SAN DIEGO — 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.