Training killer whales as dancing partners is a sensitive business, hovering somewhere on the cusp between science and art. Trainers say it takes the eye of a baseball player, the intuitions of a psychoanalyst and, occasionally, the nerves of a fighter pilot.
Communication between animal and trainer occurs through a private vocabulary of gestures, posture, a quick sweep of a fin. A sudden leap or a sharp bump might signal affection or aggression. A trainer who misinterprets may fall dangerously out of step.
"You need to be able to read your animals, to see if anything is bothering them," said Karen Pryor, an animal behaviorist and longtime marine mammal trainer. "Killer whales, if they get angry, the white of the eye turns red. You never want them to get that angry."
Sea World of San Diego for 20 years has pioneered in that personal approach to training captive killer whales, using psychological techniques to choreograph the extraordinary whale ballet that is the symbol and centerpiece of the marine park chain.
But in recent weeks, it has become clear that something is awry. A young trainer remains hospitalized after being virtually crushed by a killer whale. In the aftermath, a rash of other trainer injuries have come to light, including 14 in the past five months.
Suddenly, Sea World has banished its trainers from the killer whale pools. It has banned all contact between whales and trainers or the audience. And its parent company has abruptly fired the park's top officials in charge of animal care and training.
Park Being Picketed
The park president, also fired, is suing the company. Animal rights groups have begun picketing the park. And last week, William Jovanovich, chairman of Sea World's parent company, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, let it be known that he would happily unload the entire chain, for the right price.
The fault, in Jovanovich's view, lies with Sea World: He blamed park management, supervision and the way trainers and whales have been trained. Others have blamed corporate demands on the park as the chain rapidly expanded and note that Jovanovich himself has been deeply interested in Sea World management--going to far as to help design the park's logo.
In interviews in recent weeks with current and former Sea World employees, former Sea World trainers and specialists in psychology and animal behavior, Sea World's troubles were traced to a concatenation of causes:
- The killer whale show has evolved over the last 15 years into a highly ambitious affair--an array of increasingly elaborate and frequent performances demanding exquisite timing and teamwork by both animals and trainers.
- The park has also grown enormously since its inception in the mid-1960s, spawning a nationwide chain with a fourth park scheduled to open in Texas in May, 1988. Each year has brought new attractions, new crowds and new shows. Whales are flown from park to park, and managers face a host of new challenges in supervising the expanding network of trainers.
- Many of the more experienced trainers have left in recent years, citing low pay, internal politics and the pressures that come with growth. Relatively inexperienced trainers were left to execute complicated tricks developed by trainers who had spent 10 to 20 years on the job.
- Meanwhile, tension among the whales in the San Diego park increased recently. With the new park planned, Sea World had been eager to expand its stable of 12 killer whales. Blocked from capturing in the wild, the company had turned to breeding in captivity.
Toward that end, it had opened a new whale pool five times the size of the last and brought to San Diego a pair of adult whales from Marineland, the Rancho Palos Verdes park that Sea World bought and then closed. Bringing in the new whales--a longtime breeding couple--may have encouraged breeding but also could increase tension and the likelihood of unpredictable behavior, trainers and other experts say.
"It sounded to me like things were getting progressively more and more out of control . . . ," said Dennis Kelly, a professor of marine biology at Orange Coast College and a longtime observer and critic of Sea World. "It was obvious that Sea World was trying to do too much, too fast, in an unpredictable situation and with a flawed training philosophy."
Crushing Blow to Pelvis
Against that backdrop, the Nov. 21 accident occurred.
John Sillick, a 26-year-old trainer with less than two years' experience, was riding on the back of a female killer whale during a show, when Orky, the five-ton male brought from Marineland, leaped from the pool as part of the performance and landed on Sillick.
The crushing blow broke Sillick's pelvis, thigh and ribs. One month later, he remains hospitalized at UC San Diego Medical Center.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich has investigated the accident but has not released any conclusions about its precise cause.
One source within Sea World said there was sexual activity involving the male whale shortly before the show, introducing a complex variable into the equation. He likened conducting a performance under such circumstances to riding a mare in season in the presence of a stallion.
Others--some of whom have viewed a videotape of the accident--suggest that trainer error or inexperience was to blame. These sources trace that inexperience to management policies in hiring and training.
Training Methods Blamed
But Jovanovich, at least in part, has blamed the training methods that psychologists and trainers say was one of Sea World's contributions to the field. In a press conference earlier this month, Jovanovich concluded that the so-called Sea World method had failed.
So far, Jovanovich has been the only company official to speak in detail about the troubles at Sea World, which, in his press conference, he traced to "negligence" by top park managers, accusing them of failing adequately to supervise the whale show.
Company officials declined even to discuss the park's training methods.
"The organization is in flux, and we are also looking at some of our approaches to training," explained Jackie Hill, the park's spokeswoman (who was also briefly suspended for speaking about the accident to the press). "We just need time to sort things out."
By all accounts, training killer whales is a tricky undertaking.
The killer whale, or orca, is the largest and fastest member of the dolphin family. Males can grow to 31 feet in length and weigh four to five tons. Females are somewhat smaller. Orcas are highly intelligent and social. They communicate through a broad language of social signals including sounds, postures, gestures and patterns of movement.
A slap of the tail or head on the water or a twisting leap can be expressions of anger or frustration. Cuffing, striking and "raking" with the teeth can be used to signal annoyance. A simple bump may be an expression of either affection or aggression.
"Guessing about the motives of animals is like batting in professional baseball," Tim Desmond, a longtime Marineland trainer, once wrote. "A great hitter hits safely 30% of the time, but someone who gets a hit only 20% of the time is dropped from the team."
The ideal qualifications for a training job, therefore, are a complex mix.
Supervisors say the best trainers have some background in marine biology or psychology. They have a lifelong love of animals and are sensitive and intuitive. They are also athletic, attractive, poised in public--and willing to work for little more than minimum wage.
Chris Harris began at age 16 in Sea World's food service department. After six years as a trainer, he says he was making $6.10 an hour in 1985. Vic Charfauros got his start dressed as a pirate being shot out of a volcano during an aquatic show. Jonathan Smith started work in 1985 at $5.05 an hour.
The work can be emotionally and physically draining. Bruises are the norm, even in shows that don't entail Sea World's acrobatics. Trainers say it can take a good five years to become skilled.
Personal Bonding Needed
"Not only do you have to know your animal, but your animal has to know you," said Desmond, who now works as a consultant for zoos and aquariums. "A personal relationship is necessary--some kind of personal bonding between the animal and the trainer."
The consequences of poor training can be severe, scientists say.
Animal behaviorists say providing adequate stimulation and allowing the animals some control over their environment can play a central role in health and longevity. Also essential is avoiding stress, which can make the animals subject to a variety of diseases.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the captive killer whale industry was young, training techniques were relatively crude.
The basic principles were those of operant conditioning, in which desired behavior is "reinforced" with rewards. The reward was food and all good behavior was rewarded. Fish for tricks, some observers have called it.
But trainers at Sea World realized that system was unnatural. They say they were running the risk of turning the animals into spoiled children, unable to cope with small frustrations and perhaps prone to tantrums that could disrupt a public performance.
To Keep Animals Guessing
So they gradually shifted to a less predictable system and expanded the rewards used for reinforcement. They began replacing the traditional fish with toys, games, interaction with other animals and tactile stimulation, such as rubdowns.
The idea was to keep the animals guessing.
"In an oceanarium, where public visits are the norm, it's important that you have some degree of reliability in performance," said Bruce Stephens, a Sea World trainer from 1970 until 1985. "The higher the state of the motivation, the more varied and interesting the reinforcers, the higher the level of performance."
The animals' tricks, or "behaviors," expanded accordingly. The trainers began to vary the sequences, directions and where tricks were performed. Gradually, the trainers began spending more and more time in the water, playing and performing with the whales.
Out of simple rides around the pool evolved elaborate acrobatics. Trainers took to riding on the whales' snouts and swimming underwater with the whales. Leaps, dives and spectacular feats seemed to grow naturally out of the growing bond between the trainers and whales.
"It evolved into a situation where there was much more personal contact, personal relationship with the animals," said Charfauros, who worked at Sea World for 19 years.
Sea World's successes in the early 1970s brought growth--a new seasonal park in Ohio in 1970 and a year-round one in Orlando, Fla. in 1973. In 1976, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paid $51 million to buy the parks, now one of the nation's largest amusement park chains, second only to Disney World and Disneyland in number of visits.
The training expertise once concentrated in San Diego became spread between Florida and California. And the number of trainers increased steadily, creating new management challenges in a business that had never been practiced on such a broad scale.
In 1985, David Butcher, a longtime San Diego trainer who had gone on to supervise training in Florida, took over training at all the parks. According to former trainers, Butcher, who has declined to be interviewed, tried to standardize the system and imposed practices that alienated some veterans.
Many of the experienced trainers quit or transferred to other parts of the park. Some went to better-paying jobs at Marineland or the San Diego Zoo. Others went on to work in marine mammal research for the Navy or set up their own consulting firms.
"They had to hire a whole bunch of rookies," said Harris. "The experienced trainers had to do the shows and didn't have time to spend with the rookies to get them to be good."
Some trainers and observers say the performances visibly deteriorated.
"When the behavior started to deteriorate, the trainers lacked the skill to repair the behavior," said R. H. Defran, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University who helped train trainers at Sea World in the early 1970s.
Jonathan Smith, a 19-year-old business major at Point Loma College in San Diego, was hired in November, 1985, as a trainer in the seal and otter show. He figures he got the job because he was athletic, a strong swimmer and was able "to speak well on a microphone."
Smith described his training as "learn-as-you-go." After one year, he was transferred to the killer whale show. Within about a week, he was in the water with the whales, he said. Some of the trainers working with him had less experience.
On March 4, 1987, Smith was injured during a performance when two whales took him in their jaws and repeatedly dragged him 32 feet down to the bottom of the whale pool. After about 2 1/2 minutes, he managed to climb out and collapsed backstage, Smith said last week.
He was hospitalized nine days with bruised kidneys and ribs and a six-inch cut in his liver.
'White Paper' Requested
So far, neither Smith nor any other trainer in recent years has taken legal action against the park, according to records on file in San Diego Superior Court.
Injuries to other trainers followed. Last summer, Jovanovich asked park managers for a "white paper" on training methods. Jovanovich now contends that he was misled by the authors of the white paper about the extent and severity of the injuries.
Jovanovich has traditionally taken a strong interest in Sea World, although book publishing remains the bulwark of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's business. In 1984, Jovanovich told company shareholders that the firm had "fortified" its publishing management team in order to "free me and (HBJ Parks executive Jack Snyder) to work more closely with Sea World."
Cinda K. Gregg, who for six years served as corporate director of licensing for Sea World recalls when Jovanovich changed the colors of the waves on the Sea World logo. He also helped design the large, multicolored map, a nearby fountain and a retail store at the new entrance to the San Diego park.
After the Nov. 21 accident, Jovanovich ordered his own investigation by a team of four HBJ executives. That group unearthed 14 injuries in the previous four months, including a number of neck and back injuries.
It also found that three of the five trainers conducting the show at the time of the accident had no more than three months' experience. Sillick, after a year and three quarters, was the most experienced person, and there was no supervisor nearby.
'A Shame for the Animals'
"The fact finding by our committee showed that there was negligence," Jovanovich said.
Jovanovich suspended Butcher, park president Jan Schultz and zoological director Lanny Cornell, a well-known figure in the world of captive marine mammals. The company is currently discussing severance with the three former managers.
Also as a result of the accident, Jovanovich has prohibited trainers at all the parks from going in the water with the whales, and has barred the direct human contact that has been central to killer whale training at Sea World.
"I think it's a shame for the animals," said one former Sea World trainer, speaking anonymously. "They're used to that contact. It's part of their environment. How would you feel if you could go about your daily routines but nobody was around? Think about it."