There was quite a spike in readership for my “Should the trainers get back into the water at the Shamu show” article! It seems that people were more interested in reading about Sea World and Shamu than they were about insurance! Who would have figured that would happen (lol)?
Now, I think that there are a lot of interesting facts and recommendations when it comes to insurance but then again, I am an insurance geek. And I will continue to give you insurance advice as well as stories from the insurance world that I think you’ll find interesting and insightful but because of the tremendous feedback I received after the Shamu article (one lady sent an e-mail to me and I swear that she remembers and knows more details about the killer whales at Sea World over the past 35 years than I do), I’m going to sprinkle in some Sea World stories just for fun.
The one question that I get asked more than any other is “How did you get started”?
Well, in the beginning………..I was already working in the park at the Skyride. In fact, I had been at the ride for a year and a half and worked my way up to being the “lead” of the ride meaning that I supervised the day-to-day operations of the personnel at the ride as well as writing the weekly work schedules. This was pretty heady stuff and my pay shot up to $2.80/hour! Seriously, I worked with a great group of guys and the fact that I could write my own schedule while attending school full time was a real bonus.
In the spring of 1976, a rumor circulated around the park that the training department was going to hire additional people for the summer season but some of these people would stay on full time while others would be laid off. I considered whether or not I should even apply for one of these spots considering I had a good thing going at the Skyride but I figured that the chance that I would actually land one of these plumb spots was about 100-1 so I thought “what would be the harm in interviewing?”
I interviewed with a real nice guy named Bob Shepard who was the Director of Training at the time. Bob was a real showman and loved to talk and I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut, listen intently, and nod my head a lot. The only thing that I really had going for me was that I was a certified scuba diver. I was going to school full-time as a business major so it wasn’t like I had any background for the job but miracle of miracles, I got the job! And not only that, I was assigned to the famous Shamu Show!
But it’s not like I picked up my bag and walked across the park and started performing in shows. First, I had to put time into working with the animal care department. Hardly glamorous, it was hard work but very rewarding. And the people working in animal care were really great to work with and were real professionals. On my first day on the job, my first task was to work with supervisor Tom Goff and force-feed a harbor seal. Most of the marine mammals at Sea World were either born there or were once “beached” animals (you have probably heard about whales sliding up onto the beach in preparation of dying). The animal care guys routinely go to the beach to pick up beached animals and will either assist them back into the water or if necessary, bring them back to Sea World for needed medical care. Most will be released back into the ocean when they are well but some are in need of daily care and live at the park.
After about a month of assisting with the myriad of duties that the animal care guys perform, I had to put my time in working in the fish house. For a week (normally a rookie trainer works anywhere from two weeks to a month in the fish house with a gentleman named Santos but I was lucky in that I only had to work for one week there and with Santos on vacation, I worked with a different animal care guy every night), I had to work from midnight to 9:00 AM thawing fish, filling buckets, cleaning buckets, distributing the buckets to the various show areas and feeder pools in the park, cleaning more buckets, cutting fish for the sea lions, clean the fish house, and did I mention cleaning buckets? The hardest part of working in the fish house wasn’t the non-stop physical labor but rather the lack of sleep. I never could understand how certain professions like police officers could switch work shifts and suddenly be working midnights and sleep during the day.
The most fascinating fish house event occurred to me when one morning at about 4:30 AM, we were driving a utility cart filled with 30 pound buckets of fish through the park to make a delivery to the Shamu Stadium (this would be the old Shamu Stadium where I would eventually work and where the dolphin show is now held, not the fabulous new Shamu Stadium being used today). I was driving the cart along with animal care specialist Doug Wigdahl and had only the small headlight to help me navigate the path but I knew the park so well and with no other people around, I accelerated confidently. Suddenly, I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting three fairly large California sea lions which were crossing the path! I exclaimed to Doug “the sea lions got out of the feeder pool”! He chuckled and explained to me that these sea lions actually come into the park from Mission Bay near the marina early every morning, jump into the feeder pool with the harbor seals, stay for the free food from the park guests all day long, and then jump out of the feeder pool and head back into Mission Bay after the park closes. Shaken by this unexpected event, I drove a bit slower from that point on.
Finally, the day came that I moved to my first show area as a trainer, the famous Shamu Show! I expected to jump right in, learn how to maintain and train these magnificent creatures, and perform in the shows. Not quite. I became very proficient at cleaning the trainers hut, hosing down the show’s back area, cleaning more buckets, scrubbing fish scales off of the show’s set with a small Dobie pad, and cleaning the toilet almost daily. It was miserable work. In hind sight, I understand why I couldn’t simply be given a whistle, a bucket of fish, and pointed in the right direction but this wasn’t quite what I signed up for.
Keeping in mind that some of the new trainers would get to stay and some would be laid off at the end of the summer plus the fact that the other new trainers were already performing in the shows in their show areas, I went to the boss, Bob Shepard, and asked to be moved to a different area. I wanted to at least have a chance to compete with the other new trainers and keep the job, even though I was now far behind. Bob told me that the only place he could move me was to the Underwater Show (otherwise referred to as the Theatre which was torn down a few years ago which I feel was a real shame. The trainers worked topside while the park guests watched the show through the glass from one of four sides). There were two experienced dolphins (Stein and Dinah) and two sea lions (Murphy and Wynn) in the Theatre. The head show trainer’s name was Dave Self who was known to be a bit old fashioned and difficult to work with as well as another new trainer named Dave Harkins and a volunteer named Chris Covington (female).
Please realize that nobody asks to go from the Shamu Show to the Theatre but I thought it was the perfect move. The animals could do the shows in their sleep and as far as working with Dave, I am a bit “old school” myself, we worked well together, and we became very good friends. As my first mentor, he was a demanding, no nonsense type of guy with a great heart and a real love for the animals. He liked and supported me and at the end of the season when trainers were shifted to other show areas, he made a request to the new Director of Training, Bruce Stephens, that I follow him to the Seal and Otter Show.
Needless to say, I got to keep the job as a trainer and in 1978, was moved back to the Shamu Show, now fully equipped to work with the killer whales and perform in the shows. The only downside to moving back to the whale show was that we had a lot more buckets to clean!
Ken May has been serving the North San Diego County insurance community since 1982 except for a brief 3 ½ year stint in Texas working on the company side. He is also the president of the American Agents Alliance, a non-profit professional insurance agents organization that originated in California in 1962. Please visit us at www.kenmayinsurance.com.
You bet they should! And if you asked the Shamu trainers is they want to get back into the water, I’d bet that each and every one of them would not hesitate to say yes. The trainers know the risks when they sign on and the track record can be good!
First of all, you’re probably thinking “What right does the insurance guy have to make such a statement”? As a few of you know, I was a marine mammal trainer at Sea World (San Diego 1974-1982) before getting into the insurance business many years ago. In fact, I worked at the Shamu show in 1976, 1978, and 1979. So, although I am no longer involved in the day to day operations and decisions at the park, I still feel entitled to my opinion from the thousands of hours working with the killer whales as well as other marine mammals and I still stay somewhat connected to the people that I worked with that still work there.
What I’ve been told by a Sea World insider is that the trainers at all of the Sea World parks stopped getting into the water with the killer whales after the death of Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando, Florida Park in February, 2010 “to regroup”. I’m sure that the Sea World authorities felt some pressure from the Occupational Safety and Health Division (OSHA), environmental groups, and public relations pressure but barring an official legal ruling; it’s time to get wet again. After all, the trainers have been learning and progressing with killer whales since Shamu came to Sea World in 1965.
Let’s go back a few years (well, maybe more than a few) to the 1970’s. After a stint at the Seal and Otter show, I was asked if I would like to move to the Shamu show. Of course, who wouldn’t want to experience working with the magnificent orcas? I worked with three other trainers, Greg, John, and our head show trainer, Rich who I considered to be one of the finest trainers we had on staff. I was the young kid who also happened to be at the bottom of the totem pole but we were all experienced trainers (a must to work at that level).
After losing some of our whales to the Aurora, Ohio Park for the summer season, we had four killer whales at our facility (which is now where the dolphin show is presented, not the wonderful facility being used today). Our main star was Kilroy, the smartest marine mammal I have ever worked with. We also had Winston, an enormous whale that we obtained from a park in England after he outgrew the facility, and the youngsters, Kanau and Kanuk. Each whale was unique in their personalities, learning abilities, and temperament. I always compared them to working with elementary school aged children. They soaked up knowledge, got excited when they learned new things, but each worked at a distinct pace, just like some kids learn quicker than others. The difference, of course, is that these were giant beings that were in the process of being trained but never tamed.
In fact, a key to successfully training a marine mammal is to progress at a pace that is not too fast which creates frustration and sometimes aggression and not too slow which creates boredom. The best trainers made it an art form by working at the perfect pace keeping the animals interested, excited, and wanting more. When the animals are happy and healthy, the trainers are happy. Pretty simple!
The most challenging Orca to work with was Winston who weighed about 6 tons, didn’t completely relax and trust the trainers due to experiences he had at the park in England, and needed his regiment to me straight forward (ABC or 123, no surprises, and no gimmicks). In fact, I always figured that if Winston were human, he would have to use one of those plates when eating that had the dividers separating his food. Granted, it would be a very large plate! The other challenge arose because Winston wasn’t initially trained the Sea World way from an early age and had to learn some of our basics as an adult.
We trained the killer whales to continue with their behavior, even if the clumsy trainer fell off of him (which I was known to do on more than one occasion). That way, he or she would not feel punished for the trainer falling off and still be rewarded. In fact, in training sessions, we would purposely fall off the whale and if the whale continued the behavior and finished at the platform, he or she would be rewarded. This had the double benefit of the whale getting rewarded for his own behavior and not getting frustrated or aggressive towards the trainer in the water for taking away the chance of his getting rewarded (whew!).
Winston didn’t pick up on this concept right away. I remember riding on his back during a training session and Bruce, our Director of Training, instructed me to fall off into the water. Winston immediately circled and slid next to me waiting for me to climb back onto him. Bruce instructed me to just ignore him. While I prayed that Winston, who seemed even larger when you were floating in the water next to him, would not get frustrated and aggressive, he circled around again and took my arm into his mouth and dragged me back to the platform. Thankfully, he was fairly relaxed and didn’t flinch (for obvious reasons). My wetsuit may have needed to be cleaned afterwards. This was not an animal that would be good at multitasking!
Our star performer, Kilroy, who played Shamu in our shows, offered other challenges. Without getting too detailed, the marine mammals learn behaviors in small steps, what we call “shaping” a behavior. Kilroy was so good that he could undo a behavior in equally small steps just to mess with us until we would stop and wonder how the behavior had gotten so sloppy! I also fondly remember a time during a show in the summer of 1978 that I gave Kilroy the hand signal to do tumbles (underwater somersaults along the glass) just to change things up a bit and keep him interested. He hesitated at first (he hadn’t done tumbles in about two years since the Yankee Doodle Whale show in 1976) but then proceeded. Now, I figured there was a 50/50 chance that he would start a fast-swim behavior which is usually the behavior used in that part of the show but (again, after two years), he remembered the tumble behavior and executed them perfectly. And, he was all jazzed up for the rest of the show!
Getting back to today, here are some thoughts of what I would do if I still worked at the park and believe me, I am not saying anything here that the current trainers haven’t thought of and discussed over and over.
A few other thoughts while I am rambling on;
Single out what I call the “Blue Chip” trainers which are those that not only maintain a high level of behavior with the animals but truly know how to train behaviors from scratch. You may be surprised at how many trainers who are proficient at maintaining behavior are not so proficient in training behaviors. And Sea World needs to compensate the Blue Chippers adequately to keep them on staff! These are the people who keep the behavior level high, maintain a safe environment, and teach the less experienced trainers. Turnover, especially when it involves the best of the best can lead to very difficult situations as has been proven numerous times over the years.
Pay the trainers for what they are; a group of skilled professionals who dedicate themselves to a job that few people in the world do well. It’s a small community. And stop telling them that there are thousand of others that would do their jobs for nothing as an excuse for not paying them sufficiently. If that’s true, replace the ones who are substandard and pay (well) the ones that show skill and expertise. We ran into this problem during my time at the park. Young trainers grew up, got married, had families, and left for other jobs which had the effect of lowering the overall expertise level of the training staff which in turn affected the behavior quality of the animals and ultimately, the shows. Take care of your people.
Occasionally, I will take a break from writing about insurance issues and giving insurance advice to write about my experiences at Sea World because my hope is that you will enjoy most of what I write. I would love to here from you. Feel free to post comments on our wall. Or stop in to Ken May Insurance Services some time and I will be happy to show you some of my old Sea World photos. If you have any comments or questions, go to kenmayinsurance.com or again, come see us.
Ken May has been serving North County since 1982 offering quality insurance products with strong carriers. He is currently the president of the American Agents Alliance of California as well as the local chairperson of the North San Diego County Chapter of the Alliance. He can be contacted at email@example.com.