SCUBA diver who is rushed to the surface. Spare air? Spare me. This is NOT a solution, and would not have prevented Dawn’s recent death or the majority of injuries that have occured as a result of the recent incidents we are aware of.

Here’s a video report on Dawn Brancheau’s death that goes back and looks at previous incidents with trainers. Watch John Sillick get crushed at about 2:35 and see if you think “spare air” would have helped him much.

Read more about SeaWorld’s proposed safety solutions in The Orca Project’s report: “SeaWorld Former Trainers Tell OSHA Spare Air Is No Solution”

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie Wells permalink
    April 28, 2014 8:16 pm

    Set her free

  2. April 28, 2014 1:40 pm

    SeaWorld seems to think all life is a commodity to be used for profit. They have little regard for anything else be it human life or orca.well being – We will rejoice when this current situation is history

  3. Hayley permalink
    August 23, 2010 2:00 pm

    A stand needs to made, firstly the whales shouldnt be there in the first place, but that is a whole other issue.. or is it!???

    anyway, spare air as everybody else has said/stated will NOT help anyone who is being attacked by a killer whale. And the MOST important reason is that IF a trainer DOES get the mouth piece in and therefore is breathing, once the whale accelerates them rapidly to the surface, the air bubbles within the lungs are just as deadly.

  4. August 23, 2010 8:52 am

    X agrees with X’s. As an X myself and a SCUBA diver for over 30 years, this is a horrible and very deadly idea. The person or people who thought of this are obviously not educated in SCUBA, Physics or animal behavior. The solution is to grandfather all the killer whales in captivity as the last ones and also stop breeding them in captivity. We do not need to see these incredible animals in captivity any more. Go out on a whale watching experience just one time and you’ll know what I mean. While we are at it please stop all the cruel “Dolphin Experiences” around the world. Sea World and many other parks were against these ridiculous acts until the money factor was exposed. Good to here from my fellow SW buds. Best to all! -D

  5. Wendy permalink
    August 23, 2010 2:03 am

    Agree with the X-trainers here. It is not logical for SW to think that some dangling hose for a whale to grab would be any different than a ponytail. Is SW going to provide any testing of this equipment prior to offering to their trainers as a safety precaution? Has SW created any type of simulated orca attack to see if a trainer can actually grab for this mouthpiece if they were being thrashed around? This is an absurd solution as no spare air was going to help Dawn, nor the other trainers that were killed or seriously injured. This is another way SW shows that their interest is in filling their pockets and going on with the waterworks, not in protecting their animals or trainers.

  6. Jeff permalink
    August 23, 2010 1:46 am

    air? For real? And this solves what exactly? Dawn’s death and most injuries to trainers are not caused by a lack of air. Dawn could have been wearing full scuba and she still would have died from the force and trauma. All this does is create a false sense of security that precautions are being taken but in reality, trainers will be no safer than they were on 2/24. There will be more incidents. And when those happen, will OSHA make a stand then? How about 2 more? 3? When will OSHA do their job?

  7. Sherri O permalink
    August 23, 2010 1:38 am

    Although Dawn Brancheau had water in her lungs when she was finally pulled from Tilikum, it’s very OBVIOUS that her actual cause of death was TRAUMA!!!!!! NOT OXYGEN DEPRIVATION.

    I have to agree with X-Seaworld Trainers Samanta Berg and Carol Ray in that providing Oxygen in this type of attack would not be effective as far as saving a human life.


  1. SeaWorld’s Proposed Multi-Million-Dollar Safety Gimmicks Don’t Measure Up | The Orca Project
  2. SeaWorld Ponders Defeat in OSHA Ruling. Trainer Death May Alter Industry Forever « The Orca Project
  3. SeaWorld Spare Air Update « Tim Zimmermann
  4. SeaWorld Safety Upgrades Running into Problems | Stop Cetacean Captivity
  5. SeaWorld Safety Upgrades Running Into Problems « Tim Zimmermann
  6. SeaWorld’s Proposed Multi-Million-Dollar Safety Gimmicks Don’t Measure Up « The Orca Project
  7. SeaWorld Former Trainers Tell OSHA Spare Air Is No Solution « The Orca Project
  8. Zoe – It's Our Nature : SeaWorld to Press Judge for Closed Hearings
  9. SeaWorld presses Judge to have Closed Hearings « The Orca Project
  10. Is This the Beginning of the End for Killer Whale Shows? « The Orca Project
  11. Is This the Beginning of the End for Killer Whale Shows? | Orca Aware

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