When I was 11 years old I went to Florida for the first time with my family. Along with Disney and Universal, SeaWorld was at the top of our visiting list.
Why wouldn’t it be? It is one of the main attractions in Florida, and we’d heard great things about it from others. To say we didn’t enjoy the Shamu Show would be a bare-faced lie. My memory isn’t great from my childhood, but in my mind hazy joy and wonder are associated with that visit. As far as I was concerned, SeaWorld was showcasing those Orcas unable to be released into the wild. I had no idea they were actually wild-caught. When we were told ‘they are performing these tricks because they want to. They don’t need to, but they enjoy it!’, why would we question it? For a brief time afterwards I even thought that I might want to be a dolphin trainer.
All that changed in 2010 after the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau.
After reading information released afterwards about the whale Tilikum, and his past, including the fact that he was wild-caught, I determined that I would never again go to SeaWorld. However, for some reason or another, SeaWorld stayed largely out of my thoughts for the next three years.
Towards the end of 2013 several of my friends and colleagues told me about a documentary called ‘Blackfish’ which had aired on BBC4. It reminded me of my vow never to return to SeaWorld and my view that keeping Orcas in captivity was inherently wrong returned to the forefront of my mind.
First, I purchased ‘Death at SeaWorld’, by David Kirby, at the beginning of 2014 and devoured it. As soon as I finished it, I watched Blackfish, a documentary about SeaWorld & the captivity of Orcas. Both of these reinforced my anger at the injustice. Watching the SeaWorld tour guides tell blatant lies about wild orcas enraged me. ‘Dorsal fin collapse is seen in 25% of wild populations, it’s normal as they grow older’. ‘Yes, they live longer here than in the wild’. Both lies. I don’t blame the tour guides – they’re repeating what Management have told them to say. What angers me is that I was once spun these lies and I believed them! Thank goodness I am no longer so naive.
For me, possibly the worst part of the whole saga is the fact that they are breeding the Orcas. For some reason, perhaps due to the fact that I was so young when I first visited SeaWorld, it just didn’t cross my mind that they were purposefully breeding them. That idea probably went hand-in-hand with my view that only Orcas unable to return to the wild were kept at SeaWorld. Unfortunately, we can’t change the fact that Orcas were hunted and captured between the 1960s and 1980s. However, particularly based on everything we now know about the social complexities of Orcas groups in the wild (all thanks to actual scientific research carried out on wild populations, rather than the research SeaWorld claims to carry out), the fact that they are breeding Orcas to keep them purely for entertainment purposes is absolutely barbaric to me. Captive breeding programmes generally only have merit when there is the possibility of release into the wild. It seems to me that SeaWorld has no intention of voluntarily doing this, as their bottom line will inevitably suffer.
I wanted to ensure that I was reading the facts, rather than propaganda, and so I performed some research of my own. Included in this was SeaWorld’s statement regarding Blackfish. It didn’t change my opinion at all. SeaWorld’s statement twists the truth and also completely disregards the message Blackfish is really trying to get across to the viewer. That message is not that the trainers at SeaWorld are not properly prepared, or that those trainers do not care about the Orcas. That is not the point. The point is that Orcas are not suitable to be kept in captivity, based on their physical and emotional capacity. It is unfair and immoral to keep an animal which is capable of swimming in vast oceans, which forms life-long and complex bonds with family and pod members, in a swimming pool.
It is true that the display of Orcas in captivity has resulted in public support of this species, where before there was fear and mistrust. However, continued display is not required to maintain this support.
I truly believe that the trainers at SeaWorld care about the Orcas. I also believe that they do undergo extensive training (even if key information may not be communicated to them at times). But even bearing this in mind, there is little somebody can do if an Orca decides they do not want to let them out of the water.
Changing protocols for working with Orcas, making it ‘safer’, this doesn’t change the fact that Orcas belong in the wild. It is unfathomable to me, knowing what I know, that it is still seen as acceptable.
It is important to mention that at no point does the book or the documentary pose the idea of closing down SeaWorld. At no point do they deny the fact that SeaWorld does have merits – in contrast David Kirby actually mentions these merits. What the book and film are suggesting is a cessation of captive breeding and possible return of the whales currently in captivity to sea pens where they may be taught to live in the wild again. They also want SeaWorld to be honest and transparent in the future.
Taking all this into account, if there is still doubt, SeaWorld’s opponents include Killer Whale experts, who have spent years observing the behaviour of wild Orcas. I think I’ll trust their opinions rather than that of individuals who have rarely, if ever, seen a wild Orca.
The conclusion is obvious. Society has moved past the point where it believes keeping Orcas in captivity is acceptable. People are talking and their voices are getting louder and louder. It’s time for SeaWorld to start listening.