Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

With the summer season about to begin, many families will make the trip to visit the various theme parks across the country. For over 50 years, SeaWorld has promoted its message of conservation through education and entertainment, and has become one of the largest and most recognizable attractions in the US. But the park that has become synonymous with family fun faced a day, in 2010, of pure terror and tragedy. I'm talking, of course, about the death of seasoned orca trainer Dawn Brancheau who was forced into the tank and eventually killed by Tilikum, the largest captive killer whale in the world. The shocking death of Brancheau left a scar on SeaWorld's reputation and forced the public to reconsider the way trainers and animals interact.

Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove spent over 20 years working with killer whales and was employed by both the San Diego and San Antonio parks. He was featured prominently in the 2013 documentary Blackfish and has become an outspoken critic of SeaWorld and its treatment of orcas. In his book Beneath the Surface, Hargrove details his career as an orca trainer and how he came to the conclusion that SeaWorld's treatment of captive killer whales is fundamentally wrong.

I have to admit to some trepidation upon initially reading this novel. I was afraid that, like most whistle blowers, Hargrove would simply present a one sided argument that portrayed his general disdain for SeaWorld. As a native of San Antonio, I have many fond memories of visiting SeaWorld and witnessing the relationships between trainer and animal. I was afraid that this book would do everything to shatter those pleasant childhood recollections. Surprisingly, Hargrove presents a fairly balanced argument. He writes about his relationship with whales Kasatka and Takara and the genuine love he felt from each of the animals. He also details the grueling physical demands of swimming and interacting with the whales.  Hargrove tells of the amount of trust that both the humans and animals place in each other as they interact. After reading his book, there is no doubt in my mind that the trainers genuinely care for the animals that they interact with.

That being said, Hargrove presents facts from his experience that don't paint SeaWorld in the best light. It becomes clear that the highly intelligent animals grow bored in the confines of their concrete enclosures. This boredom causes behavior that ends up being extremely detrimental to the whales' health. For example, the whales often spend their days chipping the paint from the concrete of their tanks. This damages their teeth and forces the trainers to perform painful dental procedures. Hargrove points out that the trainers often requested that the enclosures be repainted, but were denied. He notes that the San Antonio habitat still had the original paint from the late 1980's when he departed the company in 2012. At the same time, SeaWorld spent millions of dollars to update the Shamu Stadium with LED lighting that would enhance the show experience. Through this and countless other examples, it becomes clear that SeaWorld as a profit driven company does not always make decisions based on the best interest of the animals.

I came out of this book with a much clearer understanding of the captivity debate that has been going on for the last several years. Hargrove's descriptions of the death of Brancheau were difficult to read, but really allowed me to understand the fear, confusion, and sadness that all members of the SeaWorld corporation must have felt on that fateful day. There were many contingencies in place that should have prevented a death, but everything failed. It is clear now that our understanding of these animals has evolved, but SeaWorld has not. Captive orcas live a life that is vastly diminished in comparison to their wild conterparts. Hargrove proposes that SeaWorld not release whales to the wild as many other critics have suggested. He explains that the animals do depend on man to live and should be able to count on them as they live out the remainder of their lives. Still, he argues that SeaWorld should cease all killer whale shows and instead display the animals in more natural environments. Eventually, captive whales would be a footnote in the history of mankind and our curiosity to understand the animals that we share the earth with.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.

(2015, 9)

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