As SeaWorld and the team of outside experts it has assembled comb through the company's safety policies following last week's fatal killer-whale accident, they face an important question: How close is too close for the trainers who work with the company's biggest orca?
SeaWorld has long restricted its trainers from swimming with Tilikum, the 6-ton killer whale that pulled trainer Dawn Brancheau to her death last week. But it does allow them to work with the animal from shallow ledges built into the sides of its tanks.
What's more, SeaWorld also permits trainers to lie down in that shallow water with Tilikum and other orcas — provided, officials say, the trainers maintain adequate distance from the animals.
"The proximity of where you were next to the animal played a big part of that [policy]," said Chuck Tompkins, corporate curator for animal behavior and training for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.
Brancheau, 40, was lying on one of those ledges last Wednesday afternoon when Tilikum suddenly took her long ponytail in his jaws, pulled her into his tank and drowned her.
Video taken by tourists moments before the tragedy show the veteran trainer lying on her stomach, partially submerged, while Tilikum's head bobs just beyond the ledge in deeper water. The two appear nearly face to face.
While SeaWorld resumed its killer-whale performances three days after the accident, trainers remain prohibited from entering the water with the animals while the company and representatives from other marine parks and aquariums review existing safety procedures. SeaWorld's policy of allowing trainers to work with Tilikum from tank ledges is among the items under examination.
SeaWorld says it will also keep Tilikum out of any performances until that review is complete. Tompkins said SeaWorld expects it to be done within the next two to three weeks.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Orange County Sheriff's Office are also investigating the accident. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will conduct a site inspection.
SeaWorld Orlando's orca complex has multiple tanks. The underwater ledges built into those tanks range from as little as 2 inches deep to as much as 4 feet deep.
The ledge that Brancheau was on at the time of the accident was between 3 and 5 inches deep. It was roughly 60 feet long and about 10 feet wide, Tompkins said.
Working from the submerged platforms can help SeaWorld trainers better assess a killer whale's behavior as they interact with the animal, Tompkins said. "It enables you to be at the whale's level," he said.
Both current and former SeaWorld officials say the company has long considered working with the killer whales from the ledges a form of "dry" interaction with its orcas. The reason: Even though the trainers are technically in the water, they are still in a position where they can more easily retreat if they see any signs that the animal is about to stop following directions.
That distinction is why Brancheau and other trainers were allowed to work with Tilikum from the underwater decks, even though they were forbidden from fully entering the water with him. The swimming prohibition is one of the specific protocols SeaWorld has developed for working with Tilikum, who is twice as large as the next-biggest killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando and has been linked to two deaths before Brancheau's.
The rules for lying down in the water with the orcas are less concrete. There are no set criteria for when it is or isn't allowed; instead, Tompkins said, trainers are supposed to consider factors such as the orca's proximity to them before getting off their feet.
Lying down is a much more vulnerable position, because it takes longer for a trainer to get out of the way in an emergency.
Before leaving their feet, Tompkins said, trainers must evaluate "where you are, what animal you are with, how you lay down, where you lay down, the distance by which you lay down, how many animals are in the pool."
Former killer-whale trainers say it appears from video recordings that Brancheau may have put herself in too vulnerable of a position with Tilikum.
"When I was there, all I can say is I would not have allowed that, to lie down next to Tilikum that close to his mouth," said Thad Lacinak, the former vice president and corporate curator of animal training for Busch Entertainment Corp., the company's name before it was sold by Anheuser-Busch InBev to the Blackstone Group last year.
Whenever a trainer is working with Tilikum, SeaWorld's policies require a second trainer to act as a spotter, who, similar to an airplane co-pilot, can point out mistakes and respond if something goes wrong. SeaWorld said a spotter was watching Brancheau at the time of the accident from about 12 to 15 feet away.
Lacinak said Brancheau, like the rest of SeaWorld's killer-whale trainers, understood and accepted the risks involved in working with the predators. "It's no different than a race-car driver and NASCAR," he said. "We understand what the risks are because we love what we do."
Jason Garcia can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5414.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun