Story transcripts

The Great Escape

Friday, August 31, 2012

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Stephen Rice

This is one of the most extraordinary acts of survival you'll ever see.

Ken Peters was performing in a show at Sea World in San Diego when a killer whale suddenly turned on him.

For the next 10 minutes, Ken was locked in a life-and-death struggle with the three-tonne predator.

It's incredible that he kept his composure and made it out of that tank alive.

Others haven't been so lucky.

For more information on David Kirby’s book Death at SeaWorld, visit

For more information about SeaWorld, visit

For more information about the Humane Society International campaign against keeping whales in captivity, visit

Watch the original 60 Minutes investigation of the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld

Full transcript:

MICHAEL USHER: It’s November 29, 2006 and trainer Ken Peters is performing his regular routine at SeaWorld with a killer whale called Kasatka. But when Peters dives into the water, it soon becomes clear that Kasatka isn’t playing by the script.

DAVID: Kasatka has other ideas, she doesn’t want to perform and instead she grabs Ken Peters’ foot and drags him directly down to the bottom of the pool. She holds him down there for upwards to a minute as the other trainers around the pool’s edge begin to realise that something has gone terribly wrong.

MICHAEL USHER: This shocking video has only recently come to light, after an investigation by author David Kirby, who obtained the tape while researching the death of another trainer at the park.

DAVID: I’m sure SeaWorld would have preferred this video never to be have been seen by the public. It is graphic and it’s chilling.

MICHAEL USHER: Finally, after a heart-stopping struggle, Ken Peters breaks free.

DAVID: He catches his breath - you think thank god, this is over - but Kasatka again has other ideas. She grabs his foot again, she pulls him back down under water. This time she holds him under water even longer.

MICHAEL USHER: For what seems an eternity, Kasatka drags her trainer underwater, shaking him violently. Then slowly, agonisingly slowly, brings him back to the surface.

DAVID: Ken Peters managed to remain incredibly calm, which probably saved his life. It looks like he manages to get his foot out of her mouth and then he’s kicking his feet around to try to prevent her from grabbing him again, but she manages to do that - and this just then goes on and on and on and she’s basically dragging him through the water by the foot.

MICHAEL USHER: Peters is now fighting for his life and, you’ll see, his underwater ordeal is far from over. For SeaWorld this is the nightmare scenario – but not the first or last attack of its kind. Since the 1970s, there have been dozens of such incidents at marine parks across America. SeaWorld is the biggest of them all, and its chief animal curator Kelly Flaherty Clarke denies there’s a problem.

KELLY: We’re the experts and we know how to read killer whale behaviour. And since we’ve been doing this for 40 years, we’re well prepared.

MICHAEL USHER: I first reported on these attacks two years ago, not long after SeaWorld’s star performer, Tilikum, grabbed his devoted trainer Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail and dragged her into the water. Dawn was dismembered and killed. To this day, SeaWorld is adamant that no one could have predicted Tilikum would attack.

KELLY: The behaviour that he was showing us was not hunting behaviour. It was not aggressive behaviour. It was not, um, killing behaviour.

MICHAEL USHER: What was it then? To play with Dawn?

KELLY: I can't tell you what he was doing, and I don't think anybody can. Unless they can analyse these sounds that you're hearing behind me and tell me what they're saying, they have no idea. And that's where I'd like to leave that.

MICHAEL USHER: But many whale experts say it’s no surprise that these natural-born killers respond badly to being forced to perform tricks on demand.

NAOMI: How in the world could they possibly have such an animal under control?

MICHAEL USHER: Among them, marine biologist Dr Naomi Rose.

NAOMI: They are in their element and the trainers are out of theirs. They’re in the water.

MICHAEL USHER: Do they forget they’re working with extremely dangerous animals?

NAOMI: I think they might never really understand how dangerous they are in the first place.

MICHAEL USHER: Author David Kirby says that when Kasatka attacked Ken Peters, she was simply reacting to hearing her calf calling to her from a back pool.

DAVID: She was telling Ken Peters – no, I don’t want to do a show, my child’s calling for me.

MICHAEL USHER: This vision was recorded by SeaWorld – as it does for every show. There were few witnesses – the audience was quickly ushered out of their seats as soon as it became clear the show had gone horribly wrong. Then - after 10 minutes of unrelenting torture - Ken Peters sees his chance.

DAVID: He finally breaks away from her. Now, by this time, his colleagues have deployed a net across the pool. He clears the net, he swims as fast as he can and everybody thinks, thank goodness this is over - but Kasatka has another idea. She sees him, she quickly turns around and charges him and that’s when he scrambles up to try and stand up and run out of the pool just in time.

MICHAEL USHER: Peters is rushed to hospital suffering serious puncture wounds and crushed bones in both feet. A few days later, the tourist spectacular at SeaWorld was back in full swing – but Peters refuses to talk about the ordeal. And this billion-dollar industry is facing growing questions about whether it’s right to keep these magnificent animals in captivity to amuse the tourists.

DAVID: Killer whales have opinions of their own. When they go off behaviour, when they're rampaging, they are not going to listen to any human being - they make up their own mind what they want to do.

MICHAEL USHER: And believe it or not, that trainer, Ken Peters, still works with whales at SeaWorld.

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