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Shamu Swims Solo? Court Ruling Might Put SeaWorld Trainers on Land for Good During Whale Shows

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Photo by miss-britt via Flickr
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A ruling issued Wednesday that applies to all SeaWorld theme parks, including SoCal's own in San Diego, could find trainers on dry land during the famous whale shows.

The core concern is the safety of the trainer. In February 2010, a six-ton male orca named Tilikum dragged trainer Dawn Brancheau to her death following a show in Orlando, Florida. Since then, trainers have not been allowed in the water, and unless SeaWorld can come up with a satisfactory method of protecting their trainers, they'll be out of the water at whale show time for good.

"The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration had fined SeaWorld $75,000 and issued three safety violations, the most serious of which accused the park of exposing its employees to the possibility of being struck or drowned by killer whales," notes U-T San Diego.

That fine was reduced by the judge, who noted that SeaWorld is a safety-conscious employer. He also noted that OSHA's accusation that SeaWorld's actions were "willful" was inaccurate. The judge also made it clear that his ruling applied only to performances, acknowledging the need for contact between trainer and whale during private training.

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What will SeaWorld's official response to the ruling be? It's not clear yet, nor is what SeaWorld plans to do:

Park officials have previously said in interviews that they would like to return the trainers to the water, arguing that such interaction not only makes for more compelling performances but also enhances the bond they share with the whales. Park officials have also said they are spending tens of millions of dollars on new safety features.

But until they come up with a plan that pleases OSHA and the judge, the trainers will stay out of the water.

Last fall, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, tried to make a go of a case against SeaWorld, alleging the marine theme park violates the constitutional rights of their whales. Their clients? Tilikum the orca, and his fellow plaintiffs, Katina based at SeaWorld in Orlando, FL and Corky, Kasatka and Ulises at SeaWorld San Diego.

While the trainers have rights, and should be working in a safe environment, it turns out whales can't sue theme parks.