The Whale’s Tale

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Photo courtesy: Center for Whale Research

I have long resisted writing about Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013) since I watched it a couple of months ago, as I was sure I would just launch into a raging tirade (not against the documentary, but because of the facts that it brought to light). Let me preface this piece by saying that I have very strong feelings about killer whales. For me, they are a source of strength, power and faith. I have an orca tattooed on my back, several orca knick-knacks around the house, and I donate as much as I can to the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, WA.

The documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and created quite a buzz because of its provocative content. Blackfish uses the infamous death of SeaWorld’s senior trainer Dawn Brancheau at the jaws of Tilikum, one of their senior performing orcas, to launch into a poignant and terrifying tale about the plight of a captive orca’s life. I do not wish to reiterate all the points that Blackfish makes, as several blogs and reviews have already done that. Instead, I want to recount my own experience of the film and try to communicate what I believe we owe to these magnificent beasts, why orca captivity (and that of dolphins, other captive mammals) is so very inhuman. For those interested, please refer to this rather lengthy but very balanced and exhaustive article about orca captivity by Tim Zimmermann.

So, have I ever been to SeaWorld? Yes. Did I enjoy the orca show in the Shamu stadium? Very much. These animals are so breath-taking that one cannot help but be over-awed in their presence. Will I ever go again or encourage anyone I know to go? No. Not after the fact. SeaWorld does do an impeccable job of pulling the wool over our eyes, and the average family will never bother to double-check any facts given the convincing nature of their story. It was shocking to see footage of how SeaWorld guides tell people how orcas in the wild don’t live that long anyway. Yes, as Zimmermann points out, if you must be a captive orca, SeaWorld is the place to be. They do invest in their facilities, but there’s still no ocean and no pod members. It’s like choosing between the devil and deep blue sea, except that the deep blue sea is exactly what the orca wants.

Keeping orcas in captivity is almost the equivalent of slavery. Taking a baby orca from the wild and separating it from its mother is the same as a mother watching her baby being kidnapped in front of her in the park. It’s just as cruel. More awareness needs to be spread about the complex societies that killer whales live in. Most wild animals rear their young and then let them go and fend for themselves. Not true with orcas. They live in pods, travel in groups and young ones spend their whole lives with their mothers. I have been to SeaWorld once, but I have gone whale watching in the wild twice, and that experience can match no other. Thanks to strict rules in Washington state, the process is respectful and dignified for the whales. The last time I went whale watching, a mother and her two sons were foraging for salmon. Even when we imagine their size in our heads, we cannot help but gasp when we actually see them rise out of the water, shiny regal black glistening in the sunshine.

It is surprising that more deaths and accidents don’t occur at marine parks, considering how much we are cramping the whales’ lifestyle. It is scary to think that 54% of the whales that SeaWorld owns today have Tilikum’s genes. If there is something wrong with him (Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research says that Tilly suffers from some kind of psychosis), that behavioral gene has been passed on to several other powerful whales and there’s nobody to claim responsibility. Of course, it might just have been induced by captivity. Why do we owe anything to an orca like Tilly that killed humans? Because it’s not his fault, and because there is plenty of evidence about orcas sharing a connection and affinity for humans. Consider for instance the incredible story of Luna, the killer whale who got separated from his pod and lived in the Nootka Sound bay off the west coast of Vancouver for five years. His story is truly awe-inspiring. He formed inexplicable bonds with every person that he encountered. It is mind-boggling to see this huge whale following people around like a dog and nudging them with his nose so they will pet him. Mind you, this is not a captive whale. Nobody taught him any behaviors. Nobody taught him to respond on command. He just knew that he wanted to connect, and he knew how to do it. Even with him though, the humans around him took too long to make the right decision about his fate, and that is what may have cost him his life.

Just today, I read this amazing story about two shrimpers that rescued a whale that was stuck in low tide in Alaska. These shrimpers kept the whale damp for hours till the tide came back in and they could push the whale out. The whale’s pod was waiting for him, vocalizing, but the shrimpers did not feel threatened. They knew that the whale was aware that they were trying to help. Look at the videos of the men helping the whale. The whale never struggled even when they were trying to push him.

These are just some of the instances that portray the sophisticated intelligence and sensibility of this great animal. We feel connected to them in some unexplainable manner. I’ve felt it every time I’ve seen one of these creatures. How then can we ever justify what happens to them in captivity? Do we not owe them the dignity of their existence? Actually, it’s not even that we owe them. We had no right to steal it in the first place. The trainers interviewed in Blackfish admit that there is nothing educational about SeaWorld anymore. It is all about the bottom line. We need to teach our children to respect all creatures. It is an uphill task to bring down a mammoth like SeaWorld but we can at least start by increasing awareness. In this interview, John Hargrove (ex SeaWorld trainer) and Gabriela Cowperthwaite talk about how we really need to understand the difference between conservation of wild life and  simply entertainment. There are several zoos and sanctuaries that definitely help endangered animals. SeaWorld unfortunately is not one of them even though they do donate generously to other conservation efforts.

I have seen Tilikum. I have seen the huge bulge in the water as he approaches, and been soaked in the final splash as he laps around the pool at the end of the orca show. When I found out that after Dawn Brancheau’s death, that final lap is all that he does, I was filled with guilt, pain and regret. Tilly is now isolated with no human contact for no direct fault of his. The one last splash around the pool is all that he gets to do. When I compared that to the sight that I have witnessed in the clear waters of the Pacific Northwest – orcas swimming fast and deep, breaching, lunging, feeding – it brought tears to my eyes. It also made me think of the three helpless girls from Cleveland whose life was taken away from them. We’ve done the same to Tilly, and all other captive orcas. We may not be able to change everything right away, but we can certainly be more vocal, teach our children that we are not the most intelligent creature out there, that we are not above and beyond all rules, that we do not have uninhibited rights when it comes to the lives of intelligent animals. When I think of Tilly’s life, when I imagine him in that small back pool in Orlando, by himself, something catches in my throat. I wonder if death is his only escape?

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