AIHce Movie Matinee: Blackfish – Safety when swimming with Killer Whales

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Fletcher Best

One of the many interesting sessions at AIHce was the Movie Matinee – Blackfish: Safety when Swimming with Killer Whales. As we arrived to the session, there was even popcorn and American “candy” on offer, just like the movies! The session enabled us to watch the documentary Blackfish, which was followed by a discussion about the findings presented in the movie and the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administrations (OHSA) citation to SeaWorld.


For those who haven’t seen the movie, Blackfish is a documentary about the 2010 death of a SeaWorld killer whale trainer. The trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was involved in a fatal incident involving a killer whale named Tilikum, at SeaWorld’s Orlando, Florida theme park.

The documentary outlined that Tilikum had been involved in three human fatalities, the first in 1991, where a part time trainer fell into the pool that housed Tilikum and two other female killer whales. The part time trainer, Keltie Byrne, fell into the pool housing the three mammals, when they submerged her, and held her underwater, then surfaced several times with her, before she drowned. The second occurrence was in 1999, when a member of the public stayed in SeaWorld, after it closed for the night, and entered the killer whale tank. Daniel Dukes body was found draped over Tilikums body in the morning. His genitals had been bitten off, he was also covered in lacerations and contusions. The third fatality involved Brancheau, on February 24, 2010. Brancheau was Tilikums trainer, during a performance at SeaWorld, Brancheau was pulled into the pool by Tilikum. Reports of her injuries included severing of her arm, scalping, broken bones, spinal injuries and drowning.


Following this incident, OSHA conducted an investigation, where they found SeaWorld to be in violation of the Workplace Health and Safety Act. OSHA claimed that SeaWorld exposed workers to a known hazard in the workplace, i.e. Tilikum, an animal who had been involved in two prior human fatalities. SeaWorld was subsequently fined and enforced to implement the control where trainers were no longer allowed to physically interact with the killer whales, so a physical barrier was to be in place between trainers and animals at all times.  This citation was appealed by SeaWorld, however, in November 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals denied the appeal.


This finding by OSHA raises questions as to the responsibility of businesses to protect workers in the entertainment industry. Many of these people work with animals as part of their daily job such as in wildlife parks, theme parks, and even circus performers. Are risks adequately assessed and controlled to meet the requirements of OSHA, or in Australia, the requirements of our legislation and associated documents as published by Safe Work Australia?

Working with animals will always present an unpredictable behaviour hazard, but it does not mean that the risk should not be assessed or control measures cannot be put in place to safeguard workers. It will be interesting to see how the outcome of this investigation may impact on workplaces in Australia that have human-animal interaction.