ORLANDO, Fla. – SeaWorld Orlando's 'Dine with Shamu' program has reopened for the first time since Dawn Brancheau's death on Tuesday-- the same day the park appealed citations in the trainer's death.
The poolside dining room is back open with a newly renovated pool, separate from the main stadium where Brancheau was drowned by killer whale Tilikum in 2010. The pool walls are now smooth and has safety features complying with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's requirements-- a rising floor at the bottom of the pool, which could lift the whales or trainers out in about a minute.
In 2010, OSHA fined SeaWorld for employee safety violations involving the "water work" with whales during the shows and prohibited trainers from swimming with killer whales. SeaWorld appealed the fines to an administrative judge last year, but in May, the judge upheld the OSHA citations, which had previously totaled $75,000 in fines.
Judge Kenneth Welsch sided with OSHA, which believes the best way to keep trainers safe is to keep them out of the water and behind a barrier while working with orcas. Welsch kept a full $5,000 in fines for a staircase without rails but reduced the water work fine to $7,000-totaling $12,00 in fines.
In a statement released Tuesday, SeaWorld said it would appeal on the grounds that OSHA's citation only restricts water work during live performances, but not during necessary medical and husbandry procedures backstage. SeaWorld argues there is no difference between caring for the whales during a show and after the audiences have left.
"The petition seeks review of several findings in the court's decision on SeaWorld's killer whale program. While Judge Welsch's finding rejected both OSHA's original citation level and fine, we feel his decision erred in matters of both fact and law," the statement reads. "Among other issues, SeaWorld's petition asks the Review Commission to overturn the finding that draws a distinction between show performances and animal husbandry, which the decision acknowledges requires close contact."
The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission will now decide if they will review SeaWorld's appeal. Until that decision is made, OSHA will continue to have the authority to prevent employees from swimming with killer whales during the shows unless SeaWorld proves they have devised a method of keeping trainers safer than being out of the water entirely.
Ever since Brancheau's death, trainers have not been allowed to swim in the water during Shamu shows. Tilikum, a killer whale, grabbed Brancheau and dragged underwater by her ponytail during a show in November 2010. During the hearing, SeaWorld officials argued the safety citations were groundless. But OSHA argued that trainers should have some kind of physical barrier when working with whales.
SeaWorld officials said they hope OSHA safety inspectors will allow trainers and whales to swim together again with the new rising floor.
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