Our investigation was launched after a near-death experience was carried live on 10News and witnessed by hundreds of shocked SeaWorld visitors -- a killer whale turning on its trainer.
Visitors told 10News after the attack, You could tell it was not part of the show. I dont know why he'd do that, bite the trainer. It was just a tragedy."
Kasatka, the killer whale, grabbed trainer Ken Peters foot and dragged him under water twice.
Internal SeaWorld documents acquired by 10News investigators said, He (Peters) has a very good relationship with Kasatka.
Nevertheless, the whale pinned Peters, who stated the whale laid me on the bottom of the pool
I went limp.
10News learned this was not their first uncomfortable encounter.
She tried to bite once before in 1999, according to SeaWorld documents.
With these concerns and information, 10News decided to look deeper into the delicate balance between the whales and marine parks.
The seven-month long investigation sparked an interest in another serious accident involving a trainer at SeaWorld, in 1987.
Video footage showed Orky the killer whale slamming down John Allen Sillick, breaking his bones and crushing his insides.
The accident sparked a lawsuit, but it was not what 10News found in the lawsuit that was intriguing but what was missing. The lawyers for a previous owner of SeaWorld, Harcourt and Brace, had cleared the courtroom during any discussions of Orkys health, medications, and physical limitations. Then, they managed to convince the judge to seal those parts of the records from public view, forever. . I have no idea why that case was sealed or who requested it. I cant comment on it, said Brad Andrews, Vice President of Zoological Operations with Busch Entertainment.
The judges remarks were not sealed and provided tantalizing clues.
They revealed 20-year-old Orky was not a healthy whale. He was partially blind and had visual limitations not told (to trainer). Additionally, the whale had limited ability to jump.
A year after he crushed Sillick, Orky died from acute pneumonia, chronic wasting."
Its just inappropriate to catch these large animals that are free swimming over a huge range and put them into a little tank, said marine biologist Ken Balcomb.
Balcomb runs the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbour, Washington.
Balcomb said whales in the wild swim up to 75 miles a day, not possible in captivity. He said the whales suffer mental and physical strain.
However, SeaWorld disagreed.
Andrews said, We have over 7 million gallons in our facilities habitats. The animals do very well there.
SeaWorld points to a killer whale named Corky as its success story.
At 40, Corky is SeaWorlds longest-living whale in captivity.
Andrews said that is longer than many whales live in the wild.
A recent study just published shows that the mean longevity of females being 39, and males being 19, said Andrews.
But Balcomb said Corky is really just middle-aged and that female whales in the wild routinely live 80 years based on his research of the whales in Puget Sound.
"We have 3 pods, currently there are 86 whales in the population, said Balcomb.
Balcombs center has identified and photographed each whale based on their distinctive dorsal fin since 1976.
One example is J-8, a female whale first photographed in the mid 1960s, the 70s and 2005.
J-8 is still alive today and is at least 65 years old.
SeaWorld trainers love their jobs and decline to be interviewed by 10News.
However, even they admitted the whales are under stress in a Cal/OSHA investigation of the November attack.
SeaWorld successfully argued that Cal/OSHA was not qualified to draw conclusions about marine mammals and the report was killed, but not before 10News acquired the entire document.
Cal/OSHA is qualified to talk about work safety issues.
Cal/OSHA asked SeaWorld trainers about the possible cause of Kasatkas attack and one trainer said, Too many interactions or shows? Dont ask so much from trainers and whales?
Another trainer said, I think reductions in extra activities will reduce stress on animals and trainers.
The trainer who was attacked said, Weve had some aggression (from whales) before. They are not 100 percent predictable. We train for (incidents); its not if but when.
Andrews said the trainers were misinformed.
There are adequate precautions with the animals we work with. We have a long history of being as safe as we can with these animals, said Andrews.
There is oversight of the marine industry as the United State Department of Agriculture does unannounced visits, according to SeaWorld.
They show up two or three times a year, inspect the parks. We do very well in these inspections, said Andrews.
10News asked for the inspection reports from the USDA and received four reports from the last five years, with only minor problems.
As for the November attack, Cal/OSHA has closed its investigation and no new report was issued.
Kasatka was back to performing the very next day following the incident.
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