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Shamu Pictures & Training Techniques

First, enjoy a photo slide show of Shamu and his trainers!

In the slide show above, you're viewing pictures of Shamu and his trainers which were taken at various performances of the Shamu shows at SeaWorld San Diego. On this page, you'll discover a few of the ways that Sea World's trainers teach their beloved animals and create the shows that thousands of visitors enjoy every month.

Whale-training at the SeaWorld parks

2 whales pose at SeaWorld San DiegoOn this page, you can look at pictures of Shamu (and his friends) from SeaWorld, and learn a little bit about whale and dolphin training at SeaWorld. (We say "little bit," because training whales and dolphins takes quite a bit of time, patience---and love! Any one-page summary of the process is going to make the whale training process sound less complicated than it actually is in real life!)

When we refer to "SeaWorld" on this page, we'll be meaning SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio in addition to SeaWorld San Diego...because all 3 of the SeaWorld facilities train their whales, dolphins, sea lions and other animals by the same methods.

First things first: What needs to happen BEFORE the training begins? Can any animal...or trained?

Before any animal can be trained, you must discover if the animal possesses the necessary intelligence needed to learn.

Are whales intelligent? SeaWorld trainers think so! SeaWorld trainers know that if Shamu and his friends WEREN'T intelligent, then they wouldn't be able to learn the many tricks that they do!

Scientists, however, still haven't developed a method for specifically testing the intelligence of orca whales or other sea animals. Scientific whale research continues in this area.

One reason that scientists do feel that whales may possess a greater intelligence than many other animals has to do with the anatomy of the orca whale's brain. The brain of an orca whale features a cerebral cortex with many folds. (The outer part of the brain is called the cerebral cortex, and is the site in the brain where "thinking" occurs.) This folding of the cerebral cortex creates more surface area in the brain...more room for the "thinking cells" to go. Other intelligent animals, such as the dog, the elephant, and humans--of course!--have brains featuring a cerebral cortex full of folds.

Shamu shows off his teeth at SeaWorld San Diego

But, before we begin talking about training Shamu, here's a question "just for fun." Have you ever seen a close-up picture of an orca whale's mouth? Well, to your left (in a photo taken at the Shamu "Believe" show,) you're viewing a picture of Shamu's mouth! Shamu has a set of upper and lower teeth in his mouth---just like you do! (Not all species of whales, however, have teeth.)

As you can see in the picture to your left, Shamu's teeth are rather thick and short, but pointed.

In the past, the teeth of orca whales in captivity were filed down to make them flat instead of pointed and fang-like. The new trend is to let the whales keep their teeth in a "natural" state.

Shamu Pictures & Training -- The First Step

Shamu the Whale does a backflip at SeaWorld To your right, you see a beautiful picture of Shamu doing a back flip. Isn't this whale graceful!

The first step that trainers use at SeaWorld to train whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other animals is to "build trust" with the animals. Strange as it may seem, a multi-ton whale is much like a little lap dog or a small human child in one sense---a whale "doesn't care how much you know, he wants to know how much you care." It's true---SeaWorld trainers get MUCH better cooperation from their animals during the training process if they actually LOVE these animals! The whales seem to KNOW when they're loved---and respond accordingly.

Doesn't it sound like a fun occupation---getting PAID to love dolphins and whales? Of course, people can't just "show up" at SeaWorld and say, "I'm here to hug and train whales!" In order to be a whale trainer, a person has to know all about these animals...and animals, in general. If you're a young person interested in becoming a whale or dolphin trainer, the best thing to do RIGHT NOW is to study hard in school! Before you can train whales and dolphins, you'll need to finish high school and go to college. If you can get a college degree in biology or zoology, and if you have a kind and patient attitude towards animals, then you'll have the best chance at landing a job training whales at SeaWorld (or other marine facilities.) For more information about becoming a whale trainer, use the following link to visit the "SeaWorld FAQs" page of our site.

Shamu Pictures & Training -- The Second Step

Shamu eats a bucket of fish after performing a trick The second step in training whales and dolphins is to "reward positive behavior." That means, if a whale performs the action that the trainer wants (or even if the whale comes CLOSE to performing the action correctly), then the SeaWorld trainer needs to reward the whale immediately.

What types of rewards can a SeaWorld trainer give to a whale?

A nice bucket of fish makes a good reward! Surprisingly, a back rub is another reward that orca whales at SeaWorld like! Of course, their backs aren't the only thing that whales like rubbed---they like their heads rubbed, their fins rubbed...and even their tummies scratched. Don't they sound just like the family dog! No wonder so many people think the SeaWorld whales are so adorable---not only are they cute to look at, but they also act just like the family pet, at times!

Shamu Pictures & Training -- The Third Step

Shamu makes a flip in the air at SeaWorld San Diego In the image on your right, you see a Shamu performing a high jump at SeaWorld. The crowd loves Shamu and his tricks! Despite weighing several tons and reaching lengths up to 30 feet long (for a male), an orca whale swims and jumps with ease and grace.

The third step in training a whale is to "re-direct" his behavior when he makes a mistake. Perhaps the whale has done the trick wrong. Or, perhaps the whale has ignored the trainer's instruction. Whatever the problem has been, the trainer must try to get the whale back on-track.

First, the SeaWorld trainer will NOT reward the whale. Instead, the trainer does a "three second pause." That is, the trainer doesn't move or make a sound for 3 seconds. The whale knows he usually gets a bucket of fish...and notices that he isn't being rewarded this time.

The SeaWorld trainers never punish a whale. The SeaWorld trainers don't punish the whales because they don't want to damage their relationships with the whales. Since whales are sensitive and will only perform when they feel loved and content, it doesn't make any sense to make them feel angry!

To get a whale back on track, the trainer might next ask the whale to perform an older that the whale DOES do well. Afterwards, the trainer can praise and reward the whale, and everybody's happy again!

Shamu the Killer Whale Pictures & Training -- An example of training for a killer whale trick

SeaWorld's  whale underwater viewing window In the picture on your left, you see SeaWorld guests observing orca whales through an underwater viewing window.

How would a SeaWorld trainer teach a new animal---for example, young grandbaby Shamu---how to do a trick? Let's say that a trainer wants to teach a young whale how to jump over a rope. First, the SeaWorld trainers would place the rope down in the water where the little whale could swim either under it or over it. After every time that the young whale swims over the rope, the SeaWorld trainers would reward him with a bucket of fish---and soon, the young whale will come to understand the connection that, "hey, if I swim OVER this rope, I'll get a treat!"

Next, the SeaWorld trainers RAISE the rope a little bit at a time. They keep rewarding the whale for swimming over the rope...but, in time, that means that he'll have to JUMP into the air and over the rope to get his reward. Of course, this is easy for a whale---orca whales jump naturally while they're "in the wild." So, actually, a whale doesn't really need to be trained in HOW to jump...just trained to jump when the SeaWorld trainers want him to do it!

Finally, the SeaWorld trainers raise the rope so high that the whale is making spectacular leaps in the training pool. Trick accomplished! Even so, the whale will still get a nice reward EVERY time he performs the trick.

SeaWorld's Shamu the Whale strikes a pose for the crowd



Use the button to your left to see photos of still MORE SeaWorld attractions and fun!

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