Caught On Tape: Whale Nearly Drowns SeaWorld Trainer
LOS ANGELES (CBSMiami) — A newly released video is re-igniting a debate over safety at SeaWorld.
The 15-minute tape, shown at a government court hearing in September, shows a killer whale dragging her trainer underwater during a performance and holding him there at a 2006 SeaWorld San Diego show.
The nearly ten-minute long incident was captured by SeaWorld cameras and shown at an Occupational Safety and Health Administration court hearing. The government released the video as part of public records request related to trainer Dawn Brancheau’s drowning at SeaWorld Orlando in February 2010.
In the video, a 5,000 pound female orca named Kasatka grabs trainer Ken Peters by one of his feet and pulls him down deep into the water. Peters struggles to reach the surface, but the whale doesn’t let her trainer go for about a minute.
Clearly struggling for air, Peters tries to calm the whale by patting her on the back, but Kasatka pulls him under again for about 40 seconds.
Frantic trainers threw a giant net in the water. When Peter finally managed to free his foot, he swam for safety and rushed to the side of the pool. Kasatka turned and came after him. Peter, with a broken foot, barely managed to get away.
Author David Kirby, who wrote the book “Death at SeaWorld” about whale attacks at the parks, said he believes Kasatka was agitated by the cries of her nearby calf.
“Imagine your baby calling and not being able to comfort it. You have to perform a show,” said Kirby.
After the video was played at the OSHA hearing in September, Peters testified that he was confident the whale would let go of him if he remained calm.
In a statement to CBS News, SeaWorld said the video “clearly shows the trainer’s remarkable composure and the skillful execution of an emergency response plan, which helped result in a successful outcome with minor injuries.”
Yet, in their initial report, a California workplace investigator stated, “If someone hasn’t been killed already, it is only a matter of time before it does happen.”
It did finally happen four years later when trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was killed by a killer whale named Tilikum at the SeaWorld Park in Orlando in 2010.
Tilikum, a 12,000 pound killer whale violently shook her, broke bones and eventually drowned her.
After her death, OSHA fined SeaWorld $75,000 and raised questions about safety at the animal theme park.
SeaWorld also voluntarily banned its trainers from going into the water with the killer whales and this past May a judge ruled they have to stay out unless SeaWorld can adequately protect them. The park appealed but lost last week.
Kirby said a big part of the park’s business relies on getting those trainers back in the pool.
“Let’s face it, it’s much more spectacular to watch a show where trainers ride on these animals and are launched in the air rather than standing on the pool ledge,” said Kirby.
But for now, the whales are the only stars of the SeaWorld show.