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.

Movie: Happy Feet

Happy Feet
Happy Feet

We watched Happy Feet during a time of stress (preparing to move house!), and found it (mostly) calming and funny. There were some quite serious, emotionally wracking moments, but – as one expects from animated movies aimed primarily at children – everything works out in the end. I must admit I dragged my feet over seeing it, because the idea of singing penguins just didn’t grab me. I adore adore adore the laconic penguins in the Madagascar movies – they (and Sacha Baron Cohen) are the primary reason I sat through any of them – but singing and dancing as well as speaking just seemed too much.

They are quite charming, though, and the music is a very enjoyable component of this film. Robin Williams is a treat and I wished his characters had more screen time. The penguins also dance (not at first), and my heart did melt a little at the sight of a tap dancing little fluffball.

As with most (all) films of this genre, there is a strong message. In Happy Feet the message is about being yourself, not conforming because others say you should, and that if you are patient you will find friends who appreciate you for your uniqueness. For grown ups (and perhaps some perceptive youngsters) there’s quite a weird, sinister plotline involving the ancient religion of the penguins, with creepy elder penguins pronouncing judgments on nonconformists and invoking all sorts of religious terminology that I thought muddied the waters somewhat. I thought the “be true to yourself” message was enough, and that children don’t necessarily need to think about the fact that it could lead to ostracism by your spiritual community, or that their spiritual community could perhaps be deluded by powerful leaders and tradition. I suppose a religious studies class could develop this analysis to whatever level their hearts desired!

I digress. The scientific/marine plotline addresses overfishing, which has depleted the food of the emperor penguins. Mumble, the (different) main character, and a motley cast of helpers, manage to alert the humans to the problem, and the film ends (sorry) with a rapprochement between the humans and penguins and the establishment of a Marine Protected Area in Antarctic waters. Along the way Mumble spends time in captivity in an aquarium, and those scenes were heartbreaking.

The life cycle of the emperor penguin is illustrated beautifully, with the males incubating the eggs during the gruelling winter months while the females head to the ocean to forage for food. Footage of leopard seals and orcas is beautifully done, but (as with all films of this type) they are anthropomorphised as bloodthirsty villains. Also exposing children to positive portrayals of these creatures would be wise. March of the Penguins is a good accompaniment to this movie.

You can purchase the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Article: Wired on Rights for Whales and Dolphins

The question of whether whales and dolphins should have rights just like humans was brought to the fore recently by the issue of keeping cetaceans (killer whales and dolphins) in captivity. An orca at Seaworld in Florida killed its trainer, bringing attention to the conditions in which these creatures are kept, and how unnatural, restrictive and unstimulating they are in comparison to orcas’ and dolphins’ usual habitat.

I must admit to dismissing those who brought the Seaworld legal action (PETA) as fringe lunatics who were an embarrassment to right-thinking conservationists everywhere, but this short article on sets out the arguments for personhood of cetaceans in a way that makes one think:

Dolphins and whales have brains that are exceptional for their size, second only to modern humans in being larger than one would expect. They also possess neurological structures that, in humans, are linked to high-level social and intellectual function.

If all we knew of cetaceans was their brains, we’d probably expect them to be persons, but of course scientists know much more. Tests in captivity have returned evidence of symbolic understanding and abstract reasoning. They seem to be just as aware of themselves as selves as we are, and observations in the wild are even more compelling.

Wise insists that animal personhood won’t require some radical judicial step, just a fair reading of legal precedent and a willingness to consider the notion that intelligence, autonomy and feeling, not taxonomic designation, is what makes beings eligible for legal rights.

The organisation spearheading this movement is called the Nonhuman Rights Project. Their website is here.

You can read the entire article here.


Documentary: Deep Blue

Deep Blue
Deep Blue

Deep Blue is a feature-length film comprising some footage from the BBC’s Blue Planet series (highly recommended) as well as previously unseen footage. Over 7,000 hours of footage were edited down to the original eight hour Blue Planet series, so there was a lot of material to work with. About 25% of the film is previously unseen footage. We watched the Blue Planet series some time ago, and only a small portion of the film looked familiar to me.

It is narrated by actor Michael Gambon, but the narration is very sparse and no effort is made to give the viewer a science lesson. Most of the sound comes from the musical soundtrack, allowing an immersive, almost purely visual experience that I found extremely relaxing. (Footage of orcas chasing a baby gray whale, and coming ashore in Patagonia to hunt baby seals was not relaxing, but those were pretty much the only exceptions.)

Some may be perturbed by the lack of explanation of what is happening on screen (in most cases, the creatures depicted are not even identified), but this film offers an emotional appeal rather than a reasoned or scienfic one. I can imagine showing it to someone who doesn’t know or care for the ocean – it’s completely absorbing and transporting.

If you’re looking to learn something about the ocean from a DVD, I’d suggest you start with Blue Planet. But if you simply want to feel something (and there’s room for that in all human endeavour), this is a good place to start.

The DVD is available here if you’re in South Africa and here if you’re not.

Movie: The Big Blue

The Big Blue
The Big Blue

The Big Blue (first released in 1988) is a fictionalised account of a rivalry between two free divers, Enzo Maiorca (renamed in the film to Enzo Molinari) and Jacques Mayol. As children, they compete diving for coins in the harbour of the small fishing village where they live, and a strong rivalry (at least in Enzo’s mind) is born. Years later, he persuades Jacques to come and compete against him at the world free diving championships.

While free diving and being the world championship seems to be all that occupies Enzo’s mind, Jacques is quieter and more philosophical, and tries to understand his connection to the ocean (he has an affinity for dolphins) and to the life he has when he’s not diving. He begins a relationship with an annoying American woman, but his immaturity and other-worldliness gives rise to frustrations when he cannot reciprocate her desire for a white picket fence with two and a half children and a dog.

The film was shot mostly in the Mediterranean, and has a beautiful soundtrack of electronic music by Eric Serra. Despite the competition between the men, it’s quite slow paced. We watched the director’s cut, which is almost three hours long. The scenery and the clarity of the water in which the men dive (and the idyllic little coastal villages where they grow up and compete) is quite bewitching.

The discipline in which the two men compete is No Limit, the same as that practiced by Audrey Mestre, Pipin Ferreras and Carlos Serra, protagonists of The Last Attempt and The Dive. The diver descends on a weighted sled (in The Big Blue, to 130-odd metres, which is far shallower than current records) and ascends with the assistance of a balloon or inflatable jacket. It is considered to be one of the most dangerous free diving disciplines (Herbert Nitsch,  one of the greatest living free divers, has recently had a bit of a speed wobble trying to extend the record to 244 metres).

It’s interesting to compare Nitsch’s highly experimental arrangement with the somewhat primitive-looking sled shown in the film. The concerns of the doctors, that the men are reaching depths beyond which it is physiologically impossible to descend, are still echoed each time a new record is set. The frequency of DCS and other neurological disturbances in divers who push the limits, however, makes me wonder whether we are in fact approaching some kind of threshold. Since many of these divers are genetic abberations (in a good way), it’s hard to generalise, but I watch developments in the sport with interest.

This is a beautifully filmed, engrossing piece of cinematography, and a classic ocean film that deals with some universal questions (not least, why do some women insist on falling pregnant without first discussing it with their partner?).

The DVD is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. The soundtrack, which is sublime, is available here for South Africans, and here otherwise.

Cetaceans in captivity


I’ve never seen a dolphin or orca show at an oceanarium, and, until fairly recently I wouldn’t have turned down the opportunity to watch one. Dolphins are beautiful, full of life and joy, and their cousins the killer whales – while slightly more sinister – are equally majestic.

I’ve changed my mind about dolphin shows (or, at least, formed an opinion), however, after reading up on the dolphin slaughter and capture in Taiji, Japan – subject of the documentary The Cove – and following some of the developments in the case of a trainer who was killed by an orca at Sea World in the United States last year.

You may not have a view on the matter of keeping cetaceans in captivity, or you may think it’s harmless. You may think it’s not even relevant to you as a South African, but there’s actually a dolphin show at uShaka Sea World in Durban – so these intelligent mammals are being kept captive right on our doorstep.

I encourage you to read this article, about the death of Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, and this article, which deals with the death of an orca trainer in the Canary Islands and with the issue more generally.

Wired also has an interview with a former killer whale trainer that highlights some of the physical and mental effects captivity has on these massive creatures. They are literally driven insane by being kept in captivity.

Please read about this – you ought to know.