SeaWorld’s in Deep Water

Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Behind Blackfish
by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan
Palgrave MacMillan, 2015, 264 pages

On its website, the marine-park conglomerate SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment says that it is a “leading theme park and entertainment company that blends imagination with nature.” Parse the sentence, and you’ll see that this is little more than marketing-speak for saying that the company offers its visitors a kind of fantasy. Captive marine mammals frolicking and doing tricks for crowds of humans – it’s a make-believe vision of what the ocean might look if it were designed by Walt Disney.

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Underneath the water’s surface, however, is a much darker reality, one characterized by routine suffering and occasional bursts of lethal violence. At least, so says John Hargrove. He is no “animal rights extremist” (as SeaWorld recently called those of us here at the International Marine Mammal Project). Rather, he is a product of SeaWorld itself, someone who spent 14 years performing with orcas, and what he has to say about SeaWorld is not at all flattering.

(Full disclosure: I am working with Earth Island Institute to consult on a recent lawsuit filed against SeaWorld for false advertising and violation of consumer protection laws in California.)

Hargrove’s new book, Beneath the Surface, is a quick read, but not an easy one. Orcas kept in small concrete tanks are not “happy,” but often bored and occasionally badly stressed. They are heavily medicated with antibiotics and sometimes antidepressants. They die at higher rates than do orcas in the wild. They get sick from diseases they would never encounter in the wild. And they can turn on their trainers, sometimes with lethal results.

Hargrove knew little of this coming in. SeaWorld chooses its trainers for their swimming abilities and their good looks. Hargrove details how a trainer learns to work with a huge marine mammal that can easily crush or swallow a person. Orcas are also extremely intelligent, often playful, and very attentive to their trainers. But their good will has limits.

Hargrove went along with this for years. He and his fellow trainers knew that if they were not careful, they could be switched to some other job at the park. But over time his concerns for the orcas’ well-being and his resentments against SeaWorld built up. Far from being a happy family, he came to believe that SeaWorld was a corporation that viewed orcas and trainers as mere commodities for making money.

Then two trainers were killed by orcas. On Christmas Eve 2009, orca trainer Alexis Martinez was killed at Loro Parque, a marine park in the Canary Islands that houses several SeaWorld orcas and has business dealings with SeaWorld. An orca named Keto grabbed Martinez from behind and held him underwater and crushed him. Just two months later, Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, was dragged underwater and nearly dismembered by the orca Tilikum, which had been involved in two other incidents in which people died. SeaWorld blamed the trainers and classified the deaths as “drowning.”

Unlike the Loro Parque incident, SeaWorld could not cover up the Brancheau killing. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined SeaWorld and prohibited SeaWorld trainers from entering the water with orcas due to the danger; SeaWorld fought the order in court, but lost and accepted the decision.

Eventually, Hargrove decided to leave SeaWorld, and shortly afterward was interviewed for the documentary film Blackfish, a chilling indictment of SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas. Hargrove’s book is, above all, fair and honest. He praises SeaWorld and its staff in cases where he thinks the organization conducts business the right way. He is particularly protective of his fellow trainers, many of whom were once his friends but no longer talk to him.

At the same time, Hargrove explodes many of the false claims SeaWorld makes. SeaWorld claims, for example, that the amusement parks never separate mother orcas from their calves. Hargrove says he is personally aware of at least 19 times when orca calves and mothers were separated, only two of which were due to medical necessity.

Along with Blackfish and David Kirby’s book, Death at SeaWorld, Hargrove’s Beneath the Surface blows a hole in SeaWorld’s PR veneer. Thanks to this book, SeaWorld’s abusive practices are floating on the surface for all to see.

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