SeaWorld has a policy forbidding its killer-whale trainers from having "dangling hair" that the animals could grab onto, according to records from a workplace-safety investigation at the company's San Diego theme park. Investigators with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, examining a 2006 incident in which a trainer was injured when an orca grabbed him by the feet and held him underwater, found that SeaWorld trainers are "not allowed to have dangling hair or any accessories on their bodies that the whales might be able to grab when they are around the pool." But a veteran trainer at SeaWorld Orlando was killed last week when, authorities say, one of the park's orcas grabbed Dawn Brancheau by her long ponytail, pulled her deep into his tank and drowned her. The tragedy -- spelled out Monday in dramatic detail by witness statements released by the Orange County Sheriff's Office -- has prompted fresh scrutiny of SeaWorld's safety practices, including its hair-length policy.
SeaWorld said Monday that its policy was designed to prevent "free-flowing hair" and that trainers could still have long hair as long as it was tied in a ponytail, as Brancheau's was. The company said the rule was meant to reduce risks other than being snatched by an orca. "Free-flowing hair has the ability to flow in front of your eyes, blocking you, or, most importantly, it gets in front of a killer whale and becomes a distraction," said Chuck Tompkins, corporate curator in charge of animal behavior for all of SeaWorld's parks. He added that the risk of a long ponytail being grabbed was lessened because "all of the water-work animals have been trained not to pull on hair."
The orca that killed Brancheau, a 6-ton killer whale named Tilikum, was not a "water-work" animal; trainers were forbidden from swimming with him because of his massive size and history. As such, Tilikum had not been conditioned to ignore hair tied in a ponytail.
SeaWorld says it is now re-evaluating all of its safety policies for working with killer whales. In the interim, trainers, who will not be allowed to enter the water with the animals until the conclusion of SeaWorld's examination, must keep long hair secured in a bun.
The description of SeaWorld's hair policy is included in a controversial report from California regulators following a Nov. 29, 2006, incident in which a killer whale at SeaWorld San Diego grabbed trainer Kenneth "Petey" Peters' feet with its jaws and repeatedly dragged Peters to the bottom of its tank. Peters suffered puncture wounds to both feet and a broken metatarsal in his left foot.
In the initial version of its report, the California workplace-safety agency, known as Cal/OSHA, warned that "swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous." "If someone hasn't been killed already, it is only a matter of time before it does happen," the agency warned. Investigators said SeaWorld should be prepared to kill one of its animals to save a trainer caught by an orca that is "out of control and not responding to other available control measures." The initial report, which did not accuse SeaWorld of any serious safety violations, nonetheless enraged the company. SeaWorld blasted it as "riddled with inaccuracies, speculation and superficial suppositions, information unrelated to the investigation and overreaching conclusions."
Cal/OSHA, after meeting with SeaWorld executives, ultimately backed away from that version of its report, withdrawing an "information memorandum" that included suggestions such as the lethal-force recommendation. It also winnowed a narrative summary of the accident and investigation from 18 pages to eight pages and deleted the most-damning passages. The agency even publicly apologized to SeaWorld for its initial report, saying it "regrets the difficulties it may have caused SeaWorld, its staff and its patrons."
In a statement Monday, Cal/OSHA stood by the amendments made to the summary report on the 2006 incident, saying "the original narrative summary contained a lot of detail that we felt was inappropriate and that scientific analysis could not support. We believe the statements were speculative in nature and went beyond the scope and relevance that the narrative summary is meant to provide."
But animal-rights activists say now the report is further proof that killer whales are too dangerous to be kept in captivity. "Three years ago, they were warned an orca was going to kill a trainer. And they didn't listen," said Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer in Fort Lauderdale who has been critical of SeaWorld for years. "Instead of heeding it, they went after it to kill the messenger."
The chaotic moments surrounding Dawn Brancheau's death were detailed Monday in dozens of witness statements released by the Sheriff's Office. Some guests were attending the Dine With Shamu show, watching Brancheau and the whale by the edge of the pool. Other guests were in a lower-level viewing area, watching Tilikum through glass as he interacted with the trainer. Brancheau was face-to-face with Tilikum performing what co-worker Jan Joseph Topoleski called a "relationship" session when the orca bit down on her ponytail. "Within the span of two seconds, she was pulled into the pool, unable to get her hair released from his mouth," said Topoleski, 32, who was at the scene as a SeaWorld trainer-spotter.
Agitated, Tilikum circled the pool with Brancheau in his mouth, witnesses said. His tail moved wildly. Sirens rang out, and rescue workers rushed to deploy nets that would help them separate the orca from the other animals and keep Tilikum under control. Two rescuers wrote that they had trouble deploying one of the nets, which made progress slow.
Mark Barner, 23, of Orlando watched the rescue attempt from the Dine With Shamu show, where he was clearing tables. He said it took "what seemed like" 10 minutes to get the nets in place. As rescuers worked, an increasingly agitated Tilikum surfaced and dove with the trainer's body in his mouth, over and over again. He would not let go. Chahine Kish, 33, of Orlando also watched from the Dine With Shamu area. "I saw Tilly surface with a trainer in his mouth. He was becoming frantic himself." The whale would not let go, witnesses said, and other animals in the water nearby did not heed trainers' calls to move.
Rescue workers had to use nets to corral Tilikum into a series of pools. They pried open the orca's mouth twice before Brancheau was freed, according to the statement of Jodie Ann Tintle, 31, a senior animal trainer.