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Sea World Trainers Return to Whale Pools

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Times Staff Writer

Sea World has put its killer whale trainers back into the water, ending a five-month ban imposed after a series of accidents injured trainers and tarnished the amusement park’s nationwide image.

Trainers will enter the water for public performances “as soon as possible” but not until practice sessions show that the whales are completely retrained, said training director Michael Scarpuzzi.

“I don’t have any certain day, whether it’s going to be one day or 100 days,” he said. “But I can see that in the near future, if it continues to progress like this, we’ll be back in the shows.”

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Scarpuzzi’s smile was as bright as the sun glinting off the water Wednesday as he straddled Kandu, tiptoed across her as she rolled, and balanced on her snout as she leaped straight into the air.

“Whoo!” Scarpuzzi exulted as the 6,000-pound whale whisked him to a platform where her fish reward waited.

The training demonstration, conducted for the media a week after it was first tried, came only after the chairman of Sea World’s parent firm approved, Dan LeBlanc, manager of public relations, said.

‘Gave Us the Approval’

“He gave us the approval early last week to do the amount of work that we’re doing right now with these particular whales,” LeBlanc said.

William Jovanovich, chairman of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, had said in December: “In my view, human beings should never again enter the pool.” But he changed his mind in February after Sea World executives showed that each step of a cautious reintroduction would be proven safe before being taken, LeBlanc said, adding that Jovanovich will sign off on all those increments.

Within the last month, trainers also have entered the water with killer whales at the firm’s Ohio and Texas parks, he said.

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Sea World took its trainers out of the water during performances in November after a whale breached during a show and landed on a 26-year-old trainer riding another whale. In December, in-water training sessions also were halted as the firm investigated problems that had resulted in 14 instances of injuries in San Diego beginning last August.

The firm found that unsupervised whale trainers were swimming with the powerful animals despite having as little as one year of experience as whale trainers.

Scarpuzzi, who has 17 years’ experience at marine mammal parks, was brought in from Sea World’s Ohio park in February to revamp the San Diego program.

Changes Put in Place

Wednesday, Scarpuzzi said he has instituted a variety of changes:

- Trainers can enter the water with the whales only after gaining four years of poolside experience with the animals. Only four of the 10 San Diego trainers meet that criterion, he said. They have 17, 14, 12 and 4 years’ experience with whales.

Only two of last fall’s killer whale crew are on the current team, and the rest have been transferred elsewhere in the park, he said.

“When you don’t have the experience level to make the right decisions, you’re going to put not only killer whales but people into situations that can be potentially dangerous,” Scarpuzzi said.

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- Only one whale is worked with at a time. So far, trainers have entered the water only with two females, Kandu and Knootka. Those are the two whales who alternate in the role of Shamu, Sea World’s mascot.

- An adjoining pool will always be kept empty of animals so that, in case of an accident, the whale can be sent out of the performance pool while the injured trainer is aided.

- Whales are being retrained to minimize the personal bond between whale and human swimmer that had been emphasized in the past.

“We’re teaching them to actually ignore that trainer that’s in the water and pay attention to the main trainer that’s on stage,” Scarpuzzi said. “That helps the animals to not feel that that trainer means any great deal, or is so very (much more) important than any other trainer.

“Basically, it teaches the killer whale that the person who’s in the water is not as important. Another person on the other side of the pool can call that killer whale over and actually take control of him. If the trainer in the water falls off, it’s OK, the killer whale continues to swim around the pool.”

Process Moving Slowly

Training is moving slowly, especially because “I have a lot of retraining to do” with the whales, Scarpuzzi said.

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Orky, the only male in San Diego and the animal that caused the most serious injuries to a trainer, is proving a good learner, he said.

“There’s a lot of misconception about Orky,” Scarpuzzi said. “He’s a very, very disciplined killer whale. He works really well. I’ve worked with other large male killer whales, and by far Orky’s the best one that I’ve ever worked with.”

The man Orky injured in November, John Sillick, remains at home recuperating from a broken back, hip, pelvis and leg. He said Wednesday that he thought putting trainers back in the water was “inevitable,” given the popularity of killer whale shows in the past. But he is pleased with the “extreme caution” he sees in the reintroduction.

Park officials deny persistent reports that there has been pressure to put whale trainers into the water to increase Sea World’s revenue. They note that attendance so far this year is up 4% despite the ban.

If that’s the case, then why put humans at risk at all?

His eyes shining in a sun-bronzed face, Scarpuzzi had an upbeat answer: “It looks good. I like to do it. People like to see it.”

Changes in Sea World’s whale training:

- Trainers can enter the water with the whales only after gaining four years of poolside experience with the animals.

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- Only one whale is worked with at a time.

- An adjoining pool will always be kept empty of animals so that, in case of an accident, the whale can be sent out of the performance pool while the injured trainer is aided.

- Whales are being retrained to minimize the personal bond between whale and human swimmer that had been emphasized in the past.

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