Unlike Now, 1971 Injury Was Out in Open
Sea World’s response to the Nov. 21 accident that left trainer John Sillick hospitalized with serious injuries differed dramatically from a 1971 accident that sent a 22-year-old woman to the hospital for several days.
In that accident, Annette Eckis, a Sea World employee, was bitten by a whale as she was being trained to ride it. Trainers that were already in the water quickly freed the woman and she was rushed to the hospital for extensive medical care, according to Gail MacLaughlin, who in 1971 served as Sea World’s public relations person.
That story “became a national story overnight” because a cameraman from a local San Diego television station caught the action with his camera, according to MacLaughlin. Sea World’s “first concern was for the health of the girl,” MacLaughlin said. “But on the other side, we knew the reporters had another concern.”
Sea World immediately made top executives, including its chairman and president, available for interviews, MacLaughlin said. The company released still pictures taken earlier of Eckis and the whale. And, when still photos were made available by the television station, Sea World passed them along to newspapers.
“Everything was out in the open and we had the press come into the park to see where it had occurred,” MacLaughlin said.
When Eckis was well enough to return to the park, Sea World immediately brought her back to the whale tank to take a publicity photo of her being kissed by the whale that had bitten her.
William Seaton, another former Sea World public relations official, said he uses that 1971 accident “as a perfect example of what you should do to make the best of a bad situation.”
Eckis, who is believed to have remarried and changed her name, eventually sued Sea World. However, an appellate court rescinded a monetary award that a jury had recommended, MacLaughlin said.