Review: “Beneath The Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld & The Truth Beyond Blackfish” by John Hargrove and Howard Chua-Eoan

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Tilikum, the orca who has killed 3 people, rests in his tank at SeaWorld. Picture via NewsWorks.

Guest reviewer Vanessa delves into the controversies surrounding the Orcas at SeaWorld. 

From 1990 to 2010, John Hargrove was a senior trainer and performer at SeaWorld. His career took him to the parks in Texas, California, and Florida, and he was even able to supervise the training of a captive pod of orca whales in a new park in Antibes, France. With nearly twenty years of service, you’d expect him to be resting on his laurels, proud of his work and amazed that he got to be one of the few people who have ever worked with his favourite animals.

 

As a child in the 1980s, Hargrove loved to attend SeaWorld in Orlando and San Antonio, and gained a deep fascination of the orca whale. Enough to move to San Antonio, and work his way up through the ranks, going through the gruelling fitness procedures, reading up on marine animal science and behavioural psychology, finally gaining the privilege to do ‘water work’ with one of the many orcas that holidaymakers in the United States have come to know as Shamu.

Until he couldn’t take it any more.

The 2013 documentary Blackfish had a very profound effect on the public perception of SeaWorld. The organisers at the Sundance Film Festival had to schedule extra screenings to accommodate the interest. It was CNN’s highest rated documentary of the year when it premiered on the channel, and it has enjoyed stellar ratings on DVD and through streaming platforms. (Seriously, it’s an excellent documentary, and it’s available on Netflix. Here’s the link!) John Hargrove is one of the interviewees featured in Blackfish, and he was moved to write a book about his experiences as a piece of supplementary material for those who watched the documentary and wanted to know more.

There are those who will argue that Blackfish is pure propaganda against the Sea World. It completely demonises the company, and has been cited as being responsible for Sea World suffering huge losses, with its stock and attendance dropping in critical numbers.

All of a sudden, the illusion has been broken. SeaWorld’s dark side has finally surfaced, after years of keeping a squeaky-clean, family-friendly image. The orca whales are turned into stressed, dangerous and violent animals in confinement, who have killed multiple trainers. SeaWorld’s own lawyers tried to cover this up, even when brought before the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. One trainer’s body had a pulverised chest. Another died of her injuries… and her colleagues had to take her body out of one orca, Tilikum’s mouth, piece by piece. And the kicker? SeaWorld blamed both trainers for upsetting the whales in some way, even though Hargrove claims the whales would have definitely been desensitised to whatever triggered them into this kind of aggression.

These whales live lives of quiet desperation and intense boredom. It is the kind of ennui that can be fatal — to both whale and human. (p. 72)

Ever since I watched Blackfish, I’ve been curious about the lives of these beautiful cetaceans in captivity, and the extent to which SeaWorld has gone to cover up workers’ testimonies. Tim Zimmerman’s Killer In The Pool covered much about the case of the late Dawn Brancheau, but it’s John Hargrove’s memoir which has far more authenticity.

Hargrove takes a neutral viewpoint. He knows that many people would love for SeaWorld to be totally shut down, but he argues that a lot of the whales are far too psychologically disturbed to survive being released back into the ocean. They would benefit much more from a controlled sea environment, rather than performing for entertainment. Tilikum was driven into the orca equivalent of insanity for being so under-stimulated. Heartbreakingly, it is related in Zimmerman’s book that Tilikum has been turned into a prisoner in an isolated pen, hardly ever brought out to engage in physical therapy with the trainers.

Other horrifying factoids from this book include the fact that Seaworld has interbred their animals for profit, for the purpose of selling the offspring to other water parks internationally. SeaWorld also regularly lies to their audience, withholds food from whales who underperform (p. 76), and presents a whole bunch of different orcas as the legendary Shamu. As shown in Blackfish, Seaworld also claim that a collapsed dorsal fin is just a physical quirk. That is most definitely not the case.

 

I would soon learn the cause is confinement: floating motionless at the surface of the pool without support for the height and weight of dorsal fin leads to the collapse. […] Orcas in the wild spend much of their time fully submerged. Seaworld’s pools may be large in human scale, but they do not in any way approach the breadth and depth the orcas have available to them in the ocean. In captivity, the broad sail-like dorsal fins so characteristic of male orcas remain exposed to the air and to the sun (p. 36)

Also, the average life expectancy for an orca is supposed to be around fifty years in the wild. At SeaWorld, Hargrove would estimate that the life expectancy is probably around ten years. Which is bizarre — in captivity, an animal’s life expectancy normally rises, rather than lowering so exponentially.

This book was an incredible eye opener. It enraged and enlightened me in equal measure. Hargrove himself is angry at the organisation he left behind, but at the same time, he knows from experience that Seaworld have captured the imaginations of millions, funding research into marine biology and getting people worldwide interested in the precious ecosystem of the Earth’s oceans. Seaworld can certainly be defended for these attributes, but people are certainly going to think twice when human lives are so callously thrown away by irresponsibility and corporate blindness, as well as a willingness to cut corners when it comes to animal welfare.

Seaworld began simply with one man parading around an orca he had captured on an expedition. It then grew into an enormous business, with billions of dollars and many thousands of holidaymakers making the pilgrimage to Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego, and sponsoring other marine animal parks around the world.

But, even with this perfect veneer, there had to be something unpleasant lurking beneath.

Imagine the situation in human terms and the closest institution that comes to mind is a prison, where the inmates are completely dependant on the guards and the system to provide them with the basic needs of life: food and water. It is a terrifying and depressing metaphor for trainers who love the whales and who feel responsible for them. Why? Because in the analogy, even if the prisoner-whale decides that it likes some of the guards better than the others, in the end, they are all still guards, part of the same system that oppresses them. (p. 77)

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