My family went to SeaWorld San Diego when I was a teenager. I remember being awestruck by the animals; after all, I came from a landlocked state, so it was my first time to see dolphins and whales up close. There was a pool where you could sit and pet dolphins that went by. I sat there for a long time, all alone (it was off season and the park was quiet). A dolphin went by several times and I fed it, and near the end, it came up out of the water and put its head near mine, and I was able to put my arms around it. What a glorious moment! A group of children nearby saw the dolphin and came charging over, frightening it away, but I never forgot. I bought a little dolphin necklace to commemorate the moment.
I went again on my honeymoon, years later. The dolphin pool was gone. We saw the shows, and finished with the orcas. At the end, I stood near the tank as the whale went by, looking at its face. I remember thinking, That’s an awfully big animal in an awfully small tank… I felt so strange. I felt guilty. I told my husband I didn’t want to see any more whale shows.
Yesterday I saw Blackfish. It’s on Netflix streaming, and everyone should see it. It’s a heartbreaking look at orcas in capitivity, namely SeaWorld’s captivity, and how leaving them in tiny tanks is essentially driving them into psychosis. They describe how Tilikum, the massive male orca, was trained by being forced nightly into a 20×30 tank. That would be like locking a person in a coffin to sleep! No wonder he went insane. Watching him swim around vacantly with his dorsal fin flopped over is sobering. Whales live in their own families with their own unique sets of calls for up to one hundred years. Tilikum has none of his family, living all alone in a group that attacks him regularly.
The part that got to me most was the description of a mother whale. The park sold her baby to another park, and airlifted her our of the tank. The mother orca spent hours sending out long distance signals, trying desperately to find her daughter. They should have spent their lives together, as they would in the wild. Baby A was sitting on my lap while I watched this, and I hugged her extra tight. It was eerily like the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, where Aborigine children were ripped away from their parents to be “raised properly.” I cried through that movie, and I cried through this one.
We know now how brilliant whales and dolphins are. We have the studies and the proof. We no longer have the excuse of saying we just don’t know and that they’re just fish. Until SeaWorld no longer keeps whales or dolphins, they will not get our family’s money.
It’s hard for me to watch, because I worked at a zoo. The zoo had started as a sequence of concrete blocks with lonely, broken animals, but a new director came in and raised ridiculous amounts of money to build phenomenal habitats for them. The animals bred so much on their own we were able to release a great many back to the wild. The zoo tried it’s best to keep only animals that had been hurt already or could not survive in the wild. They brought in animals who lived in research facilities and roadsize zoos and gave them the best habitat they could build. Visitors complained about not being able to see the animals much, but we just said, “It’s what’s best for them. And that’s the most important thing.”
One day, I was hauling a set of filthy tarps around. I couldn’t figure out what had done that, so I asked a keeper. He said they had a set of chimpanzees in the back barn. They would never be on display. “It would be like locking up children,” he said. They had been abused at the previous facility, so the zoo had taken them in, and was trying to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Once they died, the barn would be empty.
The keepers at that zoo loved the animals and wanted the best for them. They worked tirelessly to get animals back into the wild if they could, and to make their lives as natural as possible for them if they couldn’t. I helped them throw out visitors who couldn’t treat them with respect.
I think most of the employees at SeaWorld are the same. I could see it in Blackfish. They loved the animals and didn’t realize what was happening. But now we know, and now it needs to stop.
I still have my dolphin necklace. I think about what and incredible experience was, and I’m grateful for it, though I shouldn’t have had it. That dolphin should have been in the ocean. And now that I know, I won’t be back.
My husband talks about surfing and seeing fins come up out of the water, dreading that they were sharks, only to realize he was floating in a school of dolphins. Maybe, someday, I can save enough money to take my girls to the ocean, where they can chance a look at orcas where they should be, in their own families, out where they belong.
For a great review of the movie itself, there’s one in my favorite movie blog, Antagony and Ecstasy: http://antagonie.blogspot.com/2013/12/movies-i-missed-in-2013-killer-whale.html