A killer whale quickly emerges from the crystal water in a perfect arc, but it’s just a moment.
It’s fleeting, and for the most part, that’s all the crowd sees. It’s a flash of black and white in a sea of blue set to catchy music. But for SeaWorld Trainer Joseph Sanchez, it’s just a sliver of the time he spends with the whales.
While the two of the three killer whales perform graceful leaps and make the crowds laugh as they splash them with water from their tanks during SeaWorld’s One Ocean show, Sanchez is off to the side at the edge of the arena, appearing to give the last one a sort of underwater pep talk through the glass. He uses his hands to let the whale know what he means, and she even nods along. With a single gesture, he has the ability to communicate with an animal that weighs almost 6,000 pounds, and that’s no small feat.
“It’s amazing the connection that we can make with these animals,” Sanchez said. “Sometimes it’s challenging to compare it, and to be able to come here when I was a kid and see the connection that the trainers and the whales had, I wanted to be a part of that.”
In a sense, 36-year-old Sanchez has grown up with these animals. His grandmother used to take him to SeaWorld frequently when he a kid, and after having seen the bonds between the killer whales and their trainer, he knew that was what he wanted to do with his life.
“I never changed what career I wanted to do and that was it,” Sanchez said. “I’m very lucky that happened.”
And lucky he is.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the state of Florida there are only 0.14 jobs per 1,000 available. However, it’s to be noted that this is still higher than the number of jobs per 1,000 in the other two states in the US that have a SeaWorld location.
California is at 0.10, while Texas trails behind with 0.07 jobs per 1,000.
In order to get where he is now, Sanchez studied psychology at Florida State University.
For college students wanting to pursue a career in animal training, psychology might not be the first thing that comes to mind, especially in regards to training marine animals. It is a degree that teaches people how to analyze behaviors and patterns—and applies to animals as well.
The training the killer whales at SeaWorld receive is a behavior modification based on positive reinforcement.
“Any time the animals do something correct, and we want to see more of it, we draw a lot of attention to it,” Sanchez said.
But the training wouldn’t be complete without an established trust and connection between a trainer and the whale. That’s the first thing a trainer needs to focus on before trying to teach the whales anything. Sanchez compared it to a similar bond a person has at home with their pet.
“You have a special and unique bond with them,” Sanchez said. “You know their likes, and their dislikes. It’s the same with these guys so when we come in everyday, we learn those things about them.”
It’s all about making a unique relationship with these animals. Also, the better a trainer gets to know his whale, the safer the experience is for both of them. They’re constantly studying their behavior.
“Being around them 24/7, we’re able to tell if everything is Kocher, or maybe there’s some challenges between their social pod that we need to let them work out,” Sanchez said. “So we let them do their thing, and then we’re always looking for an opportune time to step up to the whales and interact with them.”
In between shows, trainers are setting up playtimes for the whales, interacting with them one-on-one, and training them new things. Sanchez said that’s how they maintain their relationships, and learn more about them.
One misconception that Sanchez said people have about trainers at SeaWorld is that they think that they get to start working with the whales as soon as they start at the park.
In fact, all new trainers go through a period of time of about a year and a half to 2 years where they do not work with the whales directly. The main reason for that is that new trainers have a lot to learn.
“You have to learn their diet, you have to learn how to care for them, keep their environment clean, and you have to learn the social hierarchy of the animals,” Sanchez said.
Once a new trainer has spent sufficient time doing all that, then he’ll start working with a particular whale.
Sanchez has been working at SeaWorld since 2003 when he was 23 years old.
Now, 12 years later, he has had the opportunity to see a lot of the whales grow. Katina is one of the first whales he started working with back in 2003, and having seen her grow up has been a great experience for him.
“To see Katina where she was then and where she is now,” Sanchez said, “[with] all the new learning she has done, and the babies that she’s had. She’s a great matriarch for our pod.”
He has also been able to witness two of her offspring grow up in SeaWorld, Nalani, an 8-year-old female, and Makaio, a 4-year-old male.
“I was fortunate enough to see them both born here, to see Nalani grow up and teach Makaio, and the relationship they have,” Sanchez said. “It’s really cool.”
It certainly is something that he wouldn’t have been able to witness with killer whales in the wild.
But like with many jobs, there are sacrifices that have to be made, sometimes in the monetary department.
Sanchez makes between $30,000 to $50,000 a year, which is comparable to the annual average salary of $35,240 for somebody in the US in the same work position.
“You definitely don’t do this job for the money,” Sanchez said. “It’s all out of the love for the animals, and being able to have that interaction with them and really inspire people to care about them.”
The animals also have around the clock surveillance and care. SeaWorld keeps a full-time vet staff on site, and they have a nighttime watch staff to keep an eye on the whales while the trainers sleep.
When killer whale calves are born, the trainers themselves are responsible for 24-hour surveillance for three months straight.
“We’re working 12 hour days sometimes, and we’ll come in at two in the morning if we have to,” Sanchez said. “There’s definitely a lot of sacrifice, but at the same time it’s so worth it because we’re able to share our lives with them, and to teach people and be able to showcase the animal—it’s beautiful.”
Though there are organizations that oppose whales being held in captivity, Sanchez said that it was important for people to educate themselves. He said SeaWorld’s end goal was for people to be inspired to make a difference and to help conserve wildlife and help protect these animals in the oceans.
“I strongly feel that without SeaWorld and marine institutions that are teaching guests about these animals, I honestly don’t know if they’ll be here in 20 years,” Sanchez said.
He also said that there are always two sides to every story, and that people should have the opportunity to view both and make up their own mind about the way SeaWorld treats these animals.
“When guests come to our park, they see the truth,” Sanchez said.
After all the crowds have exited the arena, it’s hard to believe that just minutes before there had been a large underwater acrobatic performance by these animals.
The music has been shut off, and the only sounds are the clicks and whistles of Katina, Nalani and Makaio as the trainers rub them down. It’s just a moment, and it’s fleeting. But it’s there.
That’s what the crowd doesn’t get to see — what Sanchez and the other trainers do after the stage lights have been turned off and the movie screens put away, all the flash and bang of SeaWorld’s One Ocean show having ended.
With a single hand gesture, a trainer begins the after-care of the show for Katina, motioning her to lay on her side.
And she does.
“At the end of the day,” Sanchez said, “you can’t make a 6,000 pound animal do something it doesn’t want to do.”
Photo by Jarleene Almenas