From the Orlando Sentinel...
SeaWorld Orlando on Monday installed a new device in one of its killer-whale pools designed to allow trainers to more quickly deploy safety nets in case of an emergency with an orca.
The "net box" is the latest measure to emerge from an internal investigation that SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment has been conducting since the February death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was battered and drowned by a six-ton killer whale named Tilikum.
Trainers at the company's marine parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio have been barred from swimming with killer whales since the tragedy. SeaWorld has said it will not allow trainers back into the water unless it can make sufficient safety improvements.
SeaWorld already has installed removable guardrails around killer-whale pools in Orlando. And the company has said it is studying tiny air supplies that could be embedded in trainers' wetsuits, though some former company trainers have said such reserve oxygen would do little to improve safety.
Nets were an obvious target for improvement.
SeaWorld's emergency-response plans have long incorporated a series of nets that are weighted at one end and attached to floats on the other. The nets are designed both to distract the killer whales — it's a unique item that they don't normally see in the water — and to allow trainers to corral the animals and move them between various pools.
But those nets proved difficult to deploy when Tilikum, the largest orca in SeaWorld's corporate collection, suddenly grabbed Brancheau by her long ponytail and pulled her into his tank on Feb. 24. Multiple trainers told investigators that one of the nets repeatedly snagged as trainers tried to unroll it.
One trainer told the Orange County Sheriff's Office that the net "caught on itself quite a few times," according to witness statements. Another told them "it was catching near and around rocks."
Altogether, close to two-dozen employees were involved in efforts to unravel nets and guide them through the water. The nets were used to steer Tilikum into a medical pool with a false bottom, where the animal was raised from the water.
SeaWorld said the new device it is installing — a roughly 10-foot-long aluminum-and-plastic net container with a gas strut — is designed to allow a single trainer to deploy a net into the water within 15 seconds.
The device has so far been installed only in Shamu Stadium's "C" pool, which is one of seven pools in the orca complex and is used for activities such as exercise, play and social interaction between killer whales. SeaWorld says it will begin testing the equipment this week.
"If it works as we hope it will work, we'll have one per pool at all three SeaWorlds," said SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment spokesman Fred Jacobs.
Still, Jacobs said Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks remains "a fairly significant amount of time away" from making a decision about whether to let trainers back in the water with its orcas.
"There's still a tremendous amount of work to do," he said