The incident occurred during the Florida aquarium’s Flipper Dolphin Show on April 9. Photographer Shannon Carpenter—who was at the show with his family—captured the moment and posted it to TikTok.
In the footage, which can be seen here, a trainer in the water suddenly appears to be struggling to stay afloat. It then seems as if she is violently pushed forward. She then attempts to make her way out of the pool, however, she disappears below the water.
When the trainer resurfaces, she makes her way to the dock. After emerging from the pool, she hunches down, visibly frightened. Another trainer can be seen kneeling down and checking on her.
The dolphin then appears from the same spot in the water and swims away. A third trainer continues with the show.
In comments on his TikTok post, Carpenter said the attack took place about 10 minutes into the 30 minute show. “Ambulance took her away shortly after the show,” he said.
Naomi A Rose, a Marine Mammal Scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, told Newsweek that while the video does not show the incident close up enough to determine exactly what happened, it is “clear the dolphin struck the trainer,” however it is more likely that the dolphin “rammed the trainer.”
“[This] is more concerning—ramming is done with the rostrum, which is very strong and rigid, and is how dolphins repel sharks. They can break ribs or kill people doing this…” Rose said. “I say this because the trainer seemed to be moved through the water very rapidly by an external force—there was that sudden rise out of the water (as if the dolphin came up underneath the trainer) and then that sharp left turn, which a human wouldn’t be able to execute by swimming.”
Rose said when dolphins act this way, with excessive energy towards trainers, “they may be frustrated by something” or “trying to communicate something.”
Rose said that dolphins “rarely do anything accidentally.”
“If they run into a trainer, it’s usually on purpose. They are extremely agile in water (we are not) and they are supremely aware of where they are in relation to other objects (including people). Even if the trainer was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the dolphin would have likely been able to avoid a collision,” she said.
Carpenter told WPLG Local 10 in a broadcast that the kids were cheering “thinking this was neat,” however the adults “knew something was wrong.” Carpenter said he could tell the trainer who had been attacked “was in some type of pain.”
Dolphins are highly social animals and can become aggressive when they are placed in stressful situations. Many experts claim they cannot be domesticated, which can lead to violent behaviour if they are kept in captivity. There are an estimated 3,000 dolphins kept in captivity across the world.
The trainer was later taken away by an ambulance, News 10 reported.
In a statement sent to WPLG Local 10, Miami Seaquarium said the dolphin and the trainer “accidentally collided” while performing a “routine behavior.”
“This was an uncomfortable interaction for both of them and the dolphin reacted by breaking away from the routine and striking the trainer,” the statement said. It said safety authorities were then contacted “as a precaution.”
“Our family extends to include the animals in our care, our team members and our guests. While there is no apparent serious injury, a careful watch and follow-up evaluations will ensure the best care for all,” the spokesperson told WPLG Local 10.
Newsweek has contacted Miami Seaquarium for a comment.
It is the latest in a string of controversial incidents at the aquarium. In October 2021, a report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) raised concerns following an inspection of the aquarium conducted in June. The report claimed there were several animal welfare violations at the aquarium, which sparked outrage among animal welfare groups.
In a statement sent to Newsweek, US General Counsel for Animal Law at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Jared Goodman, said: “Time is up for the Miami Seaquarium, where long-suffering dolphins desperately need protection and workers are at risk. PETA urges this abusement park to end its exploitation of dolphins by getting them to sanctuaries as quickly as possible, so that they’d never be used in tawdry shows again and no one else would get hurt.”
Miami Seaquarium is also home to the famous 56-year-old captive Orca, Lolita. Lolita’s situation has been a source of controversy among animal rights activists for years. Animal welfare groups have been campaigning for Lolita’s release, with many claiming that her tank is small and inadequate.
Lolita is one of the most famous orcas living in captivity today. She is one of around 20 orcas remaining in captivity across the U.S.