My first trip to Sea World was in 1979. I was in kindergarten. At that time, the whale shows were very much a circus act. All of the trainers were in full costume. The various trainers were dressed up like the founding fathers. I remember a trainer dressed like George Washington, complete with a powder wig riding on Shamu's back. At the end of the show, Shamu would leap up, and ring the Liberty Bell. Being so young, I didn't realize how degrading the whole spectacle was.
The next time I returned to Sea World(many years later) they declared that they were all about education, and had lost the corny outfits. Still, the whales were in tiny tanks, performing tricks. I loved Sea World at this time, and assumed the whales were happy.
This began to slowly change when I saw a news special about Corky. Corky is one of the oldest whales at Sea World. Like many of the other whales, she was snatched from her family. Researchers had recorded whale calls from Corky's pod in the wild. They played them for her, and she absolutely freaked out. Splashing,vocalizing. It was one of the saddest things I had ever seen.
Fast forward to 1997. My cousins family, lives in Washington state. They asked me to come stay with them so we could go on a whale watch cruise to see Orca's. I was SO excited to do this! On our first voyage we had the great fortune to see three pods meet up in a cove. There were dozens of Orca's! They were so beautiful! It was fascinating, because they would identify the whales, telling us their names, ages and how they were related. There were grandmother's,mother's, cousins,siblings,uncles. They stay with their families their entire lives. I sometimes get online to read about the whales that I saw in the wild. Some of the whales that were newborns during my visit, are now parents themselves.
The boat operators were all very respectful, and didn't get too close. It's a law that boats can't get too close, but the whales are obviously welcome to approach us. We had a whale swim upside down under our boat. It surfaced and turned over after clearing our boat.
The Whale Naturalist aboard our boat, told us how rare it was to see multiple pods interacting. She was fascinating to listen to. She had been in the area when Sea World came to Puget Sound to capture whales. She described them throwing bombs into the water to herd the whales in the direction they wanted. After they were captured, she said they guarded the whales in holding tanks with machine guns. I found this all very disturbing. In Blackfish, a man who participated in the whale hunts said it was the worst thing he ever participated in. He said that once they had captured all of the poor babies in nets, they dropped the nets to free the mothers. None of the mother's left. They all cried, and vocalized, watching their babies be taken from them. The man said at the end, they had three dead whales in the nets. They were instructed to cut them open, fill them with rocks, attach an anchor to their tail and sink them. After this hunt, Washington state forbid them to come back. Sea World immediately started capturing in Iceland.
Going to Washington to whale watch became an annual thing. The next year we had a large male surface next to our boat. His name was Ralph. His tall straight dorsal fin blew my mind! It was easily over 5 feet tall! In the wild less than 1% of male dorsal fins flop, in captivity it is 100%.
My next year in the San Juans was spent camping. One night a mama and baby orca swam by our campsite. Seeing orca's in their natural environment is amazing. As I watched those free orca's swimming with endless space with their families, my heart began to hurt for those who have been captured for our amusement.
The following will be points from Blackfish that stood out to me. Some of the information is disturbing. If you would like to stop reading here, that is fine.
- I learned from Blackfish that Sea World lies, and spins stories to their benefit. They tell people that Orca's live longer in captivity because of the great veterinarian care. This is absolutely false. Orca's life span is about three times longer in the wild.
- When Dawn Brancheau was killed, Sea World claimed it was her fault that the whale attacked her. Actually Sea World tried to say she simply slipped and fell in. With all of the eye witnesses that wasn't going to fly, so they changed the story to, her ponytail interested him, and that she was simply drowned while he played with her hair. The reality is, Tilikum grabbed her by her arm(which he later ripped off and swallowed)scalped her, and completely mangled her body. OSHA has ordered trainers to stay out of the water with all Orca's. Sea World is appealing, so they can get back in.
- Sea World makes loads of money off of the Orca's but haven't updated their tanks since the 1980's.
- During the whale hunts of the 70's the whales tried to protect their babies. The pod split up, in an attempt to save their young. All of the adults without babies went one way, and the mama's and babies went the other way. The boats began to follow the main pod, Unfortunately Sea World had planes in the air, that spotted the mama's and babies.
- I always thought trainers were marine biologists. Nope, most are plucked off the street, and make about $30,000 per year. They are kept in the dark about incidents involving the whales. Here is a list of incidents between Orca's and humans in captivity. I'm sure there are even more that didn't make this list.
- A former trainer said. "Yes, we have learned a lot from Orca's in captivity,but we have learned enough, they need to be released."
- Baby whales born in captivity are taken from their mothers, and moved to other parks. The mother's cry, and mourn them.
- The whales in captivity are constantly fighting. It didn't receive much press at the time, but I remember it. In the 80's one whale rammed another whale during the show(in San Diego). It broke the whales jaw. She swam around the tank for 45 minutes spewing blood out of her blow hole, until she finally died, and sank to the bottom. This incident is also mentioned in Blackfish.
- Alexis Martinez was killed by a Sea World Whale at a shabby aquarium in the Canary Islands, two months before Dawn Brancheau. Again, this was a brutal attack.
I could go on and on, but I will leave it there. I know not all whales could survive in the wild at this point. I dearly wish those that are good candidates for release, could make it home. If you have a chance to watch Blackfish, please do. It's an important film. It needs to be watched, before deciding to attend Sea World. I think it's going to air again on CNN October 27.