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What Bjossa Should Expect: A Life in the Shamu Lie

Saturday 21 April 2001

Bjossa's not so excellent adventure

In her new San Diego home, Vancouver's beloved killer whale will really have to perform San Diego

Nicholas Read Vancouver Sun

There are significant changes in store for Vancouver's long-time resident killer whale, who leaves tonight for her new life at San Diego's SeaWorld -- not the least of which is her name.

Bjossa, the Vancouver Aquarium's killer whale for the last 20 years, has thrilled west coast visitors with her solo, low-key, performances that last 20 minutes, five times daily. Here, Vancouver trainers tailor each show to Bjossa's mood at the time, in an effort to earn the animal's respect.

Retraining the mammal for SeaWorld's killer whale extravaganza begs the question: can you teach an old whale new tricks?

Providing Bjossa learns everything taught to her by her new SeaWorld trainers, the day will come when she will be expected to become Shamu, which is the catch-all name given to all eight orcas in the San Diego theme park when they perform.

There is no such creature as Shamu. Shamu is both no one and everyone. The whale show is called the Shamu Adventure and the whale -- or whales -- performing in it are referred to both individually and collectively as Shamu. But it's strictly a stage name, and each of the eight orcas currently living at SeaWorld has to take a turn wearing it.

It gives a continuity to the shows, and it makes the whales in it immortal. Since there is no one whale named Shamu, Shamu never dies or gets sick. The San Diego public need never be concerned about Shamu's welfare, let alone grieve when he or she is no more, because Shamu is both invisible and replaceable. To the untrained eye, all orcas look alike. Therefore, any one of SeaWorld's eight orcas -- nine when Bjossa joins them -- can fit the bill.

The 30-minute show emphasizes this. It is all about the concept of SHAMU! -- the name is shouted over and over again. The whale is something the audience is invited to cheer for, as if it were a beloved local athlete.

The show is a glitzy, high-tech affair, a veritable Ringling Brothers circus on water, that incorporates a large-screen video, emotive canned music (Celine Dion would not be out of place here), and three noticeably attractive trainers in clingy wetsuits, as well as the orcas. It is slick, well-orchestrated, undeniably eye-grabbing, and full of humour, splashy tricks and human derring-do.

It is also full of contradictions in the sense that while it attempts to teach its audiences something about wild killer whales -- the video screen shows pictures of orcas in the wild swimming and hunting -- it is principally about showing off what orcas can do once they're in a place like SeaWorld.

SeaWorld staff explain that most of the behaviours -- they are never referred to as tricks -- incorporated in the show mimic orcas' natural behaviour. For example, they will use their powerful tails to stun their prey in the wild. The difference is that at SeaWorld they use the same behaviour to splash their audience.

Consequently, the show's message is a mixed, almost confused one. On one hand, it emphasizes the orca's role as the sea's fiercest and most dangerous predator. In fact, some of the video clips actually show killer whales hunting and killing penguins and seals. But no sooner is mention made of this distinction, than whatever Shamu is on duty is required to make a mockery of it by mugging for the audience.

Implicit is the notion that while killer whales may be something to fear in the ocean, there is nothing an audience need worry about when watching them, because they become mere pussy cats when under the control of their trainers.

Up to three whales perform at a time. The performance pool is half-moon shaped, and there are bleachers with room for 5,500 spectators overlooking it. Each spectator is guaranteed a good view. The whales jump in unison, shake their heads as if they are saying "Yes" and "No," "kiss" selected members of the audience, and use their pectoral fins to "wave" at them. They glide across raised surfaces within the show pool and can stop on a dime. Audience "oohs" and "aaahs" fill the air whenever this happens.

But by far the most impressive moments are those when one orca shares its pool with a trainer. Unlike the trainers at the Vancouver Aquarium, SeaWorld trainers swim with their charges. They also ride on their backs and stomachs, balance on their noses, and are flung into the air by them like beach balls. One of the behaviours involves the whale spinning continuously while the trainer runs over it, as if she were log-rolling.

All the movements are choreographed and balletic. When the three trainers first appear from behind the video screen, they strike poses like circus performers. Trainer Lisa Huguley, who swims with the whales, is like a dancer -- graceful, poised and over-extended. She plays to her audience like any good performer does.

Because that's what the Shamu Adventure is: A performance. It is no science lesson, no matter what park staff may say.

However, it is also what audiences appear to like. None of the people interviewed after a Thursday afternoon show had any qualms about either the ethics of keeping whales captive or making them perform like acrobats. "No," said Lynda Ruiz of San Diego. "I don't have a problem with it. They have a big enough tank. And having them here helps increase the population."

Dirk Rowe, another San Diegan who watched with his five-year-old daughter, was more concerned that the park is owned by Anheuser-Busch, a beer company, than he was about captive animals. "I'm more worried about the alcohol," he said. When asked about the whales, he replied: "They look like they treat them well. They probably get treated better here than they do in the wild."

Amelia Willis of Orange County said she would prefer it if they were living in the wild, but added: "Then I'd never see them."

Indeed, a measure of just how enthusiastic patrons are is their willingness to be drenched in the so-called "soak zone." This constitutes the rows of seats closest to the pool, where audience members are guaranteed to get splashed by Shamu. It is the much-anticipated grand finale of the show.

The whales go around the edge of the pool and deliberately splash their audience with their tails. The audience shrieks and laps it up.

Why? SeaWorld spokesman Bob Tucker puts it this way: "They want to make a connection with the whales. They want to interact somehow with the whales, and this is one way they have of doing that."