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SeaWorld to investigate whale attack

The probe will examine the animal's behavior before it injured a longtime trainer.

December 01, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Officials at SeaWorld Adventure Park ordered a "complete" investigation Thursday into why a 5,000-pound killer whale injured a veteran trainer and dragged him to the bottom of a 36-foot-deep pool at Shamu Stadium.

Even as he was being held underwater Wednesday, the trainer, Ken Peters, 39, persuaded Kasatka to free his foot from her mouth by stroking her back.

As several hundred horrified patrons watched, Peters swam to the top of the pool. He was taken to UC San Diego Medical Center, where he is being treated for a broken left foot.

The show, "Believe," resumed Thursday, but no trainers approached Kasatka or any of the other killer whales.

Kasatka has been at SeaWorld for 25 years. Two of her offspring are among the park's seven killer whales.

The incident occurred at the end of the afternoon show, when Peters and Kasatka descended to the bottom of the 3.2-million-gallon pool to perform what is usually a showstopper: the whale rocketing to the surface with the trainer diving off her nose.

Instead, the whale kept Peters at the bottom of the pool for about a minute, surfaced with Peters in tow and then descended a second time and again held the trainer at the bottom.

Mike Scarpuzzi, vice president of zoological operations at SeaWorld San Diego, said the review will be conducted by trainers from SeaWorld's parks in Florida, Texas and San Diego. Among other things, they will go over Kasatka's behavior before the incident.

"The nature of working with animals is that you don't know what they're thinking, but you do know how they're acting," said Scarpuzzi, a former whale trainer.

Kasatka's behavior has been good, but she did attempt to bite Peters in 1999, Scarpuzzi said.

The Humane Society of the United States, which has often criticized SeaWorld, said the incident Wednesday is proof that killer whales should not be kept in captivity and made to perform tricks.

"The risk of a tragic outcome is too great -- for the trainers and the whales," said Naomi A. Rose, marine mammal scientist for the society.

Scarpuzzi rejected Rose's assertion and said that the public's concern for the welfare of large marine mammals comes in large part from shows and research at SeaWorld parks.

He noted that although the whales are trained, they remain wild animals, with a degree of unpredictability.

"They are killer whales. Even though we've had thousands and thousands of good interactions, we are going to have some that don't go well," Scarpuzzi said.

SeaWorld is San Diego's single most popular tourist attraction, and "Believe" is one of the park's highlights.

The show incorporates music and large video screens. Cameras placed underwater and suspended over the pool allow patrons to see the whales and trainers from multiple angles.

In the finale, whales and trainers shoot straight from the water toward the suspended cameras.

During the summer tourist season, the show is often performed seven times daily.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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