For the first time in more than four decades, a new Shamu show premiered Saturday at SeaWorld San Diego without animal trainers performing stunts in the water with the marine park's iconic killer whales.
After a fatal accident at SeaWorld's sister park in Florida, the San Diego park unveiled the conservation-themed "One Ocean" show, featuring orcas performing in unison against a new backdrop of giant LCD screens surrounding a tie-dye-colored whale fluke.
SeaWorld pulled all trainers out of its orca pools after the February 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld Orlando trainer, who was killed by a 6-ton orca named Tilikum.
Alan Garver, SeaWorld San Diego’s curator of animal training, remains confident trainers will eventually return to water work.
"Water work is another layer of the relationship of trainers with the whales," Garver said. "All the trainers really look forward in the future to going back in the water with the whales."
The 25-minute "One Ocean" show features a new stage backdrop, 27 arcing fountains and a musical score by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra set in Shamu Stadium's 3.2-million-gallon pool.
Working exclusively from the stage, trainers now kiss, hug and dance with the whales from the waterside, occasionally using temporary safety railings for up-close interactions.
Judging by the ohs and ahs from the audience during the preview performance I saw Friday, most visitors didn't seem to notice or care that the trainers were no longer in the water with the killer whales.
For me, the new show looked much like the old show – stirring music, leaping whales and soaked-to-the-skin kids squealing with delight.
But no two Shamu shows are ever the same, said Garver, partly to battle whale boredom and tedium.
"For every whale, every show is different," he said.
Before each performance, trainers decide from a list of animal behaviors which elements to assign to which of the six whales in the show.
"Each of the killer whales knows probably a couple hundred behaviors," Garver said. "In developing new stuff for a show, a lot of it is combining those behaviors together in new ways."
Work started last fall on the new Shamu show, SeaWorld's most watched and most popular attraction, with whales and trainers in active rehearsal the past month.
The show unfolded in four acts. The opening aerial acrobatic "One Song" segment was followed by the playful free-form "Frolic" sequence, the quiet water ballet of "Side by Side" and the splash-filled "We're One" finale filled with tail whips and fluke flings that left fist-pumping kids in the front row drenched with delight.
"We really put a lot of water out over the glass and get the people wet, which is what they always love," Garver said.
Among my favorite elements:
* A belly slide across the stage by Kalia, the youngest of the whales, during "Frolic"
* Tandem twisting flips by Corky and Kasatka, the two oldest females, during "Side by Side"
* A spectacular 720-degree vertical spin by Corky during the finale
On the negative side, I found the hammer-you-over-the-head conservation message of the show clumsy and forced rather than heartfelt and sincere (which I'm sure it is).
And I was disappointed to see a new safety railing keeping the audience 5 feet away from the clear pool walls, where kids used to wait for the inevitable deluge.
I'm not sure how different "One Ocean" is from the 40,000 previous killer whale performances SeaWorld San Diego has presented since 1966, but it's as good as any other Shamu show I've seen and I'm sure most people will leave satisfied and soaked.
"One Ocean" opened at SeaWorld Orlando in April and debuts at SeaWorld San Antonio on June 18.