My Day at SeaWorld
A lot of people in my age range (25-35) were already primed for this massive anti-SeaWorld movement because of the 1993 blockbuster Free Willy. In the film, orphan and god awful graffiti artist Jesse is sent to different foster homes. He eventually winds up living with Michael Madsen and his wife, while simultaneously doing community service cleaning his shitty graffiti off of an Orca tank at a local theme park. Once he, an old Northern Pacific Tribesman, and Lori Petty realize that Willy (the Orca at the park) doesn't wanna be there, the group of ragtag vigilantes decide to pull a heist, and get Willy back to the ocean. The evil bastards who run the park are on the chase, trying to keep their main attraction and all of the dollars that he brings in, from swimming to freedom. But justice prevails! Willy is released back into the ocean, were he's free to spawn three sequels! It's a story of triumph, determination, and animal liberation. It's also the first children's movie to feature hard nipples under a wetsuit, so my friends and I were huge fans.
But, unlike the campy, zany, and all around 90's fictional account of a killer whale in captivity, Blackfish was dark and compelling in a way that was infuriating to most. There were real accounts of human deaths, clips of footage of Orca pups being caught in the wild, and chilling accounts of the park's treatment of the ocean's top predator from the trainers who lived through it. It was the kind of thing that you couldn't walk away from without having a myriad of questions.
It's hard to say whether Free Willy or Blackfish had the greatest impact on the October ruling by the California Coastal Commission to end SeaWorld's captive breeding program in San Diego, but it definitely rattled this newly controversial theme park.
The decision was made when SeaWorld San Diego tried to get a license to expand their existing Orca enclosure. It's unclear whether this was a PR move to help quell some of the recent backlash, or a genuine attempt to better the living conditions of these apex predators. Either way, The Coastal Commission granted them permission for the expansion, with the contingency that no more Killer Whales would be bred in captivity in San Diego.
After reading about this huge blow to corporate animal exploitation, I decide to contact SeaWorld San Antonio to see how they were gearing up for the changes that could very well hit them next. It's only about ten miles from my house, so I wanted to schedule a visit.
When I contacted their Director of Public Relations or Media Affairs, I can't remember which, we had an article on our homepage that I was sure would keep me from getting passed even the most lenient vetting process. It was written by author, professor, and serial animal liberation bad ass Kim Socha. The article was about the killing of Cecil the Lion in Africa by a wealthy dentist, and was called A Symbol for Everything Bad: Why I Protest Walter Palmer. It was about Socha standing up against a rich, misogynistic, killer of exotic animals, and why the problem was deeper than just a safari. Just read it when you're done with this one. It's well worth it.
Anyway, I figured that my request for guest passes and interviews was dead in the water (no tasteless pun intended). But two days later I got a phone call from SeaWorld, and my visit was scheduled.
When I arrived with my wife, who was also the photographer for the afternoon, it became clear why everyone at the SeaWorld organization is terrified of the idea of ending the Orca program. Everything in that park, rides, trashcans, benches, hot dog stands, everything has a jumping Orca engraved on it. I swear to god, I saw an Orca tattoo on the pectoral fin of one of the dolphins. The re-branding alone could shut their doors.
One of the conflicting aspects of my personality is that I'm an animal rights activist who is fanatic about aquariums. If you put me in a tunnel with sharks and alligator gar and stingrays swimming over my head, I'm like a little kid. In my defense, science doesn't support the notion that fish are sentient enough to care about their environment if their baser needs are being met. It's not in their nature. I won't eat them, but I'll stare at them. If I see a report that says that fish suffer in large aquariums, then I'll change my tune. But at the moment I've seen no such evidence, so I was excited to see the park's aquarium. I saw the one in San Diego when I was fourteen, so I assumed I could at least enjoy that part of my day.
We walked up to a map to set up our itinerary for the day, and I found that there was no aquarium. There wasn't much of anything at SeaWorld San Antonio. They had a lot of rides. We walked the whole park, and found very little to draw a crowd. There was a small room with some spiders, frogs, and snakes, a penguin exhibit, some sea lions, and a ridiculous amount of flamingos. I guess flamingos are pretty cost effective, because they seemed to serve as filler for the dead patches of park. The alligator exhibit had a handful of sleepy gators, and cheap speakers blaring this creepy ambient music to instill fear in children, but it's hard to be scared of a five foot alligator with turtles sleeping on its back. This all served as further evidence that SeaWorld is nothing without Orcas. It's very clear that they put all of their eggs in that basket. Nobody's there for the fucking flamingos.
After we passed all of the empty carnival booths and concession stands twice, it was time for the Orca show. This was one of the weirdest experiences of my life.
When you walk into Shamu Stadium, the pool is shaped like a massive coffin with arms. Not the rectangular coffins that we have now, but one of those old timey coffins that Bela Lugosi would ascend from in Dracula. You know the one. It sort of drove home the death of the whales' connection to the wild. As cheesy as that last sentence may have seemed, it's nothing compared to the soundtrack of the Killer Whale show.
One thing that you likely already knew, is that Orcas are fucking massive. You don't see them until they burst out of the water, and even then, it's hard to comprehend the sheer size of them. They come out of their 20 foot deep holding tank to perform choreographed routines to music that a community center icecapade would look down it's nose at. Think of the corniest song from the 80's that you can think of, and it'll seem inspired compared to what the SeaWorld shows use.
There were desperate claims being made to validate the importance of the research element of having these whales in captivity. They had a whole video (with the same corny ass music) that went over what they'd learned from gestation in captivity. No matter what they said about their research, it became impossible to shake off the fact that we were watching the ocean's top predator doing the equivalent of parlor tricks to songs that would make David Hasselhoff embarrassed for the composer. It's one of the most depressing things that you can pay to see, if you just stop and think about it for a second.
After the show, I interviewed one of the trainers. She was a fit young lady, probably early twenties, named Caitlyn. She was very polite and knowledgeable, but seemed to be sharing party lines as answers to my questions. It became very clear that they were on top of their PR game at SeaWorld. One of the things that I asked her about was research that wasn't related to whale gestation. She told me about a research program that involves testing the whales hearing under water, to see how the sounds caused by human activity effects their food sources and their ability to hunt in the wild. I can't imagine that the sound frequencies in a pool that's depth is 40 feet at its deepest point, carries in the same way as open water.
At the end of it all, the whales didn't look sick or abused or bloody, but they didn't seem happy either. The fundamental issue with the captivity of an apex predator isn't the size of their environment or the love of their trainers. It's the captivity itself. This is not a situation that we can work around. Bigger pools don't offer them the chance to do what their instincts tell them to do. They can't hunt. They can't swim the 100 miles a day that they do in the wild. They can't live in their natural pods. No matter what changes we make to the conditions of their captivity, nothing changes the fact that we shouldn't be their captors in the first place. Without adaptation, SeaWorld will soon find itself a dying breed. History will look at this time as barbaric, feeling a condescending pity toward the stupidity of their ancestors. Our selfish need to be entertained will be a reflection of our lack of foresight. Nine dollar beers, four dollar pretzels, and a day of watching depressed animals doing backflips for fat tourists two shows a day, will likely seem less magical as the years go on.