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Back on a July morning in 1999, a trainer went to work at SeaWorld Orlando and checked on a killer whale named Tilkikum.

The trainer looked through a viewing glass into a pool and saw “Tilly,” who looked back. But something was wrong: The trainer spotted two human feet along the side of the six-ton killer whale.

They were connected to a naked and dead human body. It belonged to a young man, a trespasser who became a plaything for a creature that weighed six tons.

Tilly was not banished back to his home in the sea near Iceland, euthanized or kept away from people. He continued working, and in 2010 he killed a female trainer in the moments after a “Dine with Shamu” show.

You can still see Shamu shows at all the SeaWorld theme parks in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio. But they’re different now, with more protections for human trainers and fewer fantastic stunts.

Federal workplace safety officials want the changes to become permanent. SeaWorld doesn’t. Meanwhile, a chorus of critics is demanding that SeaWorld go even further and stop keeping the animals in captivity.

If you’d like a better understanding of the debate over what’s best for killer whales and their human trainers, take these four steps.

1. Get a handle on the remarkable animals at the middle of it all.

Start with National Geographic, which offers basic facts about the killer whale, including their typical size — they can grow to 32 feet long and weigh up to six tons, making them not too much smaller than a bus.

Killer whales — which are a kind of dolphin — have a reputation as being one of the world’s smartest and most complicated creatures. Could killer whales — and whales in general — actually be smarter than us? Well, they haven’t invented dynamite, plaid or disco, so it certainly seems that they might be more intelligent. Scientific American considers the question in a 2008 article and notes that scientists are taking it seriously: “We’re now wondering, essentially, what goes on in a whale’s head — and why, if it’s supposedly so smart, it doesn’t have great works to show for it.”

They’re closer than you might think: A killer whale was spotted off the San Diego coast just this past Sunday, U-T San Diego reports. Yes, there are pictures.

Killer whales also made a splash earlier this year by traveling close to the Southern California coastline. Check the LA Times for a remarkable photo of what looks like a family of killer whales.

Why did they move south? Apparently there were plenty of sea lions around to eat and no other predators on the prowl. Killer whales don’t just dine on marine mammals, though. They’re also known to eat several kinds of fish.

But humans aren’t on the menu, even though the Navy warned as recently as 1973 that killer whales “will attack human beings at every opportunity.” According to one author, the first recorded killer whale attack on a human didn’t come until 1971 in San Diego. More about that incident soon.

2. Understand the debate over captivity itself.

There are two big issues in the killer whale debate: Should they be held in captivity? If so, how should human trainers be protected from harm?

Opponents of keeping killer whales in captivity claim that the animals are bored, anxious and misused. A trainer who was fired by SeaWorld tells that killer whales are so stressed in captivity that they turn against humans. Critics also say the lives of killer whales are cut short by captivity.

On the other hand, a trade group of marine parks says marine mammals in captivity avoid the stresses of living in the wild, don’t show signs of high stress in their hormones and live a long time. The trade group also tries to debunk the idea that killer whales in captivity could return to the wild without suffering major problems: “release may be neither a reasoned approach nor a caring decision.”

In his new book, “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,” journalist David Kirby criticizes the theme park chain for failing to protect humans and killer whales. Kirby answered my questions in a Q&A earlier this month for Voice of San Diego: we talked mainly about the issue of human safety.

In another interview with me, published by The Christian Science Monitor, Kirby talks about the unique personal lives of killer whales and the ethics of their captivity.

3. Learn about the attacks on humans

While no trainer has been killed by a killer whale at SeaWorld San Diego, the park has a long history of vicious attacks.

The first came in 1971 when a SeaWorld secretary got into one of the park’s pools with the first killer whale named Shamu. The idea was that the bikini-clad Anne Godsey, aged 22, would have a blast by riding the whale for a promotion. Instead, she nearly died.

Godsey, who spoke with Inside Edition after 2010’s fatal attack, recalled that the killer whale grabbed her, dived, and caught her legs with its teeth: “I just looked at Shamu and said, ‘I’m not going back in the tank with you. I’m just not. You can take my leg, I’m not going back in that tank.’ And she let go.”

Godsey needed 200 stitches and was traumatized mentally. “Psychologically I was out of commission for a good 10 years, I was pretty useless,” she told the TV show. “I was so afraid I was going to drown,” she said in an interview with CBS News.”

To learn about the other attacks at SeaWorld San Diego — including one in 1987 that one left a trainer with serious injuries including a ruptured kidney and ripped liver and the 2006 attack that almost killed a trainer — read the gripping and disturbing story from the magazine Outside.

The story also tracks the violent life of Tilly, the killer whale that killed the Orlando trainer and two other people.

Why did Tilly attack a trainer he’d known for years? A marine conservationist tells The New York Times that he suspects the attack was on purpose because whales are so smart.

4. Catch up on what’s happening now

SeaWorld encountered a setback this month when a federal worker safety commission declined to take up a judge’s ruling. That means the ruling stands, for the time being: trainers at SeaWorld parks can’t closely interact with killer whales during shows unless they’re physically protected.

At stake are the most thrilling parts of the Shamu shows — when trainers ride on the backs of killer whales and let themselves be flung into the air from killer whale noses. The SeaWorld parks still put on the shows, but they’ve voluntarily kept the trainers out of the water during them since the 2010 killing. Unless SeaWorld goes to court and wins, the temporary arrangement will become permanent.

There’s a quirky angle to all this: The ruling only applies to in-water interaction between humans and killer whales during shows. Interaction would still be allowed at other times, such as during rehearsals and when humans take care of the killer whales.

The issue came up during a court hearing, and the Orlando Sentinel explains why it’s a crucial distinction: because if the judge banned all interaction in the water between the animals and humans, SeaWorld could fight back against restrictions by claiming they’re just not feasible. That could allow SeaWorld to make a better case against the rules.

Meanwhile, SeaWorld has been looking into ways to protect trainers in the water. One of them, as the Sentinel reports, is mighty unusual: It’s “a fast-moving pool floor capable of rising to the surface quickly in an emergency.”

The idea is to push both killer whale and threatened human out of the water.

There’s more: The newspaper says SeaWorld has been looking into “what is essentially a remote-controlled underwater vehicle that could be deployed in hopes of distracting a whale who has broken from a trainer’s control. The device is designed to swim patterns, descend to a floor or float to a surface, flash with a strobe light, vibrate and emit sounds — potentially including whale vocalizations.”

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at

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