ORLANDO -- A new killer-whale show that SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment will open this spring in its three U.S. marine parks will not include any in-water interaction between trainers and whales.
Dubbed “One Ocean,” the performance will debut in late April at SeaWorld Orlando, on Memorial Day weekend at SeaWorld San Diego and in June at SeaWorld San Antonio, SeaWorld announced Thursday. It will replace the nearly 5-year-old “Believe” show as the showcase attraction in the parks.
Plans for the new show have been deeply influenced by the Feb. 24, 2010, death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was battered and drowned by a company killer whale, and by the months-long safety review that followed.
The most significant adjustment: The new show has been designed for trainers to work exclusively from the stage, instead of in the water with the killer whales. Instead of “rocket hops” -- the iconic maneuver in which a whale propels a trainer out of the water -- “One Ocean” will feature highlights such as multiple orcas performing in unison and maneuvering amid giant fountains.
SeaWorld hasn’t let its trainers swim with the animals since Brancheau’s death. It has said it will reinstitute such “water work” only if it can make sufficient safety improvements.
“We are now staying out of the water. We don’t know when or how that’s going to change. So we said, ‘Let’s design this one to facilitate that and go in that direction,”’ said Julie Scardina, SeaWorld Parks’ curator of animal training. “This show was designed to create the interconnectedness with the whales without having to be in the water.”
“One Ocean” will also have a more explicit conservation theme than “Believe” did, with images and messages that “revolve around the ocean, the environment, what people can do to make a difference,” Scardina said.
She said the new show will emphasize the personalities of each of the roughly two-dozen killer whales in SeaWorld’s corporate collection. During the show, for instance, trainers will have some guests interact with the animals through the glass surrounding the show pool. Trainers will also have more latitude about what behaviors to use than they did during the tightly choreographed “Believe.”
“With the last show, we probably focused a little bit more on the fact that these are amazing performers. Now, we want to introduce them to the audience,” Scardina said. “We want to bring them (guests) down to the glass and get close, and let people see that the older whales actually do teach the younger whales, that when they interact together they have fun.”
The new themes have been crafted following months of heavy criticism from animal rights activists who say marine parks provide no genuine educational benefit and that keeping the world’s largest marine predator in captivity is inhumane. Critics contend that Brancheau’s death -- and a similar death in December 2009 of an orca trainer at a Canary Islands marine park -- were the result of killer whales enduring extreme stress in captive environments, a conclusion that SeaWorld vehemently disputes.
To prepare for “One Ocean,” SeaWorld’s three Shamu Stadium orca complexes will undergo significant construction, as crews install fountains, paint new color schemes and, in some of the parks, replace oversized video screens. Scardina said the physical improvements will be comparable to what SeaWorld did to prepare for “Believe,” on which the company reportedly spent more than $10 million.
Scardina said SeaWorld is also incorporating new safety features developed as part of the internal review launched following the Brancheau tragedy. But she declined to discuss specific measures, citing the ongoing legal fight in which SeaWorld is contesting a citation issued last year by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
A hearing before an administrative judge with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Review Commission is scheduled for April 25.