Sea World’s orca experience: Are we getting in too deep?

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by Marvin Hurst / KENS 5

Updated Saturday, May 7 at 9:16 PM

Do you think Sea World should allow trainers back in the water with killer whales during performances?

SAN ANTONIO — They are marvelous, massive, and some would say, misunderstood.

Killer whales are striking to the eye, awe-inspiring to those who work with the creatures, and heart- freezing fear in motion for just about anything that takes on the black and white beast.

In fact, orcas are often considered the king of the deep.

“In the wild, they are the top predator in the ocean,” said Sea World San Antonio’s Mark Boucher. “They are the bullies of the ocean.”

Boucher is the curator at Sea World San Antonio. He is in charge of training all of the animals in the aquatic theme park.

“They (orcas) have no known predators,” said Boucher.

There is one. Man.

However, Boucher has worked with Sea World for 30 years, and his role is friend, advocate, and professional, not adversary.

“With the killer whales, you know, they are a lot bigger and a lot stronger, so you have to respect that a little bit,” he said. “But, they are a lot  of fun to be around.”

The park has six killer whales, that includes: three bulls, two females, and a baby orca born in January. Of all of Sea World’s fascinating animals, the killer whale is the main attraction.

Each one of the orcas has its own personality, temperament, and name. To the world, they know them all as ‘Shamu’. It’s a single brand that draws people from all over the world. The massive mammals which can be five to six tons perform tricks with an almost silky ease at the flicker of the hands of the park’s trainers.

“You have to have a lot of patience as a trainer,” said Boucher. “It takes a lot of time and dedication.”

In fact, he said the orcas are taught slowly and methodically. He claims it could take years to teach the killer whale to jump on command. He likens the process to training a child. The secret is, reportedly, positive interaction and social  observation said Boucher.

That is perhaps, quintessential, since all of the park’s animals work and live in the same place. The parks are huge but captivity remains a man-made environment of comfort with the intention to educate the public. But,  Boucher said any of the Sea World’s animals could have a bad moment.

“At times, it can be an otter. At times, it can be a killer whale or a beluga whale or a white-sided dolphin,” he said.

An otter attack, if any, has not been a banner story in the media. Killer whale attacks, on the other hand, have made headlines and are top story material. Each of Sea World’s three existing properties in San Antonio, San Diego, and Orlando have all had incidents where orcas have taken a turn for the worse.

The most recent ended fatally for trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 at Sea World Orlando.

“I met her a couple of times and Dawn was an awesome individual,” said Boucher. “She lit up a room.”

Ever since her death, no trainers have been allowed back in the water to do shows with the killer whales. As a matter of fact, the Orlando park has redone it show to reflect such.

“Putting people in the water with whales in the wild is illegal,” said Seattle-based whale biologist Fred Felleman. “Modeling this behavior in captivity is a bad example.”

Felleman has studied whales in the wild and captivity since 1980. He said the orcas are not teddy bears.

“The kind of education they are providing, at this point, is really misinformation,” Felleman said. “I think it’s contrary to their right to hold whales in captivity in the first place.”

The Pacific Northwest whale expert believes that such parks and aquariums warrant more federal oversight.

Boucher admits the killer whale will never be domesticated. He said they are wild animals which foster apprehensions for some.

“I’m sure there will be a heightened awareness if and when we do get back in the water,” Boucher said. “Our trainers are professionals. They are very careful at what they do.”

He said safety perimeters are in place. San Antonio’s park will have a new Shamu show like the one in Orlando this summer, according to park officials.

“What we try to do is convey to them (orcas) that we’re trying to be your friends,” said Boucher.

Sea World San Antonio hopes to have 15 trainers in place for their killers whales also by summertime.

~ by fredfelleman on May 11, 2011.

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