SeaWorld: A Mirror to Our Connection Corruption

Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum

Like many people, SeaWorld is a great memory from my childhood. I vividly remember petting dolphins in a small concrete enclosure, getting splashed by Shamu in the SplashZone, and squeaking my plastic killer whale squeaker all the way home with my brother after our adventure. After watching Blackfish, however, I feel almost guilty for having these pleasant memories, and I think in a twisted way, rightfully so.

Orcas are magnificent beasts. Adults run about 23 feet long and 22,000 pounds on average, and they swim together in packs in picturesque coastal waters. It is easy to see why people were so enticed by the black and white giants when places like SeaWorld decided to put them in captivity. With that said, and with the knowledge I gained from Blackfish and the level of common sense I have as a young adult, I cannot fathom how someone could find it okay to enclose a living being that swims up to 100 miles a day in the wild in a glorified swimming pool. When even a burly, tattooed fisherman that was a part of the hunt can admit that he was sobbing as he loaded up the first load of baby whales off the coast of Seattle and paralleled the experience to "kidnapping a little kid away from its mother," it should be a clear indication that something is, not to be punny, fishy.

SeaWorld acts as a mirror to how we humans seem to think we have a connection with wild animals, and it also acts as a red flag in regards to the real and legitimate danger that working with wild animals imposes. At SeaWorld, you get to get up close and personal with animals that you usually can only look at from afar in the wild. The trainers treat the animals like the family's cuddly pet dog. They pet and kiss their whales; they feed their whales that seem to be smiling in thanks, and they even stand on the noses of their marine companions. The whales "wave" at the audience (which is often impressionable young children) and the parks are full of plush reincarnations of the whales and t-shirts with smiling Shamus emblazoned across the front.  You can even purchase tickets to special shows such as Dine with Shamu where an orca will do tricks as you eat your dinner. SeaWorld trivializes these creatures which makes people believe that we have some sort of connection with them and that it is possible and okay to tame them like we do domesticated dogs and cats.

Contrary to this oceanic fairytale like picture and much like in the wild, sometimes things go awry - even in the controlled, "perfect" world of SeaWorld - and they often do this in front of audiences that have been led to believe that these animals are cuddly friends. In Blackfish, several injuries and even deaths are discussed and criticized by former trainers.The most notable of which is the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Dawn was working with now notable "killer" whale Tilikum at a Dine with Shamu show when Tilikum pulled Brancheau into the tank by her forearm and brutally killed her. Trainers in Blackfish noted that SeaWorld lied several times to the general public about what happened first by saying Brancheau slipped into the tank and then by claiming that Tilikum actually grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail. Both of these claims put the blame on Brancheau instead of the animal. To me, this seems to just be another of SeaWorld's screwed up ways of maintaining the illusion up of a tame, friendly animal for its visitors and the good of its wallet. In reality, this is a clear example of what happens when humans try to stand above wild creatures.

SeaWorld is not just putting its trainers in harm's way to maintain its friendly image of ole Shamu, but it is also putting its animals in danger. The trainers featured in Blackfish all seem to agree that putting animals in captivity is not healthy for the whales. They cite the many lies that SeaWorld tells its visitors such as the fact that dorsal collapse happens to a large majority of whales despite it being scientifically shown to only happen to 1% of orcas in the wild and that the lifespan of whales is longer in captivity than in the wild when orcas die nearly 60 years prematurely at SeaWorld. I can vividly remember sitting in the stands as a little girl and hearing the trainers say that the whales are doing their tricks "not because they have to, but because they want to" and asking my mom why all the whales' dorsal fins were limp. The trainers and scientists in Blackfish also seem to agree that being in captivity more than likely causes psychological problems in the whales, and this may be the cause for Tilikum attacking - to get out some of his pent up frustrations. I have heard this being said about animals in zoos when they pace in their enclosures, so I do not understand why SeaWorld could have the morals to claim that this is not true for whales. That they enjoy living in bathtubs and performing tricks they would never learn in the wild everyday of their lives.

After watching Blackfish, I do not believe that I will be returning to SeaWorld or taking my children to SeaWorld. When even the trainers, who say that they feel they had personal relationships with the whales but understand that they were still wild animals, say that SeaWorld's practices are corrupt, it is plain to see that it is wrong on all levels. SeaWorld shows that we do not have a connection with wild animals, at least not to the extent that we have connections with other humans, and that when we try to treat animals like family, we are endangering not only ourselves, but the sanctity of the wild.