SeaWorld trainers now wearing new safety 'air vests'

SAN DIEGO - 10News got a first look Monday as SeaWorld trainers performed with new inflatable safety vests. Those vests are now used whenever trainers work near killer whales. But some former SeaWorld trainers say the vests are not safe.

As described to 10News, the vests are new, custom-designed emergency vests made especially for killer whale trainers. 

SeaWorld animal training curator Alan Garver walked 10News through the four-pound vests' capabilities.

"This is a horse collar inflatable buoyancy device that can be activated by the trainer … there's the regulator which he can pull out and that is attached through the regulator hose to a small scuba bottle here in the pack on his back," Garver said while pointing to the tank on a trainer's back.

He says they have been working on the development of these vests for three years, testing different prototypes in an effort to find the best technology.

Still, SeaWorld shows will not change as a result of trainers wearing the new vests. That means they are still not allowed to go into the tanks with the orcas. OSHA rules still ban trainers from getting in the water with whales during performances.

The rules were put in place after trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged under and killed by Tilikum the whale during a 2010 show in Orlando.

Several former SeaWorld trainers wrote letters to OSHA, including trainer Samantha Berg, who was featured in the documentary film "Blackfish."

Berg says that "spare air" is not a solution and might even make things more dangerous to trainers.     

In her letter, she wrote, "This is a mistake on several levels. Spare air has a much greater potential to cause problems than to solve them, and I don't see how spare air would have been any use to Dawn or any of the other trainers in the past who have been injured or killed by killer whales."

She adds the vests could give the whales something else to grab.

Garver says the vests are removable and designed with trainers' safety top of mind.

"That was one of the things that the trainers brought up," he added. "They wanted the ability to be able to ditch it so we added additional latches on it so that it can easily be ditched if they need it."

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