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There was quite a spike in readership for my “Should the trainers get back into the water at the Shamu show” article! It seems that people were more interested in reading about SeaWorld and Shamu than they were about insurance! Who would have figured that would happen (lol)?

Now, I think that there are a lot of interesting facts and recommendations when it comes to insurance but then again, I am an insurance geek. And I will continue to give you insurance advice as well as stories from the insurance world that I think you’ll find interesting and insightful but because of the tremendous feedback I received after the Shamu article (one lady sent an e-mail to me and I swear that she remembers and knows more details about the killer whales at SeaWorld over the past 35 years than I do), I’m going to sprinkle in some SeaWorld stories just for fun.

The one question that I get asked more than any other is “How did you get started”?

Well, in the beginning………..I was already working in the park at the Skyride. In fact, I had been at the ride for a year and a half and worked my way up to being the “lead” of the ride meaning that I supervised the day-to-day operations of the personnel at the ride as well as writing the weekly work schedules. This was pretty heady stuff and my pay shot up to $2.80/hour! Seriously, I worked with a great group of guys and the fact that I could write my own schedule while attending school full time was a real bonus.

Ken and Evinrude (Elephant Seal)

In the spring of 1976, a rumor circulated around the park that the training department was going to hire additional people for the summer season but some of these people would stay on full time while others would be laid off. I considered whether or not I should even apply for one of these spots considering I had a good thing going at the Skyride but I figured that the chance that I would actually land one of these plumb spots was about 100-1 so I thought “what would be the harm in interviewing?”

I interviewed with a real nice guy named Bob Shepard who was the Director of Training at the time. Bob was a real showman and loved to talk and I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut, listen intently, and nod my head a lot. The only thing that I really had going for me was that I was a certified scuba diver. I was going to school full-time as a business major so it wasn’t like I had any background for the job but miracle of miracles, I got the job! And not only that, I was assigned to the famous Shamu Show!

But it’s not like I picked up my bag and walked across the park and started performing in shows. First, I had to put time into working with the animal care department. Hardly glamorous, it was hard work but very rewarding. And the people working in animal care were really great to work with and were real professionals. On my first day on the job, my first task was to work with supervisor Tom Goff and force-feed a harbor seal. Most of the marine mammals at SeaWorld were either born there or were once “beached” animals (you have probably heard about whales sliding up onto the beach in preparation of dying). The animal care guys routinely go to the beach to pick up beached animals and will either assist them back into the water or if necessary, bring them back to SeaWorld for needed medical care. Most will be released back into the ocean when they are well but some are in need of daily care and live at the park.

Ken and Hummer (pilot whale)

After about a month of assisting with the myriad of duties that the animal care guys perform, I had to put my time in working in the fish house. For a week (normally a rookie trainer works anywhere from two weeks to a month in the fish house with a gentleman named Santos but I was lucky in that I only had to work for one week there and with Santos on vacation, I worked with a different animal care guy every night), I had to work from midnight to 9:00 AM thawing fish, filling buckets, cleaning buckets, distributing the buckets to the various show areas and feeder pools in the park, cleaning more buckets, cutting fish for the sea lions, clean the fish house, and did I mention cleaning buckets? The hardest part of working in the fish house wasn’t the non-stop physical labor but rather the lack of sleep. I never could understand how certain professions like police officers could switch work shifts and suddenly be working midnights and sleep during the day.

The most fascinating fish house event occurred to me when one morning at about 4:30 AM, we were driving a utility cart filled with 30 pound buckets of fish through the park to make a delivery to the Shamu Stadium (this would be the old Shamu Stadium where I would eventually work and where the dolphin show is now held, not the fabulous new Shamu Stadium being used today). I was driving the cart along with animal care specialist Doug Wigdahl and had only the small headlight to help me navigate the path but I knew the park so well and with no other people around, I accelerated confidently. Suddenly, I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting three fairly large California sea lions which were crossing the path! I exclaimed to Doug “the sea lions got out of the feeder pool”! He chuckled and explained to me that these sea lions actually come into the park from Mission Bay near the marina early every morning, jump into the feeder pool with the harbor seals, stay for the free food from the park guests all day long, and then jump out of the feeder pool and head back into Mission Bay after the park closes. Shaken by this unexpected event, I drove a bit slower from that point on.

Finally, the day came that I moved to my first show area as a trainer, the famous Shamu Show! I expected to jump right in, learn how to maintain and train these magnificent creatures, and perform in the shows. Not quite. I became very proficient at cleaning the trainers hut, hosing down the show’s back area, cleaning more buckets, scrubbing fish scales off of the show’s set with a small Dobie pad, and cleaning the toilet almost daily. It was miserable work. In hind sight, I understand why I couldn’t simply be given a whistle, a bucket of fish, and pointed in the right direction but this wasn’t quite what I signed up for.

Keeping in mind that some of the new trainers would get to stay and some would be laid off at the end of the summer plus the fact that the other new trainers were already performing in the shows in their show areas, I went to the boss, Bob Shepard, and asked to be moved to a different area. I wanted to at least have a chance to compete with the other new trainers and keep the job, even though I was now far behind. Bob told me that the only place he could move me was to the Underwater Show (otherwise referred to as the Theatre which was torn down a few years ago which I feel was a real shame. The trainers worked topside while the park guests watched the show through the glass from one of four sides). There were two experienced dolphins (Stein and Dinah) and two sea lions (Murphy and Wynn) in the Theatre. The head show trainer’s name was Dave Self who was known to be a bit old fashioned and difficult to work with as well as another new trainer named Dave Harkins and a volunteer named Chris Covington (female).

Please realize that nobody asks to go from the Shamu Show to the Theatre but I thought it was the perfect move. The animals could do the shows in their sleep and as far as working with Dave, I am a bit “old school” myself, we worked well together, and we became very good friends. As my first mentor, he was a demanding, no nonsense type of guy with a great heart and a real love for the animals. He liked and supported me and at the end of the season when trainers were shifted to other show areas, he made a request to the new Director of Training, Bruce Stephens, that I follow him to the Seal and Otter Show.

Needless to say, I got to keep the job as a trainer and in 1978, was moved back to the Shamu Show, now fully equipped to work with the killer whales and perform in the shows. The only downside to moving back to the whale show was that we had a lot more buckets to clean!

Ken May has been serving the North San Diego County insurance community since 1982 except for a brief 3 ½ year stint in Texas working on the company side. He is also the president of the American Agents Alliance a non-profit professional insurance agents organization that originated in California in 1962. Please visit us at

Posted 4:43 PM

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