SANFORD, Fla. - A SeaWorld trainer who escaped being drowned by a killer whale during a public performance in California in 2006 testified on Tuesday that he still works with the whales and considers the risk "acceptable."
"I could get killed in a car accident today, but I still get in a car," said Ken Peters, now an assistant animal curator at the SeaWorld San Diego park.
Peters' testimony came as a federal hearing resumed, after a nearly two-month hiatus, over SeaWorld's challenge of safety charges stemming from the 2010 drowning death of trainer Dawn Brancheau by a different killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando.
The most serious charge filed by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration is classified as a "willful violation," meaning the theme park company showed indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.
Brancheau, 40, was grabbed off a shallow ledge by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca, who thrashed around violently, drowning Brancheau and breaking and dislocating her bones.
SeaWorld faces a potential $75,000 fine, and SeaWorld lawyer Carla Gunnin said in September that the park might be forced to end close physical interaction between the whales and trainers. SeaWorld has kept trainers out of the killer whale pools since Brancheau's death.
Mike Scarpuzzi, vice president of zoological operations at the SeaWorld in California, said that park has implemented one safety recommendation that grew out of the investigations into Brancheau's death. Portable fences have been made available for trainers to place between themselves and killer whales when they want to make physical contact.
Under questioning by government lawyer John Black, Scarpuzzi insisted the fences were not intended to protect trainers from falling, slipping or being pulled into the killer whale pools.
"I'm not really sure what their purpose is other than they (trainers) have been directed to use them," Scarpuzzi said.
Peters, who was called as a witness for OSHA on Tuesday, generally defended SeaWorld's safety protocols for employees working with killer whales during his testimony.
But Black told Administrative Judge Ken Welsch that Peters' experiences with killer whales supported the government's argument that the animals are a recognized hazard in the industry.
Killer whale grabbed Peters' foot
In September, Black showed Welsch a SeaWorld video of the San Diego incident in which killer whale Kasatka, a 5,000-pound dominant female, grabbed Peters' foot and twice dove to the pool floor, holding Peters underwater.
SeaWorld officials told reporters at the time that Peters, then 39, was underwater less than one minute each time. Both times when Kasatka surfaced, Peters was seen in the video patting the whale. Kasatka eventually let go of his foot and swam away, allowing Peters to escape.
While underwater, Peters testified, he heard Kasatka's calf vocalizing in a backstage pool and assumed that agitated her.
"Even when I was down at the bottom of the pool, I thought she'd let me go," Peters said.
Peters also described a 1999 incident in which Kasatka tried to grab his feet and hand. Peters said he and other trainers saw no sign that Kasatka was agitated before he entered the water.
SeaWorld, in hindsight, ruled that entering the water was an "error in judgment" because Kasatka's then-calf had just left his trainer and gone to another pool, Peters said. After the 1999 incident, SeaWorld imposed a new rule that trainers should not go into the water "when upsetting social behavior is present," according to documents read in court.
After the 2006 incident, SeaWorld installed more cameras so trainers could better monitor the whales' socialization in other pools and banned further wet work with Kasatka, Peters said.
Brian Rokeach, a dolphin trainer supervisor at the California park, testified he was pulled underwater by a killer whale in 2006 but escaped. He said he tried unsuccessfully in 2009 to rescue a fellow trainer who was drowned during a performance by Keto, another SeaWorld killer whale that had been on loan to Loro Parque, a zoo in the Canary Islands.
Rokeach said SeaWorld incident reports documenting undesirable behavior by killer whales usually conclude that the problem was an error in judgment by a trainer.
Scarpuzzi testified that he went to Loro Parque and determined that a series of "commonplace and minor occurrences" during the Loro Parque performance agitated Keto. As a result, Scarpuzzi said trainers were advised to try to vary the rewards they give to the whales for successful performance.
SeaWorld is expected to begin its defense after the government presents its final witnesses.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)