March 19, 2016

There is a truly very happy whale of a tale in the recent news.  Determined activists worked long and hard to save the whales once again — this time not from whalers killing them for their oil, but from the adoration of  audiences in the three U.S. Seaworlds that made a lot of money on the misery of the magnificent orca whales.

Following a particularly gory death of a Seaworld whale trainer before spectators in 2010, a movie called “Blackfish” was released on television.  The scenes in the movie haunted viewers like me who sat hypnotized watching the film each time it was shown.    Having spent 12 years of Sunday afternoons as a docent at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach watching other volunteers care for sick and injured seals and sea lions, I felt close to the subject.  From volunteering there, I even knew one of the former Sea World whale trainers who appeared in the film.

One thing all the volunteers at our center had in common was the love of their connection with helping sea creatures.  But the former Seaworld trainers in the film expressed deep pain and regret for having been a part of basically torturing the massive marine creatures they loved.

One of my strongest memories of seeing the majestic orcas was at San Diego’s Seaworld.  As most people, I was so awed by seeing these dramatic creatures up close that I also did not immediately think of their pain at being captives.  What I did notice was that what should have been a proud, upstanding dorsal fin on the back of the orcas was flopped over.  Because I was taking a course in Oceanography, our class got some behind the scenes looks, including watching sperm being coaxed from the male orcas.  Very impressive.

Seaworld fought back against “Blackfish,” pointing out the inaccuracies and bias of the documentary.  For safety, the authorities forced Seaworld to keep all the trainers out of the water.  No longer would the athletic trainers suddenly appear balancing on top of a fast-moving whale.  It had been exciting to watch, but was it right?

No amount of rebuttal from Seaworld could make the lives of the whales seem anything but cruel.  What looked like massive pools to us were but mere bathtubs for these creatures that have oceans to roam.  And the handsome black and white massive orcas audiences grew to love were made to perform repetitive, somewhat silly antics that belied the high intelligence level whales possess.  Whales are very social creatures that live within pods, but these whales had been either born in captivity or put in with strangers.

As Seaworld’s attendance plummeted, they took a new look at what they had wrought.  Seaworld had brought these whales to us, and we loved them.  But we no longer wanted to see them living in unnatural environments and doing silly tricks for laughs.

So, Seaworld has announced that there will be no more captive breeding.  There will no longer be “theatrical encounters.”  Because the “Free Willy” scenario of merely sending them back to sea doesn’t really work with orcas that have had a very limited life in the wild, the orcas still living in the three Seaworlds will live out their natural lives being well cared for and used for “new educational encounters.”

It’s a start.  Will others follow?


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