A controversial ruling regarding SeaWorld's future may lie with federal judges over a decision involving the aquatic parks' most popular draw: killer whales.
For decades, orcas like Shamu have been the biggest show at Sea World, but trainers have been banned from close contact with the whales since 2010 when trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged under and drowned by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando. Federal safety regulators cited SeaWorld for violating workplace safety laws and banned trainers from close contact with the whales unless separated by a protective barrier. SeaWorld is now appealing that ruling and comparing the handler ban to barring tackling in football and posting speed limits on auto racing tracks.
"The stakes in this case actually could not be higher," said a SeaWorld attorney. "It's a very, very good point for Sea World to make. Why us and why not NFL or NASCAR? Because let's face it, the show is much more spectacular when the trainers are in the water than when they're just on stage."
Trainers do still get close enough to feed and train the animals, but do not get in the water but the government argues that killer whale behavior is simply too unpredictable.
We have seen football players in pools and, if belly-flopping NFL bad boy Ndamukong Suh could save Louie Anderson's life on the celebrity diving show "Splash," SeaWorld might have a point.
In court documents filed Wednesday, SeaWorld stated that "close contact with killer whales is essential to the product offered by SeaWorld, and is indeed the primary reason trainers and audiences have been drawn to SeaWorld for nearly 50 years."
In 2006 at San Diego, SeaWorld trainer Ken Peters was repeatedly dragged to the bottom of the pool until he finally swam to safety. In 2004, another trainer was attacked at SeaWorld San Antonio. And animal rights groups want the captive aquatic show creatures released into the wild altogether.
SeaWorld runs 11 U.S. theme parks and had over 24 million visitors last year. Now it worries that without the close hands-on show, the entertainment value will be taken from its pools.