Shamu Up Close attraction debuts at SeaWorld Orlando, giving visitors an inside look at orcas' training and care
Most tourists who visit SeaWorld Orlando probably think of it primarily as a world-class theme park that offers an entertaining escape. But what makes the park's parent company unique is that it also focuses on educating the public about the care and conservation of marine animals while providing the fun Orlando's visitors have come to expect. During the new Wild Days event, SeaWorld has emphasized its message of nurturing nature, and now the park is giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how it cares for its orcas.
The new Shamu Up Close attraction opened on Jan. 6 in one of the "backstage" pools At Shamu Stadium. If you've been to Dine With Shamu, you're familiar with this location, which affords guests underwater views of the tank as well as viewing at the surface level.
Entering the attraction is done in the opposite way you would go to the meal location. Head up to Shamu Stadium and join the well-marked queue. Although the line might appear long, it does move quickly. Team members limit the number of guests allowed in the walk-through attraction so it doesn't become too crowded and difficult to see the orcas.
Once inside, you'll be able to walk up to the glass that separates guests from the tanks or sit on benches that have replaced the dinner tables. The orcas are swimming freely, and we watched a pair who floated on their backs and appeared to be sunning themselves for quite a while. Trainers walk next to the partition and are happy to answer questions from visitors.
About once an hour, trainers will conduct a training session with the killer whales. The times are not published, so be sure to ask a team member when you enter the Shamu Up Close area. On the day we visited, the sessions began at 45 minutes past the hour, but trainers were quick to say that times change from day to day.
As you can see in this video, we watched trainers reinforce desired behaviors using targets, or the long poles with foam balls on the ends. Marine animals learn to obey hand signals with positive reinforcement (such as a whistle and food), but when the animals are farther away, a hand signal alone may not work. So, trainers use the poles as an extension of their arms. (This same concept is used to train dolphins, as well.)
In addition to teaching behaviors for shows, trainers teach the orcas to participate in their own health care. Visitors can see another backstage pool beyond the Shamu Up Close pool where the whales are performing slide-outs, which is just what it sounds like -- the mammals sliding out of the deep pool onto a shallow bed. Once there, they can be weighed and checked by veterinarians. This maneuver also is performed during the One Ocean show by single orcas and by multiple whales together. I'm not sure guests can fully appreciate how large these animals are until they see them from nose to tail out of the water. It's truly amazing.
Shamu Up Close is scheduled to last through the week of April 7, when Shamu Stadium reopens. The One Ocean show is on hiatus while the main performance tank at Shamu Stadium is undergoing routine maintenance.
Seeing such majestic animals as the orca whales, or the playful dolphins my daughter loves, at SeaWorld inspires guests of all ages to learn more about them and even take action to help with their conservation. These up-close encounters cement that desire to become involved with the world around us, and that's worth the wait in line.