Don't annoy a killer whale

People who know Bruce Stephens try to stay on his good side. He has friends. You know the type: black suit, muscles like Hercules. These friends of his, they don't get pushed around, not by anybody, and they don't know the meaning of the word "fear." Fortunately for Mr. Stephens, they like him, and he associates with them on a first-name basis. To everyone else, they all go by one name: "Killer."

Bruce Stephens hangs out with killer whales. As director of animal training at the Sea World oceanarium park in San Deigo, he has spent hundreds of hours in the water with killer whales, and has survived the experience mostly intact. The animals have a reputation for viviousness and killing for sport in the wild, but he insists that they are "the most mellow creatures you could ever want to encounter, much more so than many people I know."

"They are not a vicious animal. Their reputation is a result of their predatory habits, nor their social structure. There have been accounts of killer whales killing in a fashion that seems like sport, but saying they kill for pleasure is applying human terms to a nonhuman species. . . . The killer whale kills his food and eats it in a spectacular fashion, but it is a natural, predatory response and no more vicious than a human eating a prime rib. They are a very efficient predator, not a vicious one."

The whales are not pushovers to human will, not by any means -- "If you try to show them who's boss, they'll show you," Stephens adds -- yet they are eager to work with humans and learn "behaviors," the trade terminology for tricks. In fact, "they seem to enjoy the company of humans for its own sake. "Why else would they swim over to the side of the pool when they see you, or why would they roll over and present their bellies for a scratch?"

Sea World in San Diego houses seven killer whalws (two go to Ohio in the summertime), ranging in age from 4 to 10 years. Training begins when an animal reaches 2 1/2 years, and, in the initial stages, consists primarily of playing with the trainer 10 to 12 times a day. The whale moves gradually into learning simple "behaviors," such as leaping out of the water for food. Its attention span ranges from about 10 minutes for the younger whales to as long s three hours for older animals.

The method of training is operant conditioning with a twist: "It is much more than giving them food if they perform the behavior correctly," which is the standard form of operant conditioning -- the way most animals are trained. "In fact, if you do that, they come to expect a reward after every behavior and get unhappy if you don't give it to them." So the trainers throw in a little random "positive reinforcement." The whales are, basically, too smart to fall for the old doggy biscuit routine, and they don't buy the whip and chair bit, either. The primary modus operandi is to keep them happy all the time.

Despite the awesome challenge of staying on the good side of a killer whale, the operation is easier than it might seem. The animals are easy to please, regular pussycats.

"They love to be touched," Stephens says, "to be petted, or have their bellies rubbed. . . . They're also very social, so one method of positive reinforcement is to let a whale just swim around with other whales, or you let a dolphin in the pool so they can play."

He believes that, next to humans, killer whales are the most intelligent of all animals, an admittedly "subjective opinion." The whales' total lack of fear also adds to their trainability. "They are at the top of the predatory ladder. No other animal preys on the them, so they aren't afraid of anything, including man. They'll swim right into your lap, where a dolphin takes some time to get over its fear of man." (The only other marine animal that rivals killer whales for compatibility with man, according to Stephens, is the walrus. "The real danger in working with a walrus is that he will try to hug you underwater.")

The whales also "have a remarkable capacity for understanding human limitations. For the Bicentennial celebration, we had a show called 'Yankee Doodle Whale.' Part of the show involved the whale's swimming on its back while the trainer stood up and rode on its belly. When we were first starting to train for it, our trainers had trouble staying up, and when one of them would start to fall over to one side, the whale would push him back up with the flipper on that side and then push him back up with the other flipper when he started to slip off that side."

None of this is to say, though, that killer whales always possess the disposition of a five-year-old with a lollipop.

"They get grumpy," Stephens points out. "Maybe they're frustrated over not being able to do a trick, or maybe they've been practicing a trick too long, or maybe they just got up on the wrong side of the bed."

When a killer whale gets grumpy, the best place to be is somewhere else. A whale has never actually attacked its trainer to the point of inflicting serious injury, but the animals do communicate warnings in their own special way.

"Wide eyes," says Mr. Stephens, is one form of communication. "When they open their eyes real wide, pull their heads back, and just stare at you, that's a warning."

Warnings come in other less subtle shapes and sizes. Stephens has had rubber boots bitten off his feet, and a whale once pulled the wet suit off his back, "just sucked it right off." A whale pinned him to the bottom of the pool on one occasion, and he and other trainers have been nipped -- not bitten, he emphasizes. Once while he was in the pool with a whale, working on a "behavior, " the whale suddenly came racing at him from across the pool at full speed: three tons of animal with a bear trap for a mouth. The whale dived just inched before he would have rammed one shaken Bruce Stephens.

"That," he smiles, "was in the nature of a warning." When a killer whale warns, you don't stock around to argue. Stephens went ino his Mark Spitz routine and parted water in the direction of terra firma.

He insists, though, that the blame for such incidents rests entirely with the trainer. The more overt warnings -- the ones backed up by large, sharp teeth -- generally follow subtler warnings that the trainer either missed or ignored.

"You always have to remember that you are on their turf when you're in the water. You're entirely at their mercy, and they cooperate with you because they want to. When they don't want to anymore, then you have to stop. . . . They know exactly what they are doing. When a killer whale nips you, it isn't because he was trying to bite you and missed. He wanted to do exactly what he did."

Mr. Stephens has worked with killer whales for 10 years, and makes no bones about his affection for them. Apparently, some of it has rubbed off on the public. Over the last 15 years, the popularity of Orsinus orcam has gone from a low point of being used for target practice by the military to being the No. 1 drawing card at Sea World parks in California, Florida, and Ohio. Fear of killer whales has dwindled to the point where one of the parks' most popular attractions is a pool where visitors can reach in and scratch the snout of a friendly killer whale or two.

All of this proves quite gratifying for Bruce Stephens. He does not like to see his friends suffer from a bum rap. He has had a healthy respect for the intelligence and power of killer out the notion that they have similar feelings -- or perhaps just amused tolerance -- for man. However, if you do happen to be cruising the coastline in your weekend water wings some sunny day, and spot one, or several, large dorsal fins dipping in and out of the ocean's surface, he has some advice. Run, don't walk, "for the nearest shore."

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