The past few years have seen a stream of former SeaWorld employees speak out about their time at the company. Now another employee is stepping forward – and revealing even more details about just how poorly the parks’ animals are treated.
Sarah Fischbeck joined SeaWorld San Diego as a water quality diver right after high school in 2007. During six years with the company, she worked jobs across the animal departments, performing maintenance on tanks and cleaning them, and regularly diving with the animals.
But she was also witness to some of the darker aspects of SeaWorld, which eventually led to her voluntarily leaving the company in 2013.
“If people knew what I know, or saw what I have seen, they wouldn’t sell another ticket,” she told The Dodo. Here’s her inside look.
“It was skin.”
Many of SeaWorld’s animals turn to in-fighting as a result of the cramping and stress of captivity, but Fischbeck said the orcas had it worst of all.
While the whales have been spotted with rake marks caused by tankmates’ teeth, and a host of serious injuries caused by fighting, Fischbeck confirmed just how regular – and severe – the fighting could get.
“You’d be diving at the bottom of the tanks and you’d find these long strips of what looked like black rubber,” she explained. “And it was skin they’d peeled off each other.”
“We had divers take whale skin home to their families all the time as souvenirs,” Fischbeck added.
Workers would regularly see orcas swimming to the other side of the tank because they were being chased, she said. “They’re always beating up on each other,” Fischbeck explained. “It’s nothing new. The trainers know it, we know it.”
One morning, Fischbeck said, she arrived early for a maintenance dive in one of the orca pools that was supposed to be empty – and was surprised to see one of the whales waiting for her.
“Her tummy was scratched up,” she said. “And she was swimming in this pool that was supposed to be locked out for us.”
They called the trainers, but they said that the whales had all been locked up the night before. Then the team realized what had happened: The orca who entered the pool had somehow hoisted herself or been pushed into the locked pool, over a metal grate topped with painful nubs, gashing her belly in the process.
“She was being picked on so much her only escape was over that locked barrier,” Fischbeck said. “And she was pushed into a locked pool.”
The orcas also took their frustration out on birds. Though orcas are natural predators, the bird killings appeared to be an act of frustration more than hunger. “They’d constantly tear apart birds,” Fischbeck said. “They weren’t eating them at all. You’d find the whole bird – just in pieces.”
The divers weren’t safe, either, though the whales were locked out of the pools they would swim in. “The whales were aggressive toward us,” Fischbeck said. “They’d see us on the other side of the gate. I had more than one occasion where they got really angry and started ramming the gate … You couldn’t get within arm’s reach of the gate because they’d try to suck you in.”
Fischbeck said she was surprised the divers were never handed any protocol or safety procedures about swimming near the orcas. “There was no procedure for us … not once was I ever given training or what to do if a whale got in a pool with us,” she added.
Trainers have previously reported that SeaWorld dosed the orcas with Valium to try to keep them calm. Fischbeck confirmed this, and said the belugas and dolphins were also being drugged, and that the dosages were openly posted in the trainers’ rooms. “It’s written what vitamins they’re giving, what sedatives they’re giving,” she said.
But even with the stress that the small tanks cause the orcas, SeaWorld had no trouble taking space away from them. After the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, OSHA prohibited SeaWorld trainers from swimming with the orcas. In an effort to fight the decision, SeaWorld installed a $70 million lift floor in the bottom of the B pool – with a push of the button, the entire floor is lifted up to the surface.
Yet the safety feature took up more than one-fourth of the B pool, leaving the orcas with even less space than before, Fischbeck said. She noted that at least one whale, Ulises, can’t even go nose to tail in the pool, which is now around 15 feet deep.
“That had no benefit at all to the animals,” she said of the lift. “They put that lift floor in so they could get their trainers in the water.”
“She killed her first calf.”
One beluga named Ruby was bred continuously, despite each pregnancy ending in tragedy. She had her first calf in 2008 through artificial insemination, but the baby passed away soon after – the public story is that the calf was sickly and she rejected it.
Ruby actually turned on the calf, according to Fischbeck. “She actually killed it,” Fischbeck said. “She attacked it and she killed it and they separated it from her and resuscitated it and it lived in the back pool for a month and it died.”
Ruby got pregnant in 2010, and again turned on the calf – a female named Pearl. SeaWorld expressed surprise that the beluga had rejected her infant, but Fischbeck alleged they anticipated it. “They had divers in the water because they knew Ruby had this tendency,” she said.
They had also drugged Ruby with Valium to try to calm her down, according to the former diver. “Ruby’s dose went up when she was pregnant, and right before she was supposed to be due,” Fischbeck said. “They upped her dose because she killed her first calf.”
Despite SeaWorld’s precautions, Ruby attacked her newborn daughter, and SeaWorld removed the calf. An infertile female adopted the baby, according to Fischbeck, and Ruby was shut off in another tank for months.
“They had to keep Ruby separated from her because Pearl had to be big enough so Ruby wouldn’t pose a threat,” Fischbeck said. “I remember it because diving with the belugas, it was always like, ‘You’re going to dive with the calf or dive with the bitchy one in the back.'”
It was clear that Ruby wasn’t cut out for motherhood, but calves were profitable and Ruby was fertile. In 2012, she fell pregnant again.
SeaWorld said the conception was natural, but Fischbeck said they had birth control and could have stopped it if they wanted to. “Why would you have a pregnant animal that’s already killed one calf and tried to kill another?” she said.
Unsurprisingly it ended in tragedy. Ruby had a miscarriage, Fischbeck said, and her kidneys shut down and she was quickly placed in the tiny back pool, which is hidden from guests and from the air, so no one could see her.
“She was on the surface floating,” Fischbeck said. “Her skin was turning yellow.”
Ruby passed away in 2014, after Fischbeck left, and she doesn’t know what happened to her.
“You can’t find Ruby’s necropsy anywhere,” she said. “I’ve asked my past coworkers and everyone’s really hush-hush about it. No one wants to lose their jobs.”
As with the other animals, the divers had to be wary when swimming with the belugas as the stress of captivity would exhibit itself as aggression. Pearl lost the fear that wild belugas have and would roughly try to play with the divers. “She’d come and pull us off walls and grab us on the bottom of the tank,” Fischbeck said.
Her father, Nanuq, was also “extremely aggressive.” He ended up breaking his jaw in a fight with other whales. It became infected, and he died in February.
And like the other animals, the belugas exhibit stereotypic behavior, mindless repetitive patterns that are often a symptom of captive stress. One male, Ferdinand, will compulsively perform spy hops, little jumps out of the water that wild belugas use to spot predators.
“He’d been in captivity so long he’s bored,” Fischbeck said. “He just sits in the water and pops in and out of the water … he still does it.”
“They have no protection.”
“The Magic Landing penguins are super sweet,” Fischbeck said. They’re also super skittish, and aren’t sufficiently shielded from the public, she added, as they’re protected only by a few feet of glass and visitors have full access to them.
“They have no protection from the audience,” she explained. “Those Magellanic penguins have been suffering for years because the visitors come and they throw pennies in the pool.”
As a diver, Fischbeck said, she also found shoes, cameras, socks, maps and “anything you can imagine” littering the penguin habitat – which often led to serious health issues for the penguins.
“They don’t know any better – they see something shiny, they’re going to eat it,” she said. “They have penguin surgeries all the time [to remove the objects from the birds] … it’s horrible.”
At one point, Fischbeck said, the trainers tried to update the penguin enclosure, but corporate refused. “All you need is a glass wall,” she said. “The penguin trainers had a solution, but it cost money, and penguins just aren’t sexy enough.”
SeaWorld keeps more penguins inside the exhibit – and the Gentoo penguins in particular aren’t that friendly, Fischbeck said. Because the water is a chilly 32 degrees Fahrenheit, divers have to wear a cumbersome dry suit that exposes their hands and faces. The birds will take any opportunity they can to attack divers as they work, even pinching them through their thick clothing.
Fischbeck said one of her friends, a fellow diver, has a giant scar across his calf from the penguins. “We had people who were bleeding from the face,” she said.
The first time she dove that pool, Fischbeck said, the birds attacked her as well.
“These birds were just tearing at me,” she said. “My hands were numb and frozen, I couldn’t get out of the pool, I was getting attacked, and this was my first breakdown at SeaWorld … I put my head against the glass and started crying.”
“They would sit there and regurgitate.”
One walrus, Obie, exhibited severe stereotypic behavior, and would throw his food up to cope with the stress of captivity. While this behavior has been reported before, Fischbeck confirmed it happened compulsively.
“They would sit there and regurgitate their food against the glass … It would turn into this gelatinous mass,” she said. “We [cleaned] … it all the time – that was just a regular duty at that pool.”
The stress also affected the sea turtles. SeaWorld was left with dozens of hybrid turtles after a breeding mishap and stuck them in an overcrowded tank together, according to Fischbeck. But sea turtles are generally solitary, and the stress of captivity made them turn on each other.
“If you Google sea turtles they have a nice, smooth shell,” she added. “If you look at the Turtle Reef turtles it looks like they have rounded calcium deposits and it’s because the other turtles are chomping on them.”
“She would not leave her calf.”
The dolphins also suffer from captive aggression, and Fischbeck said it could get quite severe. “We’d be the first ones to the pool most mornings … and more than once we found a dolphin pushed out of the pool by the other dolphins,” she said. “Just laying on the concrete.”
They’d report the incident, and would be kicked out while a crane was brought in to lift the dolphin back into the tank. Fischbeck said she didn’t directly witness injuries, but that the falls couldn’t have been good for them. “You can’t take a four-foot fall over a glass wall and not be damaged,” she said.
The aggression didn’t stop there. In one tragic incident Fischbeck reported seeing, a group of males was harassing a baby calf from the other side of the wall. The baby panicked and ran into a wall and died. The mother dolphin was devastated, and wouldn’t leave her dead calf’s side.
“She was just calling and swimming in circles, super distressed. Her calf was just lying there dead,” Fischbeck said. “They couldn’t separate the mother from the baby so they had to drain the pool … She would not leave her calf and they drained the water around her.”
“It was really depressing,” Fischbeck said. “You heard stories all the time – you always heard stories. But I personally saw this.”
Another dolphin, named Beaker, had a similar encounter but fortunately survived. “When she was a calf, one of the whales rammed her into one of the walls and broke her jaw and they had to reconstruct it,” Fischbeck said, adding that Beaker was left with a permanently downturned beak.
Fischbeck said she believes the aggression problem is partially due to SeaWorld’s unnatural breeding program, which upsets the natural social order and leads male dolphins to act out. A similar phenomenon has been observed among SeaWorld’s orcas.
“They breed dolphins like you breed guinea pigs. The second they can breed them, they breed them,” she said. “A young female dolphin isn’t supposed to be having babies back to back to back.”
And some of the dolphins are so problematic they’re kept behind the scenes. “There are dolphins in the back pool and they will never go to show,” she explained.
Fischbeck said that, unfortunately, the dolphins also took out their aggression on the divers – though SeaWorld liked to pretend these incidents never happened.
“I had a really bad attack,” Fischbeck said. “I was attacked by … one of the mothers in the pool … I was covered in bruises. She grabbed me by the forearm and shook me.”
A supervisor heard – and Fischbeck said the park responded by taking away her diving privileges. “They didn’t change their protocol,” she said. “They were just like, ‘Oh, you’re a problem because you complained about it so we’re not gonna let you dive.'”
Another time, a dolphin grabbed her machine when she was working and began to pop his jaw at her – a sign of aggression. “You hear it and you leave, because nothing good follows,” she said.
She swam off to find her diving partner and warn him to leave the pool – but the dolphins found him first. As she watched, a dolphin grabbed her partner’s tank strap and began to shake him. When he tried to fight back, a second dolphin clamped down. “Another one came and bit his head,” Fischbeck said. “Like his head was in a dolphin’s mouth.”
Fischbeck said incidents like these were common – and enough of a problem that SeaWorld started locking up the most aggressive dolphins, though there were still issues.
“We were repeatedly attacked by dolphins,” she said. “There were some sore heads and faces from getting masks bit.”
Yet SeaWorld ignored these incidents whenever they could, she said, adding that their policy was: “Well are you injured … well then it didn’t happen.”
The Dodo spoke with former trainers Dr. Jeffrey Ventre and John Hargrove, who both independently confirmed that Fischbeck’s general account was in line with what they experienced.
But in a statement, SeaWorld called Fischbeck’s allegations “a complete distortion of the facts.”
“The fact is that SeaWorld is highly regulated by the U.S. federal government with frequent inspections by federal veterinarians and other government officials,” Aimée Jeansonne Becka, senior director for corporate communications at SeaWorld, said. “In addition, we are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has said that SeaWorld is ‘meeting or exceeding the highest standard of animal care and welfare of any zoological organization in the world.'”
Fischbeck voluntarily left the company in December 2013 – a decision she says she made due to poor treatment as an employee and the treatment of the animals.
“I ate up all of my savings to get on my feet again,” she said, “but I got out.”
For the second part of Fischbeck’s account, click here.
Contact SeaWorld to let them know orcas belong in the wild.