According to Tracy Karmuza, a trainer at the Free Willy Keiko Foundation,
killer whale trainers prepare whale food, clean tanks, watch for signs of
illness or injury, monitor eating patterns and changes in behavior, and keep
Before Keiko, the whale made famous by the movie Free Willy, was returned
to his native waters in Iceland, Karmuza had to make sure Keiko was healthy
and keep up his activity level. They did training sessions to keep him mentally
active and stimulated. "It's important because these are very intelligent
Training often consists of making signals, like whistle blows, to alert
the whale to perform a certain behavior. "Training is a slow process," says
trainer Dave Elliot. "But everything revolves around the mental health of
the whales. It affects their physical health and their attitude in the pool."
Along with monitoring seven whales' health, Elliot also trains them for
public performances. "We train them to do aerial jumps, to squirt water from
their blowholes, to splash with their tails and to interact with an audience
member, like getting a kiss."
"We're completely responsible for the health and welfare of the whales,"
says Anne Kent. Kent used to train a killer whale called Bjossa at Vancouver
Aquarium in British Columbia, Canada. Bjossa was moved to another aquarium
in April 2001 and passed away later that year.
Kent designed the training routines and kept up with the husbandry (the
management of the animals), took blood and urine samples to track hormones,
and checked and cleaned teeth and eyes.
The training routines mirror natural behaviors you'd see in the wild.
Stage experience and announcing is part of the job, too.
Working with killer whales means working outside and working in and around
water. "You've got to keep your energy up for the whale, even if it's freezing
cold," says Kent.
It's a regular 40-hour workweek -- 44 during high tourism season -- but
it's not a 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday job. "Your shift can start at 8 a.m. and
go until 4 p.m., or it can start at 2 p.m. and go until 10 p.m.," says Karmuza.
"And you're always on call," says Elliot. "Especially if a whale gets sick
or is pregnant. Because we've had a new baby whale every year for the last
six years, we schedule 24-hour, round-the-clock whale watches. And someone
has to be available."
Most of the work takes place around the tanks and pools -- or scuba diving
with the whale! But trainers also write up reports about what happened during
their training sessions.
Elliot has trained whales for 20 years. He says the current training philosophy
leans towards positive reinforcement.
"We used to train whales like land animals, but they don't respond the
same way. They're more intelligent. Now we only reinforce positive behavior
and completely ignore negative responses.
"If our whale is aggressive to another animal in the pool, we direct the
whale to a closed off area to cool off. Before, we would have reacted to the
bad behavior. It seems to work. There are fewer injuries for both the trainers
and the whales and it creates a better, calmer environment."