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Matching wits with whales.


Performing killer-whales are making a big splash these days all around the country, but none so spectacular as at Orlando, Florida. There, thousands of visitors flock to Sea World's Shamu Stadium four times a day, seven days a week, to get an exciting look at the latest leaps forward in trained-whale behavior.

This is definitely the place to avoid a ringside seat, however. The whales have a novel approach to audience participation that comes as a sobering awakening to the people in the first four rows. Hardened veterans of this daily deluge sometimes bring umbrellas that they open at the critical moment. Then they gloat while their soggy neighbors retreat to higher ground.

Whether the whales enjoy this mischief is a question not even the experts can answer, but judging from other examples of whale behavior, it's clear that a gene for jocularity runs in the killer-whale family.

Whales may have a penchant for practical joking, but they are also serious performers. What they can do in league with their human partners leaves audiences' hearts fluttering somewhere in the vicinity of their tonsils.

For openers, Shamu, the slick star of the extravaganza, bounds through a curtain of water, takes a series of Nijinsky-like leaps across the 160-foot pool and then streaks 6 fathoms down to gain momentum for his magnum opus--a full, midair flip done with such panache it makes a Mary Lou Retton routine look like a splash in the bucket.

Then, with the audience firmly under his spell, Shamu emerges victorious on the concrete stage for a well-earned bow. The show is barely off the ground, and this whale has already spawned a whole new wave of prospective buyers for Sea World's Shamu souvenirs.

Next, enter Namu and Kandu, Shamu's leviathan pals, and three rather diminutive (in comparison) humans, and the "really big shoo' begins.

It's difficult to tell who is actually in control here, because the trainers ride the whales like surfboards, balance on the whales' noses and take a wild whaleback roller-coaster ride from 6 feet in the air to 35 feet under--but the whales, with a seemingly perfect sense of timing, dive from far ends of the pool and emerge in unison to fire their human counterparts like Polaris missiles high into the air. Both trainers and whales are still smiling by the end of the show, but by all appearances, the humans have had the whales' share of the wear.

It all looks like fun, but what to the spectators is one of the greatest shows on earth is to the participants simply another in an unending marathon of training sessions.

Thad Lacinak can tell you about that, if you can catch him when he's not immersed in his job. Lacinak's office apparel is a yellow-and-blue wet suit. His closest friends are whales. Other than that, he seems like a normal person.

"Sure, people watch the show and say, "Wow, I'd like to do that,' but that's the glamorous part of the job,' he says.

The bad part? "Well, for starters, people don't realize you are in 54|F. water [about the temperature of well-chilled iced tea]. The animals like the water at that temperature, but it's terrible for humans.' And there's another aspect of the job that makes some people turn up their noses. "You smell like fish all your life,' he says. "From the day you start here you smell fishy all the time.' Lacinak has smelled like a fish for almost 11 years.

"But the real problem with this job is it's not only taxing physically, it's very mind taxing, too,' he comments. "These animals will play games with you. You have to be on your toes all the time.'

Killer whales are particularly tough on new trainers, whom they love to confuse by using the old "wrong behavior' routine, i.e., the newcomer signals for a jump. The whales know what he wants but do a roll instead, just to see how the frustrated greenhorn will react.

And the whales are slave drivers to their regular trainers. Although the Sea World staff would be content just to train for a particular show and then make a fairly long run of it, their three-whale actors' union refuses to oblige.

"If we do the same thing more than two or three times in a row, they catch on quick,' says Lacinak. "They will anticipate our next signal and then do something completely different. So, we're changing all the time. The whales love that. They love to learn new things.'

How to get a three-ton, growing whale to do what you want is something of an art, and the lessons learned by whale trainers would not be lost on the parents of some small children.

Dave Butcher, Sea World's corporate director of training, helped develop the whale-training method used today, and he admits to having used the same tactics to get his little daughter to go to bed. The technical term is Random Interrupted Reinforcement, RIR for short, but the basic operating principle is simple enough: it's the old political game of "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine.' And actual back scratching plays a big part in it. "Whales love tactilization,' says Lacinak. "They rub rocks. They rub each other. They rub the sides of the pool. But what they like most is fingernails. They love us to scratch them because it feels so good. You can just see it on their faces.'

Sea World has long since abandoned the old fish-in-the-hand mode of training, although its trainers still dole out appetizers throughout the performance. The whales cooperate because they know they'll get something they like in return, and they never know exactly what. That's the fun of it. Perhaps the trainer will simply jump in the water with them. Maybe he'll toss them a new toy, let them play with it for a day and then take it away for a week so they won't tire of it.

"We don't punish our animals in any way,' says Butcher. "If they don't do something, they just get ignored.' For a fun-loving killer whale, that's punishment enough. Sometimes, he says, the whales actually do refuse to perform during a show, and that's when a trainer has to break out the old soft-shoe.

Whales only work for prople they know well. That's why it takes three to four years to "prep' a new trainer. But, says Thad Lacinak, the whales are good teachers. "The animals will tell you how you're doing. If they're not working with you very well, then it's something that you're doing wrong,' he says. "They won't give you trouble on purpose.'

The whole experience of getting to know a whale can be humbling to mere humans. "Their eyesight is excellent. They can echo-locate. Their hearing is 10 to 30 times better than ours,' says Lacinak. And they have another kind of keen awareness, too. "Killer whales can sense genuineness,' he says. "If you genuinely like them, then you don't have as many problems.'

The latest ripple in the training waters at Sea World has been caused by automation. No, trained whales aren't yet coming out on assembly lines--but they're close. By pairing tones to various behaviors and playing them underwater, the trainers have persuaded the whales to perform a lengthy water ballet of tricks without benefit of human direction. The act has an eerie effect.

"Right now we have one whale that has 15 different tones,' says Lacinak.

"We hope to teach 50 easily in the near future.' The extended outlook is that whales may eventually be taught tones for nouns, adjectives and verbs. For the first time, men and whales will have a mutually understandable language. That opens the doors to concept training. "We'll be able to signal, for example, "Shamu, jump over hoop,'' says Lacinak, "and then we'll have three objects in the water--a hoop, a person and a ball. The whale will have to choose the right one. If we can do that, we will be able to prove that these animals have reason.' Of course, if the whales do it wrong, no one will know for sure they aren't just playing dumb.

So, just how intelligent are killer whales, really? Butcher says killers, dolphins and chimpanzees are the brainiest animals in the world next to man. But their smarts aren't the reason after 11 years in the business that he prefers training whales to any other animal.

"They're not intimidated by anything in the world, including man,' he says. "That's what really intrigues me.'

Photo: Actor Eddie Albert attends a show at the new Shamu Stadium, the largest killer-whale complex in the world.

Photo: Fueled by a 200-pound-a-day eating habit, a killer whale mixes business with pleasure in a flying leap at Sea World's Shamu Stadium. Whales here no longer have to perform for their dinners. They'll do almost anything for a simple, friendly scratch behind the ears.

Photo: Trainers Conrad Litz, Liz Morris and Thad Lacinak get a lift from their three whale friends.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:at Orlando's Sea World
Author:Simon, Allen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1985
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