by Barbara J King for NPR
On July 24, video of a 5,000-pound killer whale nearly drowning her trainer came to public light via the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). The 15-minute clip filmed at SeaWorld-San Diego in 2006 shows killer whale Kasatka dragging her trainer Ken Peters to the bottom of the show tank, then taking him back up to the surface, and back down for a lengthier period.
The images of Peters’ gasping for breath when he breaks the surface, and his incredible calm as tries to quiet Kasatka are ones I won’t easily forget. For the full impact, watch the entire clip; some sense of the ordeal can be gained from three excerpts, at minutes 1:50-2:50, 6-7 and 9-10.
Peters recovered from the incident. Trainer Dawn Brancheau was far less fortunate. Brancheau was killed in 2010 at SeaWorld-Orlando by another killer whale, a 12,000 pound male called Tilikum. Both Kasatka and Tilikum had been aggressive to trainers even before the 2006 and 2010 incidents.
On Monday, SeaWorld in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio took steps, the first since Brancheau’s death, toward allowing their trainers back in the water again with killer whales. SeaWorld says its “water desensitization process” will help with the veterinary care of the killer whales, and also with trainer safety should a human accidentally fall into the water.
Thanks to investigative journalist David Kirby, we are now equipped to consider this decision in context. Kirby has just published his book Death at SeaWorld, which I am reading this week. It’s packed with facts about killer whales (also called orcas, they are, in fact, dolphins) and the stress caused by keeping them in captivity and asking them to perform for humans.
But I want to focus on Kirby’s recapping and analysis of the events captured in the Kasatka video that I’ve posted here; only via his book chapter 29 (“Ken and Kasatka”) can we really understand what we are seeing.
Just before the show that put Peters in the tank with Kasatka, other trainers saw something notable in Kasatka’s behavior. At that point she and her newest calf, Kalia, not yet two-years old, were swimming in the same backstage pool. Kalia was acting up and her mother responded with head bobs and vocalizations. One trainer described her as acting like an “angry mom”; another mentioned Kasatka’s vocal responses to Peters before the show. It wasn’t a warning, Kirby says, only a point of information. For some reason, Peters didn’t hear it.
Peters got into the water with Kasatka, and was waiting for the killer whale to make a certain move in their routine.
“Suddenly,” Kirby writes, “he heard a killer whale vocalizing loudly. Peters described it as a distress vocalization or cry. He later learned the wailing was Kalia’s screeching for her mother from the other pool. Kasatka instantly pulled her rostrum away from Peters’s feet. Then she grabbed his ankles, pulling him underwater for several seconds. When he surfaced, she grabbed him again.” (The description of those agonizing minutes for Peters continues from there.)
In over 400 dense pages, Kirby explores the four deaths caused by killer whales at SeaWorld, and recent legal challenges to SeaWorld regarding its treatment of these animals. But the Kasatka–Peters incident became for me an emotional touchstone for the larger issues.
Remarkably intelligent creatures, killer whales in the wild show no aggression to humans and exhibit their own culture and complex communication.
In a stressful captive situation, a killer whale separated from her daughter during a performance sent a message across species lines. Now that humans are, in some form, going back in the SeaWorld tanks alongside killer whales, we can only wait anxiously to see what these animals’ next messages may be.
You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape