Listening carefully to Mom Jones dialogue, I would jump off of the U-shaped bar and sink down into the depths of the water inside of the high jump tower. About eight feet down, there was a square shaped opening that I would climb through to enter the pool itself. With my left hand holding the harness and my right hand feeling the wall as I slid down to the bottom of the pool, I tried to stay smooth and upright waiting to land on the floor of the pool. This was important since the timing between Mom Jones’s dialogue, the trainer sending Kilroy down for the pickup, and my arriving where I needed to be for the pickup had to be just right.
Most of the time, the water was crystal clear. In fact, it was clear enough to see Kilroy turn and make his way down for the pickup. It sort of reminded me of a 747 jet coming in for a landing as he made his approach. Gulp!
As Kilroy approached, I was taught how to hold the harness in a way that allowed him to go though the large loop and me to maintain a grip on both loops. The key thing here is that you needed to extend your left arm out with the harness wide open for him to swim through and it was extremely important that you had your right foot up against the wall to push off hard when he swam through the harness (otherwise, there was a distinct chance that your arm would be ripped out of it’s socket). As you pushed off of the wall with your leg and Kilroy swan through the harness, you then needed to flip over onto his back in one motion into a prone position and then wiggle your way up into a crouch so that you would be on your knees, much like jockeys do in horse racing.
As Kilroy moved along the perimeter of the pool in a slow ascent, I always liked to look towards the holding pen as we passed by and waved at the young killer whales lined up at the gate to watch. Yes, they seemed excited to see Kilroy perform and Kilroy seemed to enjoy the challenge of the show, especially when we would change things up that he didn’t expect.
At the far end of the pool, Kilroy exploded to the surface! I would give out a little scream of excitement in case one of the five thousand people weren’t paying attention. In one motion, I would rip off my scuba mask and place it into my left hand and let go of the big loop and just hold onto the smaller loop with my right hand to assist me in staying on Kilroy’s back as he powered his way along the glass. Just two kids playing in the back yard!
When we arrived at the other end of the pool at Mom’s house, I would gently stand up on Kilroy’s back and step off onto the ledge of the pool to give my “Mom” a big hug and to hear the news that Shamu and I were off to Ocean University!
Please remember that there were four of us working at the Shamu Stadium at this time. Rich (our head show trainer), John, Greg, and I were experienced marine mammal trainers who also happened to perform in the shows with the real star. We all played each part in the show many times over and we each did things in very similar ways to each other for the benefit of all of the whales. We kept detailed records not only of each show or training session but of each behavior. Communication was vital but the health and well being of the animals was most important of all.
Next month, I’m going to tell you about the time that everything went wrong with the sequence I just described and I was drilled in the chest by Kilroy.