By Susan and Simon Veness
It may be a bit early for spring cleaning, but Shamu Stadium is currently undergoing a tidy-up, with a lick of paint, replacement of the acrylic viewing panels, and other routine maintenance, creating the perfect opportunity for something new. And that something new is Shamu Up Close.
Before you howl with dismay at One Ocean being dark, let us assure you it’s only for a short time. The show is expected to return in April, and in the meantime guests have the opportunity to enjoy a truly unique view of the park’s magnificent killer whales as they go about their day, and during play sessions with trainers.
“Sounds like a poor substitute for a full-length show,” we hear you say. And we’re here to challenge that notion. While we didn’t have big expectations for the Shamu Up Close trainer talks and viewing sessions, the experience itself left us shouting for more (okay, maybe not shouting, but just about).
ATD EXPERT TIP: When you enter the Shamu Up Close arena, walk all the way to the far left side. Most guests don’t move down that far, and you’ll have a view right behind one of the trainer’s stations, with a whale just a few feet away!
The experience takes place in the Dine with Shamu arena, a smaller pool connected to Shamu Stadium, and the first thing you notice is the relaxed, playful nature of the whales as they swim just six feet away. Trainers are on hand to explain how the whales learn to channel their natural behaviours into behaviours highlighted in the show, and how the use of positive reinforcement is essential to their learning. If a whale does not perform the behaviour requested, the trainers move on ‘without comment’; when the behaviour is performed correctly, a reward is given. If you have a dog in your home, the training concept is the same, and if your dog is like ours, these are opportunities for playful bonding.
Another key component in teaching, the trainers inform guests, comes from observational learning. Calves watch their mothers and other pod members performing behaviours, and they begin to mimic those actions. With positive reinforcement from the trainers, these new skills become established. Calves also watch the trainer’s movements, such as splashing water, and are keen copycats of those actions, too. “Just like us,” the trainers say, “killer whales learn through experience, observation, and cooperation.”
Many of the behaviours displayed during the Shamu Up Close show are used to keep the whales healthy. While raising a flipper looks like a cute wave, it’s an important cooperative skill for routine medical check-ups. Spectacular jumps are huge crowd favourites, but they’re also a crucial part of the whale’s exercise routine. Gliding gracefully onto a platform and striking a pose looks impressive, but it’s also the method used for weighing each killer whale during their check-ups; they simply slide onto a giant scale instead of a platform.
At the beginning of the show, the whales are introduced one by one, along with their family history and an interesting factoid about them. Then some training aids and techniques are demonstrated, and the trainers talk about “concept training”, such as particular hand signals translating to specific types of jumps. Their relationship with the whale, nurtured over time and with loving attention, is what makes these interactions possible.
During the show we attended, the announcer talked about the mother/calf relationship and how crucial their bond is. “Did you know the mother’s milk is like a milkshake?” she asked the children in the audience. “That’s like if you drank a milkshake for every meal for more than a year!”
At the end of the show the whales were given free rein to enjoy themselves. Some swam around looking at the spectators, some played Frisbee with their trainers. It was like watching youngsters at break-time, letting loose at the end of their lessons.
After the show, guests were invited to speak to attendants who were on hand to answer questions about the killer whales, or to exit the arena and follow the pathway down to the underwater viewing area. We walked down the path and spent another half-hour watching the whales play and talking to another trainer stationed in that area, who was a wealth of knowledge about the animals and the role they play in inspiring visitors—especially children—to care about the natural world.
Was it the same as watching a full-blown show? No, but we would argue in some ways it was better. There is something breathtaking about being so close to the killer whales, and we felt quite strongly the sentiment Jack Hanna spoke about during his Wild Days presentations: “If you can’t love something, you can’t save something. And that’s what you’re going to learn here today at SeaWorld. Be educated and love these creatures, because that’s what’s going to save them.”
One Ocean will return in April, but we hope some form of Shamu Up Close continues. It certainly rounds out the SeaWorld experience and gives a brilliant insight into the stars of the show.
Favourite Quote of the Week: “There’s dolphinfish! There’s dolphinfish!”, compliments of a three year old watching the playful dolphins through the underwater viewing window. His excitement was off the charts!
Restaurant Recommendation: Brand new and worth seeking out is Spice Road Table at the Morocco pavilion in Epcot. We sat on the patio and sampled the Rice Stuffed Grape Leaves and the Hummus with Imported Olives with pita bread. With signature cocktails Tangier’s Breeze (a strawberry slushy-style drink) and Mediterranean Journey (slightly sweet and fruity) it made a nice snack in a relaxed setting. We will certainly return, with an eye on both the Mogador Sampler (mussels tagine, salted cod croquettes, fried calamari) and the Tingis Sampler (lamb slider, Harissa chicken roll, Mergez sausage). There is an extensive wine menu as well, plus beers from Turkey, Greece, Spain and Lebanon. An ideal spot for something light and original.
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Happy Friday Readers!