The following excerpt recounts a compelling moment when the orca Takara rescues trainer John Hargrove after a trick goes horribly wrong. Republished with the author’s permission and taken from Hargrove’s book, Beneath the Surface. Buy the book here and follow John on Twitter.
(Takara, an orca at SeaWorld,) loved playtime with me. I’d toss balls and enormous flotation devices into the pool and have her toss them back. She’d do it with vocals indicating delight and excitement – sending these massive objects, some weighing hundreds of pounds, into the stands, launched like missiles, sometimes damaging the bleachers and walls and anything in their way. The force would sometimes bend steel bars or knock chunks of concrete off. If her projectile toy hit you, it was unlikely you’d just get up and walk away. Takara knows all about having fun and when she frolics it is a spectacle of things flying in the air – including trainers she’d happily but carefully flip into an adjacent pool. She knew who she liked to have fun with – and who she cared for.
Normally, performing in the water with Takara is a rough ride; she’s strong, explosive and fast and expects you do be able to handle the physicality of it all. In October 2009, I and another San Antonio SeaWorld trainer were performing a synchronized routine with Takara and Keet during a show. The aim was to submerge with the whales to the bottom of the pool, 40 feet under, and then get the whales to pull up. Once their tails cleared the bottom, the animals would kick in and, with us standing on the tips of their rostrums, they’d push to the surface at an immense speed, simultaneously exploding almost completely out of the water with us standing atop them like human-cetacean jack-in-the-boxes. In SeaWorld lingo, it’s called a double stand-on spy-hop.
For this act to succeed, Takara and Keet had to be perfectly in sync and we trainers had to keep our equilibrium precisely as the animals sped up to the surface. In this case, however, Takara was much faster than Keet. That meant that when she got to the bottom of the pool, she had to wait for him to catch up to coordinate their ascent. When a whale stalls out like that underwater, it affects the trainer trying to keep himself or herself attached to and balanced on the orca. Because of the way water and gravity work, the human’s body will begin to float during the wait, moving out of position because the momentum has stopped. That’s what happened to me in the brief time it took Keet to catch up with (Takara). Once they were lined up, Takara whipped up her powerful flukes and the sudden burst of power caused my left foot to shift slightly on her rostrum. That was the beginning of the disaster.
I immediately knew I was in trouble when my left foot – my dominant one – shifted off it’s spot. The thought flashed through my head that I should abort the behaviour and break off from Takara. But I convinced myself that I had enough balance to make it. Wrong. She got to the surface with such force that my left foot washed completely off her. It made me lean forward. (Takara) was aware something was wrong. In the video of the incident, you can clearly tell that she is trying to stop. You see her arching to try to avoid me. But it was too late and, as I fell forward right as we broke the surface, her rostrum – with more than 5,000 pounds behind it – slammed into my side and sent me into the pool like a rag doll.
Right away, Takara began to echolocate on my entire body – it felt just like the hummingbird buzz, but I could tell these were different. Her sonar was almost like thought. Takara had, during a previous waterwork show, approached me with echolocation and I could hear it and feel it in my chest like I normally did but then it became different. It caused a snapping sound – like that of a rubber band – that I could hear but also feel at the top left side of my brain. I have never experienced anything like it before or after. Later, I joked with other trainers that she was stealing my thoughts and reading my mind. Maybe she was.
As I tried to regain my senses in the pool afer the collision, Takara sent out her sonar while “sharking” me, that is swimming around me in a circle at the surface with her perfectly straight dorsal exposed. It wasn’t because she thought I was prey. She was trying to figure out how badly hurt I was.
The wind had been knocked out of me but I managed to float to the surface. I motioned a thumbs-up to my control spotter on land, pretending I was fine so they woulnd’t emergency recall Takara away from me. I needed her help. I had fallen right into the middle of the pool and knew I didn’t have the strength to make it back to solid ground without her help.
As she continued to echolocate on my body, I gently snapped my fingers underwater, signaling her to swim in front of me. I placed both hands on her rostrum as I tried to catch my breath. Then I gave her a signal for a pec-push from the show area to the edge of one of the pools in the back. Suddenly, this roughest, toughest princess of SeaWorld became the gentlest of rescuers. I never even felt her pectoral flippers touch my feet as she began to glide me to safety. She then gave me a pec-push step-off onto the back pool’s ledge, smothly coming underneath me to lift me high enough as I floated that I barely needed to exert any effort to step off her pec and out of the pool. That last move was a behaviour she was never trained for. She was aware of how important I was in her life; and she wanted to make sure I would be safe.
… I learned one important thing from the incident: Takara treasured me as much as I treasured her.
Photo credit Jeff Kraus via Flickr, Creative Commons License