Video of out-of-control killer whale shown at SeaWorld hearing

SANFORD, Fla Wed Sep 21, 2011 6:06pm EDT

SANFORD, Fla (Reuters) - The judge and spectators in a federal hearing watched a SeaWorld video on Wednesday that showed an out-of-control killer whale grab a trainer's foot and twice pull him toward the bottom of a pool in San Diego.

The 2006 video was played during the third day of SeaWorld's challenge of federal safety charges that grew out of the 2010 death of a different trainer in front of guests at SeaWorld Orlando.

Dawn 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.

The most serious charge leveled by the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is classified as a "willful violation," meaning SeaWorld showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."

The theme park company faces a $75,000 fine. Significantly, SeaWorld might also be forced to end physical interaction between trainers and killer whales, company lawyer Carla Gunnin had said in her opening statement on Monday.

Performances at SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium long featured iconic moments of trainers surfing on the backs of killer whales and getting launched from the whales' snouts. SeaWorld trainers have not performed or interacted in the water with killer whales since Brancheau's death, with one exception in a medical emergency, Gunnin said.

In this week's hearing in Sanford northeast of Orlando, federal lawyer John Black produced evidence within SeaWorld's records of the history of injuries and one other death involving killer whales.

SeaWorld officials have testified that trainers protect themselves by learning the visual cues that a whale might turn aggressive and becoming experienced with each whale's personality.

Black argued that training in whale behavior leaves serious gaps in trainer safety.

TRAINER'S FOOT IN MOUTH

In the 2006 video of the San Diego incident, killer whale Kasatka was seen twice diving toward the pool floor with trainer Ken Peters' foot in its mouth, and holding Peters underwater.

SeaWorld officials told reporters at the time that Peters was underwater less than a minute each time. When Kasatka surfaced, Peters was seen in the video patting the whale until it eventually let go of his foot and swam away, allowing Peters to escape.

A casual observer might see a near drowning. But SeaWorld corporate animal curator Chuck Tompkins said that, in the video, he saw trainers successfully executing well-rehearsed emergency procedures.

Tompkins noted that Peters remained calm and tried to calm Kasatka, and that other trainers on the pool deck tossed a net into the water to distract Kasatka. They signaled Kasatka to stop by slapping the water surface and sounded underwater tones.

Although Kasatka failed to respond to the signals four different times, Tompkins said, the killer whale ultimately released Peters and swam away on the fifth signal.

"I look at that, and that is a well-trained environment," Tompkins said.

Tompkins acknowledged under questioning by Black that Tilikum did not respond to water slaps and underwater tones on the day Brancheau was killed.

Previously SeaWorld Orlando animal curator Kelly Flaherty Clark testified that Tilikum gave no indication that he would act aggressively toward Brancheau, one of the Orlando theme park's most experienced trainers, before she was pulled to her death.

A senior trainer testified on Tuesday that Tilikum was known for refusing to let go of objects he found in his pool.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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