IT was one of the more fanciful comments to be left in the St Luke’s High yearbook of 2010.

As each pupil ‘graduated’ from the Barrhead school, they were asked where they would be in five years’ time.

Hazel McBride had no hesitation when it came to her answer...she wanted to train killer whales.

You could forgive her classmates and teachers for stifling a snigger at such a seemingly outlandish ambition.

However, it is Hazel who has had the last laugh.

Barrhead News:

Five years after jotting down that yearbook prediction, she was living the dream.

Hazel, who developed an interest in marine mammals at the age of 14 after a family holiday at SeaWorld, in Florida, told the Barrhead News: “When I graduated from St Luke’s High, I wrote in my school yearbook that I would be a killer whale trainer within five years.

“I then did a degree in psychology at the University of Glasgow before moving to the Dominican Republic to pursue my career as a marine mammal trainer.

“A year later, I found myself in Loro Parque, Tenerife, training killer whales – exactly five years after graduating from high school.”

Hazel, who grew up in Neilston, has certainly come a long way since that childhood visit to SeaWorld.

While most of the audience that day were just happy to watch the impressive creatures on display, she decided there and then that she wanted to work with them on a daily basis.

Hazel, 26, said: “I remember mum taking me to see the killer whale show and, from then, I just thought ‘yes, that is what I want to do.’

“As I was from Scotland, it was difficult to find any information about how to go about this. There wasn’t really anyone I could talk to about it, so there was a lot of figuring things out by myself.

Barrhead News:

“I ended up interning in the Florida Keys one summer, during my time at university. Another summer, I worked in the Bahamas and was able to talk to the trainers and get hands-on experience.”

After graduating from university in 2014, Hazel secured her first job as a dolphin trainer in the Dominican Republic and, from there, was offered a job on the killer whale team at Loro Park.

She now works at Marineland in Antibes, on the French Riviera.

“At the moment, I’m specifically working with killer whales, as it takes so long to get to know them,” said Hazel.

“Once you are a killer whale trainer, you stay with them.

“When you first start out, you get paired with one animal. My first animal in Loro Park was called Skylar and she will always be my baby. I wear an exact replica of her tail flukes in silver around my neck every day, so I never forget her.

“In Marineland, I work mostly with Wikie. She is definitely the whale I’m having the best relationship with.”

Wikie rose to fame last year after imitating words, such as ‘hello’ and ‘bye,’ and also being taught to count to three by using her blowhole.

The 17-year-old killer whale is thought to be the first of her species to imitate human speech.

“She is a bit of a star,” Hazel laughed.

“Killer whales are incredibly intelligent but that does make your job more difficult because you need to constantly find things to keep them entertained, motivated and mentally stimulated.

Barrhead News:

“You always need to be two steps ahead of them in every way. The biggest part is gaining trust. Whenever I’m working with Wikie, I always try to give her the best possible.”
Hazel has now written a book in which she shares the story of her journey along an unusual career path.

The book, called ‘I Still Believe,’ also addresses the controversy surrounding killer whales being kept in captivity.

“I try to explain what it is like to be face-to-face with a killer whale, to look into their eyes and know that they know who you are,” said Hazel.

“I want the book to take the reader on the journey through my eyes and for them to experience it the way I do.

“I want people to understand where we are coming from. I think there is a big misconception in terms of how people view the trainers. We are people who love and care for these animals. People need to understand that we do the best we can for them every day.

“I want people who are completely against the idea of whales in captivity to read this book and end up with a better understanding of what we, as trainers, do.”

New book aims to present “more balanced view”

Hazel hopes her new book will help to shatter some of the “myths” surrounding the rights and wrongs of keeping killer whales in captivity.

The topic has been hotly debated for years, with the 2013 release of BAFTA-nominated documentary Blackfish stirring up emotions.

That film focused on the captivity of Tilikum – a killer whale linked to the deaths of three people.

The first, in 1991, saw a trainer drowned by Tilikum and two other orcas after falling into a pool at a marine park in Canada.

Barrhead News:

Then, in 1999, a 27-year old man was found dead on Tilikum’s back after reportedly staying in the park after hours and sneaking into the pool.

And a 40-year-old trainer was drowned in front of a crowd during a post-show routine in 2010.

Hazel has written her book, I Still Believe, in a bid to give people a “more balanced view.”
She said: “Until now, there has only been one side of the story told.

“I hope this is going to be a book that will appeal to people who are pro and against captivity.

“The message is that, if both sides stop hating one another, they will realise that we are all people who love animals, regardless if you are a person who wants them to be released or a person who works with them.”

Hazel’s new book – I Still Believe – will be released on Friday, March 29, and can be pre-ordered online from Amazon.