Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 2, Page 11
Winter 1994
Alumni Profile - Not just another fish story

     Otto C. Fad Jr., Delaware '82, stands poised on the edge of a pool
that holds 5 million gallons of water. He calmly raises his arm and
"swoosh!", Shamu, a 6,000-pound killer whale rises high in the air! Fad
dives deep into the pool. Shamu dives, too. As they surface, Fad is
standing on Shamu's nose. The whale pushes him around the tank at lightning
speed. Fad smiles and waves.
     The more than 5,000 people in the audience at Sea World's Shamu
Stadium in Orlando, Fla., think Fad is swimming with a dangerous predator,
but after the show, he'll tell you, truthfully, he was just messing around
with one of his best pals.
     As the head trainer at Florida's Sea World, Fad says he has never had
a bad day in the seven years he's worked at the marine-life park. Nuzzling
animals that eat up to 250 pounds of food a day delights him. Riding on
their backs before adoring crowds, diving to the depths of the 36-foot tank
and rising back up almost 18 feet in the air on the nose of a killer whale
make for him the most wonderful job in the world.
     In calmer parts of the Sea World show, Fad and Shamu swim or float
side by side. In an especially crowd-pleasing stunt, Shamu lies on her back
and Fad rides around the tank on her stomach. As Fad waves to the crowd,
Shamu also waves a fin.
     When they stop for a break, Fad offers Shamu a fish. Following
cleverly disguised hand-signals from Fad, Shamu shakes her head, "No."
     Fad tries another fish; the reaction is the same. Shamu says "no"
again. Finally, in feigned frustration, Fad offers Shamu a whole bucket of
fish. Again, another disguised hand signal tells Shamu to give her head an
enthusiastic shake, "yes!"
     In a "slam-bang" finish, the two race around the tank again and Shamu
appears to toss Fad back onto the platform. The crowd goes wild, Fad and
Shamu wave and Shamu is let into another pool behind the stage for a
well-earned rubdown and rest.
     Although it looks like spontaneous fun, everything is precisely
planned. There are very few surprises, Fad says. Even when a performer
falls off a whale, it is, in reality, a signal for the whale to do
something else.
     The shows vary each day and the stunts (which trainers refer to as
behaviors) are not learned in sequence. The whales need the mental
stimulation a change in routine provides, Fad says.
     Fad fell in love with marine animals during his first visit to Sea
World on a family vacation when he was in high school. At Delaware, he
majored in communication and originally went to Sea World a few years after
graduation to apply for a job in the video department.
     "Personnel said they didn't have any openings there, but they were
looking for a trainer. I didn't hesitate for a heartbeat. I said 'yes'
right away!"
     Today, at 35, Fad is the oldest trainer at Sea World and a
self-professed "whale nerd." The flashy, show biz side is only a part of
his job-there are some decidedly less glamorous parts-all designed to
monitor the whales' health.
     "About half of the behaviors we teach the whales aren't for
performance purposes at all, but for practical matters like taking blood
samples and getting X-rays. If we showed you everything the whales can do,
the show would take two hours instead of 20 minutes," Fad explains.
     All of the behaviors taught to the whales are immediately followed
with positive reinforcement, Fad says. What the whales seem to like most by
way of reward is simply attention from the trainers. Whales have a highly
developed sense of touch and a rubdown from a favorite trainer is a
longed-for reward. The adult whales eat frequently throughout the day and
food is never withheld as a punishment.
     The trainers also use change as a reinforcer, putting whales into
different pools throughout the day for mental stimulation. The whales also
have toys-a 4 foot x 4 foot mirror, some 55-gallon plastic drums they try
to dunk and a large disk (like a boogie board) that they try to sink.
     Teams of veterinarians visit the whales throughout the day, and the
newest members of the Shamu family in Florida-baby whales born in
captivity-are monitored around the clock.
     Usually, Sea World looks for trainers who have a degree in psychology.
Other requirements include a love of and experience with animals, scuba
diving and strong swimming and public speaking skills. A second U.D.
graduate, Lindsay Rubincan, Delaware '88, is an associate trainer there. A
native of Philadelphia, Rubincan says she can remember sitting in her dorm
on the first night of her freshman year at Delaware.
     "Everyone went around the room saying what they hoped to become and I
said I wanted to work with animals at Sea World. Everyone laughed, but it's
amazing how many people come up to me now and say, 'I remember...'."
     The facility has 40 trainers who work in the various whale, sea lion
and dolphin shows. Twelve trainers are assigned to the whales.
     First-year trainers get very little of the glory. Instead, the rookies
spend their time cleaning the fish room, mixing and thawing several
thousand pounds of fish per day and doing other mundane tasks. Eventually,
they learn the speaking parts for the show and are paired with an
experienced trainer to learn the ropes. It can take up to two full years
for a trainer to establish absolute trust with an adult killer whale.
Gradually, as new trainer and an animal bond, the experienced trainer fades
into the background.
     All of the trainers work 12- to 16-hour days and take part in the
round-the-clock whale watch. It isn't unusual to find Fad or Rubincan
shivering by the tanks in 30 degree weather at 2 a.m., wide-awake while the
whales sleep.
     Fad is aware that some people object to whales being kept in captivity
and used as performers. He says he feels good about the care the Shamu
family receives at Sea World and notes such things as the constant watch,
the veterinary care, the underwater maintenance staff who keeps the tanks
sparkling, the water quality team that constantly monitors the water and
oversees a complete change of water six times a day. He talks about the fun
of giving the whales their vitamins, carefully disguised in herring, and
how smart his large friends really are.
     "I just don't know how to convey in words what a thrill it is to work
here," he says. "I never let a day go by without being grateful."
     His one regret might be that Sea World is so far from Newark. A Blue
Hen fan whose blood runs blue and gold, Fad called home to Newark three
times during the U.D-Marshall football play-off game and ended up listening
to the final seconds over a radio his brother held up to the phone. He says
he hopes to go to graduate school for a master's degree in communication or
psychology and says he can't imagine going to any school but Delaware.
     Fad's wife, the former Kelly Webb, is the daughter of Jerry Webb, who
was director of agricultural communications in the College of Agricultural
Sciences for 22 years. She is an assistant curator of primates at the Lowry
Park Zoo in Tampa. The two have an infant daughter, Kiri.
                                                  -Beth Thomas