SAN DIEGO -- Although SeaWorld Adventure Park has done a good job of preparing its trainers to work with killer whales, it is "only a matter of time" before a whale kills one, state investigators have concluded after examining a November incident in which a trainer was dragged under water and nearly drowned.
"The trainers recognize this risk and train not for 'if' an attack will happen but 'when,' " says a report by the state Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
The investigation looked at a Nov. 29 incident in which Kasatka, a 7,000-pound, 17-foot-long female, dragged her trainer underwater in front of horrified spectators at Shamu Stadium.
SeaWorld employees immediately used a variety of rescue procedures but all failed, the report concludes. The whale refused to comply with commands from other trainers to turn the trainer loose.
Kenneth Peters, 39, the park's most experienced whale trainer, escaped only through his own quick thinking and endurance, suffering puncture wounds and a broken foot. The state investigators said there are no grounds for citing SeaWorld for violating any safety laws.
But the report also warned that SeaWorld should be ready to use lethal force against a killer whale if it endangers a trainer by becoming "out of control and not responding to other available control measures."
While the SeaWorld trainers are experienced and well-schooled in animal behavior, the risk of swimming with the behemoths cannot be eliminated, the report said. The shows at Shamu Stadium, in which the whales perform a series of tricks at the command of trainers, are the centerpiece of the SeaWorld experience for tourists.
"They (the whales) are a danger to humans by virtue of their size alone," the report concludes. "Second, they are a carnivore. They are armed with an impressive arsenal of teeth, capable of tearing bone and flesh."
The whales are also smart and capable of "cunning and forethought."
Peters told investigators that he had no warning that Kasatka was going to drag him to the bottom of the 36-foot-deep pool. "She didn't show me any precursors. She didn't tell me, she didn't show me," the report quotes him as saying.
SeaWorld has long been criticized by animal-rights groups for keeping killer whales in captivity. SeaWorld has seven killer whales; during the height of the summer tourist season there are often six to seven shows a day at Shamu Stadium.
SeaWorld officials disputed the report's finding as "highly speculative and not supported by scientific fact" and met today with the district manager of the OSHA office to ask him to withdraw or modify the report.
"We have proven over 40 years [of working with killer whales] that we are very safe," said Mike Scarpuzzi, vice president of zoological operations at SeaWorld San Diego. He noted that the park has never had a fatality despite "millions" of interactions between whales and trainers.
Scarpuzzi said the report erred in saying safety procedures failed when the whale dragged Peters to the bottom of the pool. One reason the whale surfaced was that a net was dropped into the water, he said. "The emergency procedures worked," he said. "We have a whale and trainer and both are alive. That's a successful end."