Two killer whales off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska By Robert Pittman via Wikimedia Commons

Two killer whales off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska By Robert Pittman via Wikimedia Commons

BENEATH THE SURFACE by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan (Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2015)

BENEATH THE SURFACE by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan
(Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2015)

Beneath the Surface

The question needs to be asked, what do retired whale trainers do? Especially once they have skewered the private industry whence they came. Write about it.

Such is the case of fourteen year veteran Orca trainer John Hargrove who, in the course of working with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld’s U.S. facilities, came to view the practice of holding large mammals in captivity, as well as the pain of mother-calf separation, as unsustainable. It was Hargrove’s childhood dream to work with the Orcinus orca, the so called killer whales. Yet as he spoke on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he said that as a rookie trainer he didn’t know what he was getting into–no trainer does–when he stepped into the pool. “You don’t know normal from abnormal and healthy from unhealthy…are all of the dorsal fins collapsed in the wild…are all of their teeth worn down like that in the wild…? These are the damaging effect from captivity.”

The distinction “in the wild” is an important one, because, well, that is the central tenet to the question Stewart later asks, “Is it possible to have this in a humane way?” This being, Orcas in captivity. Which is to say, are we slowly realizing that animal captivity–zoos, circuses, aquariums, et al–is not only morally wrong, but environmentally destructive? At least Seaworld is against the drive hunts in Taiji.

What Is In The Water at Seaworld?

Hargrove, featured at length in Blackfish–the documentary exploration of orca-related deaths in marine parks– eventually came to the conclusion that “SeaWorld’s wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers.” Seldom has a documentary film become so popular with the mainstream culture in the U.S. and abroad that it has caused the corporation featured to not only acknowledge (and disavow all accusations) the film, but create a point by point attack of its own, attempting to discredit the film makers and all involved in the movement to free orcas from captivity, creating a new website Seaworldcares.com, and a twitter campaign (You Ask. We Answer.) to do so.

In response to Stewart’s telling Hargrove that the Daily Show received a barrage of tweets calling him a liar, Hargrove responded that Seaworld has a “cult-like mentality,” adding, “they will go after you viciously…they will try to silence you. This is how they have gotten away for decades with silencing trainers.” Speaking about one of Seaworld’s main statements, that they do not separate calves from mothers, Hargrove says, “I know of 19 calves we have taken from their mothers.” He goes on to mention the mental capacity of the people running the site, “They are so stupid. They have a photo Takara and Kohana on that page. Takara is in Texas. Kohana is in Spain.” It seems the definition of calf depends on who you’re asking.

Semantically tricky, Seaworld’s version reads, “SeaWorld’s successful development of its population of killer whales allows us to manage a healthy population of animals, while keeping young calves with their mothers and respecting the whales’ social structure.” The below photo went semi-viral on Twitter–with addendum–and the original (on the left) has since been removed from Seaworld’s page.

Unfortunate as the continued controversy is for Seaworld’s shareholders, Conan O’Brien has announced that, true story, in its first ad campaign since Blackfish, SeaWorld wants you to know it’s still a cool place for orcas.