It was a beautiful summer afternoon at Sea World of San Diego. We were getting ready to start the 1:00pm Shamu show before a full house of about 5500 guests. I was scheduled to be “Davey Jones” in the Shamu Goes to College Show which meant that I would be in control of Kilroy, our star performer who played Shamu.
As I strapped on the small air bottle around my waist, grabbed the soft flexible harness and dive mask, and started my descent down the metal ladder located inside of the high jump tower in preparation for what I consider to be the coolest start of any show, I felt a bit apprehensive. It wasn’t that I was overly nervous about the show (just the normal amount of pre-show jitters), I didn’t like the fact that the pool filter broke and the visibility in the majestic pool was near zero. This was highly unusual because the water maintenance guys at Sea World are the best and we almost always worked in crystal clear water. In fact, the moment the water started getting cloudy, they immediately started working on a solution to fix the problem.
But, for the last two shows today, the water would be extremely murky. With my dive mask on and the harness in my left hand, I listened for my queue to drop down into water and climb out the underwater opening. After feeling my way through the opening, I slid down to the bottom of the pool while using my right hand as a guide on the side wall.
Normally, I reach the bottom, re-adjust my gear, and watch Kilroy as he leaves the trainer at the other end of the pool and makes his way down to pick me up. I always marveled at watching this beautiful two-ton animal that seemed to be the size of an aircraft carrier making an effortless descent towards me. It never stopped being an absolute thrill to watch.
But today, I couldn’t see more than two feet in front of me no matter how much I focused and strained to see Kilroy coming. And then it happened. With my right foot planted on the side wall and my left hand holding out the harness for him to swim through, I saw Kilroy a split instance before his rostrum (what many people think is his nose) drilled me right in the chest! My mask flew off and the harness started floating away. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to take a breath of air through the regulator strapped to my left wrist and did a quick check to see if I had any injuries. Amazingly, I had no broken ribs and felt OK. I then put the dive mask back on and cleared the water out of it and was able to grab the harness before it floated too far away from me.
After drilling me, Kilroy calmly stopped next to me, backed up, and I could see his eyes moving up and down as if he too were checking to see if I was OK. I looked him right in the eye and said something to him (yes, I know I was underwater and whatever came out of me sounded like a scream) to the effect of “what was THAT all about”?
I then placed my right hand on his back directly in front of his dorsal fin. Without hesitation, Kilroy gently lowered himself down so that I could climb onto his back. After securing myself into the proper position, I patted his side and he started along the route we’ve taken many other times as if nothing happened.
After popping up at the East end of the pool and doing our fast swim ride to the other side of the pool, I was met there by John, one of the other trainers that I worked with at the Shamu Show (there were four of us) and he asked “what happened down there”? I just shook my head and said “you wouldn’t believe it”.
I was dismayed over this for two reasons. First, this has never happened to me or to any of the other trainers before. But mostly, I was dismayed that Kilroy didn’t use his fabulous echolocation abilities. Normally, when a whale or dolphin (which is also a whale by the way) uses echolocation, you will hear the distinct chirping sounds emanating out of the animals melon making him able to “see” almost as well as if he were using his eyes.
Kilroy seemed very relaxed that day and it seemed to me that he just didn’t feel like using his echolocation powers!
Guess who our head show trainer, Rich, chose to be Davey Jones and be in control of Kilroy in our 4:00pm show? Great, I thought. Am I going to get drilled again? One time is more than enough! Why couldn’t Rich handle the whale at 4:00pm? Because he was in charge and I was the low man on the totem pole, that’s why!
So, I go through the whole process again. After reaching the bottom of the pool, I set myself up and pray that this one goes as usual. I put my right leg against the side wall so that I can use it to propel me as I flip over onto Kilroy’s back as he swims through the soft harness. I still have my right hand on the side wall for stability and extend my left arm out holding the harness in position to make it easy for Kilroy to swim through.
And then, one of the most amazing things that I ever experienced in my eight years at Sea World occurred. With the visibility in the water at practically zero, Kilroy decided to use his echolocation. And not just a little bit. As if proving to me that he can see perfectly well no matter what when HE decides to use this wonderful tool, he starts to emit powerful sounds directed right at me as if I had a big bull’s eye painted on my chest.
The sound waves started to come over me wave after wave like waves coming ashore at the beach. My body started vibrating violently and I started to slide backwards along the bottom of the pool as the sound waves pushed me with their shear force.
As I tried to use my right hand to stay as stable as possible while being driven back, Kilroy smoothly (and it seemed with some smugness) swam through the harness and picked me up.
Not only was he a magnificent friend and performer, Kilroy was the smartest marine mammal that I ever worked with. He was truly a gem. And whenever you see photos of me in costume performing in the Shamu Show, it is highly likely that Kilroy is playing the part of Shamu, the famous Killer Whale.