Death at Seaworld

Bookshelf: Death at Seaworld

Death at Seaworld – David Kirby

Death at Seaworld
Death at Seaworld

Death at Seaworld is a profoundly disturbing, gripping account of the history of orcas (killer whales) in captivity. The subject first came to my attention a couple of years ago after reading Tim Zimmermann’s article for Outside Magazine, The Killer in the Pool, and its follow up, Blood in the Water.

Much of the book is told from the perspective of whale scientist and activist Naomi Rose, who studied wild orcas for her PhD and went on to work for the Humane Society of the United States. Her study of orca family dynamics and social structure led her to the conviction that keeping these gregarious, long-lived, wide-ranging creatures in sterile concrete tanks, and encouraging them to perform behaviours not seen in wild orcas, was wrong. Far from being educational, as SeaWorld and similar theme parks claim, orca shows were thinly-disguised exploitation of highly intelligent and sensitive animals for huge amounts of money.

Male orcas remain with their mothers for the majority of their lives, most of the time within a single body-length of her. Family groups meet up, interact, and communicate in the wild. Female calves remain with their mothers for several years at least. These creatures use sophisticated hunting techniques, co-operate with one another, and are highly social. Young males diffuse aggression and sexual tension, play and communicate in rowdy group encounters which I see as a sort of equivalent of the “pile-ons” which were so popular among adolescent males when I was a wee girl.

Kirby’s accounts of orca attacks on their trainers were awful, as were descriptions of how pods of wild orca were herded together using nets and explosives, the calves isolated from their mothers, and transported thousands of kilometres to solitary confinement in concrete pools backstage at an aquarium or theme park. In one incident, the bodies of orcas that died incidental to the capture were weighted down with anchors and chains, so that no evidence of the deaths would be found (clearly it was). It is astonishing that destruction on this scale could be permitted.

Part of the book is devoted to Keiko, the star of Free Willy, who became a media darling and source of great controversy after he was slowly given his freedom in a monumentally expensive operation that met with mixed success. The whale was being kept in abysmal conditions in a shabby marine park in Mexico (that part of the movie was not fiction), covered in warts, and swimming in “seawater” manufactured with bags of table salt. My view after reading the account of Keiko’s eventual release and journey to Norway was that it definitely did not rule out staged release as an option for captive killer whales – something that captivity advocates (yes, there is such a thing) say is out of the question. He was taught to fish, desensitised to humans, and eventually made a lengthy swim lasting several weeks, during which time he foraged for food on his own. The entire story is quite tragic – the fact that these creatures (many of which were either captured in Icelandic waters or – for the younger ones – bred in captivity) are even in this situation is mind-boggling. An alternative to releasing the whales is to allow the ones in captivity to die naturally (which they do, at young ages, with alarming frequency), and to stop breeding programs in captivity. SeaWorld, however, knows a cash cow when it sees one, and breeds the animals aggressively.

The book ends quite abruptly, I felt – just before the verdict in the case brought by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) was announced. Although OSHA issued a fairly damning censure of SeaWorld’s safety record and concern for its trainers’ wellbeing, recent reports indicate that the company is moving towards putting trainers back in the water with killer whales.

You can see an orca acting aggressively towards his trainer here, and read an excerpt from the book. The video is disturbing (for a number of reasons), so click through with care. There’s a picture of Tillikum, with his bent-over dorsal fin, here. There’s an interview with the author here.

You can buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. Get it here for your Kindle.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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