Monday, March 01, 2010

free willy (and free will part 1)

We belong to SeaWorld in San Diego.


We love the place and we fully support so many of the excellent programs that they sponsor. Particularly the marine rescue program which has been instrumental in saving and rehabilitating the endangered manatee.

And of course we adore our beluga whale, "Grandma."


But I'll admit, I've never understood the philosophy behind the Shamu show. It is absolutely crazy that people will put themselves in a tank with nature's most fierce, albeit often docile, predator. What is the purpose? To show what these highly intelligent marine mammals can be trained to do?

OK sure, that IS pretty cool.

But let's just imagine for a moment they're having an "off" day.

Everyone is probably familiar with the tragedy at SeaWorld in Florida last Wednesday where the 40-year old trainer was killed by the 30-year old male orca whale, Tilikum. From what I gather, the orca actually bit Dawn Brancheau off the swim platform. She didn't accidentally fall in to pool as was previously reported.


She was snatched off her feet and dragged through the water and I can't even begin to fathom the sheer terror that went through that woman's mind as she was batted around like a toy before being pulled to the bottom of the tank.

In 2006, we had a close call with one of the trainers at the "Believe" show here in San Diego. The trainer was in the tank with the whale and part of the skit involved going to the bottom of the pool and then, balancing on Shamu's snout as it jumped out of the water.


After the incident occurred, it came out that Shamu was feeling a little punchy that day and everyone should have paid better attention to his cues. But they didn't. So when the killer whale pulled the trainer to the bottom of the tank and held him there for several minutes, the guy nearly drowned.

To me, that's an excellent lesson learned!

Do NOT piss off Shamu.

And you want to know what pisses off Shamu?

Giving a pod of eight (or more) killer whales a glorified swimming pool to call home. When their home is the ocean. Better known as that watery space that constitutes 71% of the earth's surface.

Despite what good SeaWorld does with these animals, orcas are simply not designed to be kept in an environment that is 1/1,000,000,000,000,000 of their living space and expected to thrive.

From what I've read, the whale responsible for the drowning this past week, has been involved in two other human deaths. The first occurred in 1991, when a total of three whales killed a trainer at Sealand Water Park in Canada. And again, in 1999, the corpse of a nude man was found splayed out on Tilikum's back. The guy purportedly hid until the park was closed and then, in an attempt to score a Darwin Award, stripped down to his birthday suit and went for a dip with the killer whales.

I can't help but wonder what kind of impact will these human deaths have on the other killer whales in captivity with Tilikium? Will they be more prone to attack? Seeing that they are among the most intelligent creatures on earth, surely they know what's going on. Don't you think? If you don't agree, you might need to drop the 1977 movie Orca in to your Netflix queue.

So in my humble opinion, after this most recent incident in Florida, I think that Tilikum should be catapulted back in to the ocean. Or perhaps, safely transported so he can live out his final years in an Iceland sea pen. There is no doubt, this particular whale needs to be returned to his natural habitat, post haste.

And for all the other killer whales that must remain in captivity, swimming around a tank and splashing people seated in the first 20 rows more than sufficiently highlights the supreme intelligence of these beautiful creatures. Trainers should stick to swimming with the dolphins - an animal that more closely matches it's own body weight.

Those are my thoughts.

What are yours?


  1. You said-"Trainers should stick to swimming with the dolphins - an animal that more closely matches it's own body weight."

    I couldn't agree with you more.

  2. I totally agree with you. The whales are HUGE and could kill a human easily without meaning to. Add in bad tempers and things could get messy.

    Free Willy! I'm all for it.

  3. I love Seaworld. I really do. But it breaks my heart to see any of the mammals penned in there. Killer whales, definitely, but how is it different for the dolphins or belugas? They are so incredibly intelligent - I truly believe we haven't discovered half of what they're capable of doing... and it just kills me to see them swimming in circles, doing tricks and being harassed by people every day.

    Inasmuch as I love to be able to see them and yeah, sometimes interact with them, they belong in their home, not ours.

  4. I love sea world and the shamu show. It is beautiful to see those maginificent animals up close, however I have to agree that the pens are too small and really are they happy there? It's hard to know.

    I feel terrible for the trainer and her tragic death, I feel like she knew she was in a job with inherient risks and thought it was worth it. She rolled the dice and came up short. Should she be allowed to make that choice? I think so, many people make many choices that are equally dangerous and while I feel badly when it goes south I still think they should be able to choose. She had a job she loved and hopefully lived a life that was fufilling and full of joy.

    Would I swim with a whale? no, but I don't really like to even fly and make my kids where helmets on bikes and don't want them to sky dive so I am obviously not a thrill seeker.

    Thanks for asking the question. I will be anxious to read what others have written.

  5. I belong to SeaWorld San Antonio and I haven't filled up one hand as to how many times I've seen the Shamu show. We usually go to the Happy Harbor and the water park.

    I also went many times with my Grandparents to the park in Ohio, that is now closed.

    Since my childhood, I have always had a hard time with zoos. And to me, SeaWorld is a zoo for marine life.

    It is nice to see the animals up close, feed the seals, the dolphins and watch them perform tricks.

    But I'm with you, is this what is supposed to happen? We know that if you cage a child, even if you feed it and take it to the dr. for it's shots, it's still not the same kid you would have if you let them run free and explore their world.

    If the animal is sick, injured and would not survive in the wild, as the "highest life form" we should protect them.

    What I worry about with turning the Ocra over to a pen is - that while it's a "wild" environment, it's much different from what he he has known for the last 30 years. That's a LONG time. They say that "Willy" died of malnourishment - so maybe they can't make it back in the wild, just like a caged child could never make it on their own.

    As a population, we all need to say - enough - but how do you end the cycle? Are we all willing to donate to the cause of returning these animals to a somewhat wild habitat? I'm sorry to say that I don't think most of our population would because they can't think beyond seeing Shamu in the water splashing everyone in the first 20 rows.

  6. Jen, I couldn't agree more. The daughter of one of my client's is a dolphin trainer in Hawaii. She said that their dolphins are all born in captivity and are terrified to be outside of the Sea World pens. The Orca's are a different story.

  7. Again, I agree completely. I have argued the usefulness of zoos and aquariums but orcas have NO BUSINESS being locked up. I read that they can find their families after 25 years in captivity. They NEED their pods.

  8. Totally, totally agree with you. As a matter of fact I hate zoos, yes even your wonderful San Diego zoo, and water parks in general.

    I realize that they do breeding programs that help perpetuate the species which is acceptable but treating the most intelligent creatures in the world as if they are merely here to entertain us - NO

  9. I'll admit, I watched a lot of the coverage of this death and I have mixed feelings.

    On one hand, I can completely see the point of view that these animals aren't meant to exist in this type of situation. But, like the dolphins born in capitivity referenced above (and for the record, orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family - so the comparison is even more apt), a lot of these animals would have no idea what to do if released into the wild and would be unable to care for or fend for themselves.

    I don't remember the guy's name, but there was one "expert" giving interviews who really stood out to me. He had worked for sea world, specifically with this whale, in the past and was explaining that there were, while he was employed in a capacity to work with this whale, very specific guidelines in place for interaction - guidelines that if they were in place would have prevented this death. I think he nailed it on the head. I think her death was a tragic accident and that she did make mistakes that lead to her death.

    Orcas are very intelligent animals, and are very curious. At the time that the whale grabbed her, Dawn was in the tank beside him, and her pony tail was submerged in the water. Most accounts are now saying that she was grabbed by her pony tail. From the whale's perspective, here's this new toy, draped across his nose, and of course he's going to check it out. A 150 lb human just cannot play with a 12,000 lb orca.

    I think her death is a terrible tragedy and I hope that it's a stepping stone towards a safer future for people who work with these animals. But I don't think it's fair to place the blame on the animal. I think that she was probably just a little bit complacent - and aren't we all sometimes? All it takes is a split second for one decision - like taking your eyes off the road to change a radio station, or not looking both ways before stepping into the street, or being in the exact right place at the exact right moment to get hit in the head with a line drive ball.

    I hope this incident is a lesson to everyone that sometimes we don't get a do over. Sometimes accidents happen. We just have to do the best we can with the cards we are dealt and do our best to not be complacent.

  10. Jen, you are giving us so much to think about this week! I have to say, the one time I went to Sea World it made me sad, as I thought it was cruel to put orcas in a tank. (I think small cages were seared into my brain as as wrong by repeated trips to Benson's Wild Animal farm in NH, which I HATED as a kid.)

    Conversely, I love a place like Monterey Bay Aquarium that has appropriate fish and wildlife in it's nicely appointed facility, and provides a fantastic learning experience for adults and children alike. We need MORE of that.

  11. I agree with you 100% so sad that we(as humans) think we can just capture such a large majestic animal and make them perform silly tricks for us. I have a hard time at the Zoo's sometimes because I can just see in the animals eyes that they are going stir crazy. They pace back and forth. It's not how nature intended it.

  12. I agree with Sarah completely. She makes some good points.