SAN DIEGO — Sea World has prohibited killer whale trainers from entering the water with whales during play periods and training sessions as well as shows, Robert K. Gault, acting president of Sea World of San Diego said Saturday.
Trainers will be kept out of whale tanks in San Diego and Orlando at least until after Sea World completes an investigation into a recent series of severe whale trainer injuries at its San Diego park, Gault said.
Gault, president of Sea World's Orlando park, could not estimate when that internal investigation would be concluded.
Gault on Saturday became the first Sea World executive to speak publicly about turmoil that has surrounded the popular aquatic park on Mission Bay since word of the trainer injuries leaked out early last week.
Sea World has focused its investigation on "all of our training and safety procedures," according to Gault, who acknowledged Saturday that "we've had some serious accidents in the San Diego park over the last several months."
"We're in the process of evaluating what (trainers) do, how they do it and why they do it," Gault said. "Until we're sure what is safe and what is not safe, we decided it was best to go back to ground zero." Gault defined "ground zero" as keeping trainers out of the water.
Gault declined to comment on the Nov. 21 accident, but he described Orky and Corky, the park's two newest killer whales as "well-trained animals, good animals" that have not created any "direct problem" for trainers.
Orky, one of the two whales that were transferred to San Diego from Marineland in Rancho Palos Verdes earlier this year, was the whale that landed on top of a trainer during the Nov. 21 accident.
Gault maintained that "the whales will still be doing the spectacular aerial shows . . . the only difference is that trainers will not be swimming in the water with the whales." Trainers will direct whales through the use of "hand signals and other stimuli," Gault said.
Sea World also has modified the whale tank that opened this past summer, to ensure the safety of trainers and the audience, Gault said.
Sea World eliminated one part of the show where whales had propelled themselves out of the water and onto a layer of concrete that sat under about a foot of water. Crews have installed redwood decks on top of those so-called "slide-out" areas, Gault said. Additional Plexiglas has been added to further guarantee the safety of spectators sitting nearby, he said.
Gault, the president of Sea World's Orlando park, will remain in charge of day-to-day operations at Sea World of San Diego "on a temporary basis, until we figure the whole situation out."
In a related matter, Gault declined to comment on Sea World of San Diego President Jan Schultz's claim that he had been fired on Dec. 1. Schultz, marine biologist Lanny Cornell, chief trainer David Butcher and park spokeswoman Jackie Hill evidently were suspended late in November. On Dec. 1, Schultz told reporters that he and the others had been fired.
One former park executive said on Friday that Cornell and Butcher have since returned to Sea World to clean out their offices.
Also on Friday, Sea World announced that Hill had been reinstated as assistant to the park president.
But Gault on Saturday declined to comment on what role the remaining three executives will have with the park.
Gault, who did not identify the executives, said that three people "have been placed on suspension with full pay until the end of the year." Gault said that William Jovanovich, chairman of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which owns the Sea World parks, will determine the fate of the three suspended executives.
Meanwhile, repercussions from the changes at Sea World were being felt across country in Miami, where scientists from around the world were gathering for a highly influential meeting sponsored by the Society for Marine Mammalogy.
However, several marine biologists and other professionals at Sea World's parks recently canceled their plans to attend the "Seventh Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals," according to conference chairman Daniel Odell, a University of Miami professor who is on leave to the Florida Marine Science Center, a not-for-profit research center in Orlando that is funded by Sea World.
"I understand that Cornell and others from Sea World canceled," Odell said Saturday. "I really didn't expect to see any of them here, given the circumstances."
Few participants at the meeting that began Saturday night seemed to have a good understanding of what has occurred at the Sea World park in San Diego, according to Odell.
He described the activity in San Diego as "a significant development because the people (at the conference) know the people (at Sea World) both as professional colleagues and friends.
"They'll want to know what was going on, what were the exact circumstances of the accidents," according to Odell.