on March 24th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs, Science
Published by St. Martin's Press
Setting: United States
Over the course of two decades, John Hargrove worked with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld's U.S. facilities. For Hargrove, becoming an orca trainer fulfilled a childhood dream. However, as his experience with the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. When two fellow trainers were killed by orcas in marine parks, Hargrove decided that SeaWorld's wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers.
After leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove became one of the stars of the controversial documentary Blackfish. The outcry over the treatment of SeaWorld's orca has now expanded beyond the outlines sketched by the award-winning documentary, with Hargrove contributing his expertise to an advocacy movement that is convincing both federal and state governments to act.
As I listened to this book written by a former orca trainer at Sea World, the analogy that kept coming to mind was alien abduction. Humans have taken orcas out of their natural environment by force. They are made to live in cells with others of their species with whom they do not share a language. Several died before the exact requirements for keeping them were figured out. Humans control when they eat, when they play, and when they are bred. Humans separate them from their offspring even though we know orcas have complex matriarchal families.
This is a fitting analogy because eventually the author discusses it too. Seen in this light, it is impossible to justify the practice of using whales and dolphins for entertainment.
The author started as a true believer in Sea World. From the age of 6 he dedicated his life to becoming an orca trainer. He loved the whales. He believed that some of the whales cared for him too. But he came to realize that no matter how close the relationship between whale and trainer was, at the end of the day he was still their prison guard. It is only natural that an intelligent creature kept under these conditions will try to fight back.
The book opens with the detailed account of his attack by a whale. He is clear that the whale chose to let him live. His break with Sea World came after the 2009 and 2010 deaths of trainers. In each instance Sea World’s public statements blamed the trainers for making mistakes. After studying the incidents it was clear to him that they did not and that Sea World was lying to hide the fact that this aggression was a result of psychological stress to the whales.
He discusses many types of aggression and health problems that result from captivity. One telling story concerns the baby whales. They swim nonstop for several months after birth. This is because in the wild orcas never stop moving. They have to learn to stop and float still in the tiny Sea World pools.
Since the animals are not able to released, he discusses options for how to care for the current whales in a more humane way.
Even if you’ve seen Blackfish, I’d recommend this book to get a better idea about the lives of the whales from someone who has lived on both sides of the issue.