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Video of SeaWorld Trainer’s Narrow Escape

This is the video of a killer whale trainer being dragged underwater in 2006 by one of the orcas at SeaWorld San Diego. It was released this week through a Freedom of Information request.

You’ll see trainer Ken Peters being taken down by his foot by Kasatka, held underwater until he’s almost drowning, then brought back to the surface. Kasatka continues to hold him by the foot, but she refuses to let go and, instead, takes him back down a second time and then once more, finally pinning him to the concrete bottom under her whole, huge body before releasing him. The whole episode lasts almost 15 minutes.

We don’t know exactly what was in Kasatka’s mind. We only know

  1. That she was being removed from her calf in order to go on show and perform for an audience,
  2. That while she could easily have killed Peters she decided not to, and
  3. That orcas are among the most intelligent, self-aware creatures in the world.

The video was shown earlier this year at a court hearing in Florida where, in the wake of the killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando last year, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration made its case to ban trainers from performing with orcas in the water.

Here’s some background to the Kasatka/Peters incident by David Kirby, author of the new book, Death at SeaWorld:

Kasatka began the segment by performing perfectly. Peters asked her to do a surf ride, followed by a foot push ending in a slide across the stage. He did some dry behaviors with her from stage, and then dove in the water for the big finale, the rocket hop.

kasatka-peters-1-072512As Peters dove under the water to meet up with the whale, the four other trainers were on stage dancing and clapping to the loud music. Before long, however, they could tell something was not right. Petey had been under the surface for far too long.

Peters had been waiting for Kasatka to touch his foot, the beginning of that particular behavior. He was about ten or fifteen feet down. Suddenly, he heard a killer whale vocalizing loudly. Peters described it as a distress vocalization or cry.

He later learned the wailing was from Kalia (Kasatka’s calf) screeching for her mother, presumably, from the other pool.

Kasatka instantly pulled her rostrum [the front of her head] away from Peters’ feet. And then she grabbed his ankles, pulling him underwater for several seconds. When he resurfaced, she grabbed him again, this time “rag-dolling” her trainer violently by shaking him back and forth with her powerful neck muscles. Kasatka took him under again, for a minute or more.

Then, slowly and deliberately, as if performing a bizarre underwater pas de deux, the whale began to spiral upward with Peters’ foot in her mouth. She exhaled a cloud of white bubbles from her blowhole.

When they finally resurfaced, Tucker Petrzelka heard a shout for help. He slapped the water, trying to bring Kasatka back to stage. Matt Fripp grabbed the call-back device and deployed it while John Stewart slammed a metal bucket against the pool’s side. Kasatka was having none of it.

She decided to take Peters to the bottom once again. They could be seen beneath the surface. She still had a foot in her mouth, and she dragged the trainer around, dunking him periodically and ignoring all signals to return to stage. Peters remained unbelievably calm, as he was trained to do.

Finally Peters told his colleagues to abandon the recall effort since it only seemed to make Kasatka bite down harder. Each time he tried to extricate his foot from her huge jaws, she did the same thing.

By now the audience had grown quite terrified.

Kasatka was careful to keep Peters in the middle of the pool and away from the other trainers who were trying to rescue him at the edges. Peters managed to hold his head above water during this period, and he gently stroked the whale in an effort to calm her down. For a while, she did just that.

Then a trainer threw a “scubacuzzi” (a life preserver floating device with scuba gear and oxygen supply) onto the surface. Kasatka slowly swam over to inspect the object, keeping Peters in her mouth, and away from the oxygen.

As park employees ushered the shell-shocked audience away from the stadium, several staff members threw a net into the water and began pulling it across one end of the pool. Kasatka let go of Peter’s foot to go have a look at the net. He was treading water in the middle of the pool. The whale swam underneath him. Peters tried to keep her from grabbing his feet again by kicking her.

Peters realized the tactic was futile. Resigned to the belief that Kasatka was going to take him under yet again, he drew in air and waited. It didn’t take long. She grabbed his foot, thrashed him around a little and then dove to the bottom anew.

This time, she laid her entire 5,000-pound body on top of the trainer, pinning him to the concrete for a minute or more.

Peters went limp. He felt his breath being forced out. He wondered when, or if, Kasatka was going to let him up.

Mercifully, she grabbed him and brought him to the surface to breathe. Peters began rubbing her sides again. Finally, she let him go and began drifting toward the stage.

By now, the staff had managed to get the netting across part of the pool, from stage to slide-out area. Kasatka and Peters were about three feet from the net, close to the slide-out. He backed away slowly from the brooding Kasatka, gingerly patting her flank the entire length of her body, then turning away quickly. He went over the net and, with a few powerful strokes, beached himself onto the shallow area. He sat in the few inches of water, now protected by the net, catching his breath.

Then Kasatka noticed he had escaped. She turned away from the stage and charged toward the net, clearing the barrier without any problem.

“Look out!” someone yelled. “She’s coming over the net!”

Peters saw the whale coming back for him. He scrambled backward in the shallow water and tried to stand up to run. But his feet – wounded, numb and bleeding — would not carry him. Peters was freezing and still out of breath. He felt ready to pass out. But his colleagues grabbed him, just as Kasatka moved in only feet away. They pulled him to safety and a waiting crew of rescue personnel.

Kasatka turned and cruised away slowly. For several minutes after the extremely serious attack, she swam around the perimeter with one of Peters’ socks in her mouth, making pathetic sounding vocalizations.

“She didn’t show me any precursors. She didn’t tell me, she didn’t show me,” Peters later told his colleagues. The aggression had come as a total surprise, he said, without any signals that Kasatka was about to go off. (Later, of course, he would recall young Kalia’s pathetic cries emanating from backstage, just before Kasatka went berserk.)

Ken Peters suffered puncture wounds to both feet and a broken metatarsal ligament in his left foot. He was transported to UC San Diego Medical center for surgery and three days of IV antibiotics to prevent infection of his many bite wounds. He said that, although this was not normal behavior for Kasatka, he would not swim with her again.