|| - 02.20.2007
|Human language does no justice to the thrill I felt when I got a return call from Laura Surovik, a killer whale trainer at Sea World in Orlando, saying that she would be happy to let me interview her about her work with whales.
In that short phone conversation, I gushed my lifelong love for marine life, and my self-proclaimed official status as “armchair marine biologist.” I ranted about my obsession as a kid with Jacque Cousteau, inventor of SCUBA gear (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), and notable Frenchman who filmed documentaries of his underwater exploration. I probably even threw in the fact that at one time I owned at least 12 sets of snorkels and masks of my own so I could take as many people snorkeling with me as possible!
(Have you ever been approached by a 5-year-old kid who is so excited about something that he can hardly get the words out through his panting and swallowing? That was me, in my 40’s, talking to a whale trainer on the phone!)
Laura brilliantly picked up on my obvious enthusiasm, and put me in touch with Sea World’s public relations department to set up the interview. I was beside myself.
Laura, as well as the public relations staff, were so kind to refer to me as a “Friend of Sea World” (having performed a concert there several years ago) and worked out the details for me to not only interview Laura, but…gulp…to spend a whole day with the trainers behind the scenes, around the pools with the whales, and backstage during the shows in Shamu Stadium.
So, on a recent trip to Florida to visit friends, I scheduled an extra day to spend at Sea World.
When I got to the park, I sprinted to Shamu Stadium to make sure I saw the show as a spectator before getting to go behind the scenes. I found a seat high enough to avoid the ‘splash zone,’ swallowed hard, and waited the few seconds for the show to begin. I was just in time!
I was already emotional in anticipation of my day, and the show began with a tribute to our military men and women serving overseas. I teared up for the first of several times during the next 30 minutes.
The show was a beautiful mix of video-wall multimedia, soaring music (composed just for this show), and heart-stopping choreography of whales and trainers! Fun audience interaction rounded out the show into one of the most inspiring shows I’ve seen, of any sort.
And the show is called, “Believe.”
When the show finished, I made my way to the front side of the pool, and was escorted backstage to meet trainer Laura Surovik, my host for the day.
The day started with a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility. Behind Shamu Stadium, where the public is not permitted, is a series of connected pools, home to eight killer whales. Before meeting the whales, I was introduced to some of the training staff, all decked out in their black and white wetsuits, with wet hair, discussing aspects of the last show. They were talking about the individual whales as if they were referring to family members.
“I’m so proud of so-and-so.”
“She did beautifully in the early show!”
“So-and-so is a little grumpy today.”
In their conversations, the trainers’ names (like Dawn, Joe, and Dan) were intermixed with the whales’ names (like Katina, Kalina, and Tilikum) as if they were all part of one family. It was pretty obvious these trainers spend a lot of time with the whales.
And it turns out that ‘Shamu’ is the performance name given to all the adult whales in the show. But behind the scenes, they each have a very unique identity as well as very individual personalities, and their own names. But collectively, they are the Shamu family.
I was intrigued with the chart on the wall, next to a picnic table where the trainers have meetings, listing the shows for the day, the sequence of behaviors in the show, and which trainers and which whales were involved in every step. This chart made more sense as the day progressed, as I saw the ‘choreography’ backstage, opening gates between pools, and directing the individual whales to the Stadium pool for their parts in the shows.
Laura explained how the whales love to be in the shows. They enjoy the “playtime,” which is for them an extension of the playtime with the trainers that happens during other parts of the day, behind the scene.
“We keep things interesting for them by alternating the whales into different parts of the shows, we keep them guessing,” she explained.
“You see how they are…they want to play…they want to get in the game. It’s like, ‘Put me in coach!’
“The shows are only PART of the interaction between whales and trainers--the ‘ambassador’ part, when other people get to see it.”
After introducing me to some of the trainers, Laura took me into the fish room, where the whales’ food is measured out and divided into buckets to be fed to the whales throughout the day. Each of the eight whales requires from 120 to 300 pounds of food every day, which explained the stacks of herring- and salmon-filled buckets lining the room. Now that’s a lot of fish!
From the fish room, Laura led me poolside to meet some of the whales. I squatted next to her while one of the whales came over for attention. Laura became very animated and happy as she interacted with the whale. I believe this was Katina. Laura’s arms waved up and down with exaggerated enthusiam, mixed with hugs and words of love. Katina seemed to be smiling the whole time. She lifted her face out of the water and squealed with delight as Laura made a big deal about her, and patted her tongue.
Here’s where I have no words to explain my feelings:
This massive, beautiful creature…looked at me!
I just can’t describe what eye contact with a whale from three feet away feels like.
I could tell Laura was being cautious about my presence there, and I could almost read in Katina’s eyes, “Who is this guy?”
All at once, Katina took a mouthful of water and threw it on me. Soaked me!
Laura kept talking to her, “Oh, don’t throw water on our friend!”
I could tell this was Katina’s part playful, part mischievous, and part testing-the-stranger-in-my-territory kind of gesture (and possibly, part ‘Go away!’) Regardless, I took it as a compliment, however she meant it. Not many people get to be this close to a killer whale!
Then Laura directed Katina through a series of behaviors to bring her back and side against the pool’s edge so I could touch her. Another hand signal, and Katina moved away and brought her tail over where I could pat her flukes. Laura explained training the whales with this behavior so that veterinarians could draw blood or give them shots in one of the blood vessels in the fluke.
When Katina turned back around, Laura slid a bucket of fish next to me and asked if I wanted to feed her. So I tossed a few fish into Katina’s happy, wide-opened mouth. I asked Laura if food was the primary ‘reward’ for the whales’ behaviors. I was surprised at her answer.
“Actually, the whales respond more to attention and love. They’re being fed all day, so a few fish are not so much a reward, just part of our interaction. We take our cues from observing the whales.”
The whales demonstrate her point as they swim around responding to each other’s touch. They continually rub against each other’s backs and sides and bellies and love the attention. It becomes obvious that they especially love this kind of attention from the trainers too. And the trainers are more than happy to give it!
Laura pointed out the different whales. “That’s Tilikum. And that smaller one there, that’s our newest baby. He was born November 2005, and we named him ‘Trua’ which means ‘Believe’ in the Icelandic language. So he’s ‘Baby Believe!’”
When I asked about their intelligence, Laura told me she is convinced that the whales respond emotionally and intellectually very much like 5-year-old children.
You can’t know something like that without having spent a LOT of time with whales! For Laura, it has been a 21-year journey. She explained:
“I feel like this career chose me instead of me choosing it. I was studying to be a landscape architect and left my third year to take a break. I went and flew for a couple of years--I was a flight attendant, and a friend of mine discovered me. She said, Laura that’s what you need to do, [be a trainer at Sea World].
“I talked about animals all the time, I grew up with four brothers, I was competitive body-building, loved the water. So I tried out. And I got the job that day when I tried out, gave my two weeks notice, and I’ve been here ever since.
“I feel like I went from the sky to the water. I landed in the pool and didn’t ever get out.”
THE QUALITIES OF A TRAINER
The trainers speak of their work as a “lifestyle commitment,” often spending overnights with the whales.
“It’s a 24/7 kind of life. The whales are like family members to us.”
The family analogy even applies to the trainers. Laura emphasized how the trainers have to be great communicators and team players.
“The biggest part of the job is the way you connect with people, with each other. If you have a great team, you’re doing well together, and you have understanding with one another, then you’re gonna have happy animals. Because we’re all then looking in the same direction,” says Laura.
The athleticism of all the trainers is also obvious. A lot of swimming is involved, and some serious breath-holding! Flips and dives off of the ends of whales' noses from 30 feet in the air takes a pretty serious athlete. Keeping your balance while standing on a whales back, racing across the waters surface requires strength and flexibility.
Trainers must also be ‘coachable’ as they learn to get along with the whales and the other trainers, and become part of a tightly functioning team.
As I interacted with the trainers and the animals, I continually heard words like “behaviors” and “reinforcement” (which sounded to me a lot like the terms I studied and used for my Psychology degree). This piqued my interest about the educational backgrounds of the trainers. I expected Marine Biology, Zoology, and maybe even Veterinary Medicine, but it turns out a lot of the trainers have degrees in Psychology instead. The behavioral aspects of teaching and interacting with these intelligent creatures follows closely what is taught in human behavioral psychology.
TRAINING TO BE A TRAINER
I asked Laura about the process of becoming a trainer. Her answer revealed the type of commitment these trainers have:
“It definitely takes a lot of patience. Right when you get in [the program] a lot of people think, ‘OK, I’ve passed the test. I’m ready to go! When do I swim with Shamu?’
“You pass the swim test, then you go through rigorous training. It’s about three years before you even get to TRY getting in the pool.
“The main reason is that you really have to have an understanding of the whales. You have to have a relationship. After about the first year and a half, sometimes two years, we’ll pair you up with an animal, where that relationship is totally synced.
“Then we’ll start trying the water work after about three years. The first couple years you’re taught all the basics of training. It’s like going to school. A big, outdoor, open-pool school yard. It’s really a lifelong learning journey.
“You have a mentor, a senior, that’s with you, who basically holds hands with you and teaches you everything they know. We call them coaches. It’s kind of an understudy. It’s a lot of on-the-job type training. You do a lot of vicarious learning while watching others, and there’s a lot of dialogue.”
(I noticed that!)
“You saw what we did before, during, and after shows. There’s a lot of critiquing, a lot of explanation, a lot of pre-setting. What we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it.
“We don’t leave anybody behind. We help each other. The coaches are held accountable for the younger ones’ development and vice-versa. There’s a lot of family connection within the training process.”
WHALES AS TRAINERS?
While waiting backstage for one of the shows to begin, I spoke with one of the newest trainers, Joe, who had only recently begun working in the water, after his three patient years of poolside interactive learning.
Joe explained how the whales actually helped him learn his part in the show.
The whales were patient at first, recognizing him as a ‘beginner.’ In one particular move, Joe goes to the bottom of the tank to meet one of the whales. He then cups his hands over the whale’s nose and holds on while the whale shoots up to the surface with him and leaps out of the water. Early on, Joe explained, the whale would approach tenderly and give him time to get his hands situated in the right place, and only then, when Joe was ready, proceed to the surface with him. This gave Joe time to learn the behavior.
But now, says Joe, the whale knows he’s had enough practice, and expects him to be ready. The whale doesn’t slow down anymore. If Joe misses, Joe misses, and the whale continues on with the behavior.
I suspected that maybe the whales help each other learn behaviors too. If they do, Joe explained, it is more by observation—the younger whale may see the trainer’s signal paired with the response of the older whale, and that might help them learn. “Signal,” “paired,” “response.” More psychology terms. Looks like Joe has a behavioral background, too.
THE SHOW: “BELIEVE!”
All trainers on deck. The trainers are now all backstage with me and Joe and Laura. They’re excited and energetic. All smiles. Watching the TV monitors of the stage from Stadium side. Making last-minute changes to the show’s sequence. Let this whale do this behavior instead. So-and-so seems disinterested right now. Adjusting, adapting, and keeping the energy high!
I’m standing on a small peninsula between the pools just behind the stage, along with ten or so busy trainers readying themselves, and eight whales swimming around with the same excitement--like they know it’s show time!
The peninsula is sloped into the pools, with a small, low bar for the trainers to hold as they stoop on this slippery surface.
Am I really this close to 8 killer whales right now? With only this slender railing, about six inches high, between them and me? I’m suddenly aware that I’m not the one at the top of the food chain! And grateful to be surrounded by trainers. My heroes.
There’s a rush of adrenaline. These creatures are beautiful. They are very large. I get to be here next to them. They are about to perform some spectacular behaviors that will take my breath away!
I had already seen this show earlier in the day from the stadium side. Now I’m behind the stage with the whales and trainers. Inspired to my core!
I heard the music begin. I recognized it from the earlier show. The music is such a moving and emotional element in the show. I asked Laura later about the music.
“Well, we have an original musical score that was put together just for Shamu, for the Shamu family, and for the show ‘Believe.’ It was done by a very creative and talented individual named Christopher Ward. He’s done other projects on Broadway. He worked with Han Zimmer and on the Lion King.
“[Christoher] spent a year with us poolside, part of the time in San Diego, part of the time in Orlando, and part of the time in San Antonio. [During that time, he] really developed an inner kind of ‘knowing’ of the whales and their personalities, and built a [musical] score that would match those different personalities and the different emotions we wanted for the show.”
The music continued, and on cue the trainers ran on and off stage, dove into the pool, and performed stunning feats with the animals.
When not front stage or in the pool, the trainers would come back and stand at the monitor or watch through small openings in the backdrop and cheer for the whales as they performed their behaviors.
“He did so great that time!”
“Way to go, buddy!”
As the whales returned backstage through the side gates, the trainers would turn to meet them, and hug them and pat their tongues and make a big deal about them! Like hugging your kids when they come offstage after the school play.
WHALES AS AMBASSADORS
Early in our conversation that day, Laura often referred to the animals as “ambassadors.”
This made the most sense as Laura told me about a whale watching trip she had taken recently, I believe it was in the wild North Pacific.
I asked her if seeing whales in the wild, in their natural setting, changed how she felt about the whales in captivity.
Having been challenged by critics before, Laura expressed how the trip convinced her more than ever of the importance of Sea World, and the way this family of whales have become ‘ambassadors’ to thousands of humans everyday--sometimes 20,000 people in one day who sit in Shamu Stadium and see the majesty and beauty of these creatures.
Very few people will ever see killer whales in their natural setting. But it is this up-close encounter in the Stadium that daily reminds these thousands of people how beautiful and important our planet is, and the variety of creatures in it, and our responsibility to take good care of it all.
And with the current show, “Believe,” Laura says Sea World hopes to carry the message one step further, inspiring people to do great things.
“I think the most exciting thing for me about this show is that we’re actually getting to tell our story for the first time. About the amazing connection. It starts with a dream, a vision, a want-to, a desire, a belief.
“[In the show] you saw, the young boy just had an affinity, a love for animals, and for killer whales especially, and wanted to make a connection. Well, we take the audience on that journey of connection.”
Her excitement is obvious as she describes her passion to develop such a meaningful show with the team at Sea World:
“In the first scene Shamu is alone, where you see killer whales jumping in the natural setting, doing natural behaviors. And then you see a human involved in the next scene.
“And then there’s the part of the show that I think is all of our favorite. It’s called, ‘Far Greater,’ where you go to the inner depth, the inner places of relationship and connecting. You saw [trainer] Dawn just reaching heights and just looking up. [Like] you’re in the pool all alone, just you and the whale, nobody watching.
“It’s the things that you do when no one’s watching.
“Right after that there’s a possibility for a testimony, a personal story.
“Then we trainers flood the pool and envelope the audience, and make the connection with the children and people of all ages that, ‘Hey this is your time!’
“We actually teach [the audience] a signal that calls the whale out, it’s called the ‘Sham Slam!’
“Everybody gets wet, everybody has a big time. We created this story to have a mountaintop, mountain peak type of experience, where the whole audience is supercharged, wet and having a good time, and then we take them one more level.
“The next part is called ‘Celebration’--the fireworks--where you see the trainers exploding off of the whale’s nose, high leaps, fast action behaviors, and the music matches that.
“So the whole experience is to have the close connection and intimate moments, and then go to where it’s a big celebration. The hope is that the audience would see trainers connecting.
“And if we can do this, you can do whatever your dream, whatever your destiny. Whatever’s in your heart, go for it. Pick it up and do it.
“If this show lands in peoples’ hearts to where it stirs them to do great things, then I feel like we’ve hit a homerun!”
Well, they have hit a homerun! Especially with me!
As one the best days of my life neared its closing, I had one last question for Laura, such a fantastic spokesperson for Sea World and their mission.
I recall a time, long before the ‘politically correct’ movement, when there were complaints about calling these creatures, ‘killer whales.’ The term ‘orca’ was touted as a friendlier name that didn’t prejudice us toward this beautiful creature.
My observation was that Laura and the trainers did not shy away from calling these animals ‘killer whales.’ I asked her to explain that to me.
“Absolutely. They are the top predator. The majority of our team of animals, our family here, has been born under our care, but make no mistake, they are still wild animals. They have the potential of causing danger and harm.
“The key is relationship. It’s trust. It’s respect. It’s not fear, because anytime you’re fearful that can cause problems. So it’s having a good understanding and a respect, and of course being trained very well to read behavior.
“You know, Chris, you’re a behaviorist, since you’re a psychology major. You know, having worked with children, and people all over the world, you have to be able to read the situation. Look in the animals’ eyes and read. Are they with me?
“Animals have good days and bad days. No different than us. So the term ‘killer whale’ is very appropriate. They are the top predator. They’re not afraid of anything.
“It’s an honor that they choose to be with us. In the pool, they could swim away from you and say, ‘I don’t want to be with you.’ But the fact that they want to swim with us? To me that’s miraculous!
“The fact that we’re in the water swimming, loving, hugging, flying off the nose, spinning around with the top predator--it’s miraculous! And it all is centered on love and respect for one another.
“If we can get along with the top predators, based on trust and respect, then why can’t we live like that with each other?”
Sea World has a wonderful ambassador in Laura Surovik. Through trainers like her and their life-long discipline and commitment to trust and respect for these beautiful animals, so-called ‘killers’ become ambassadors to all of us, and help teach us something about ourselves, and how to be better at caring for each other and the majestic planet under our care.
Thank you Sea World, for one of the coolest days of my life.
Thank you, Laura Surovik.
And thanks, Shamu! I think I got the message!