This is a distressing documentary about whales at SeaWorld and their trainers. Quite surprising, but what is said appears to be valid. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres, it covers the history of whales in parks, interviews former trainers and visitors to the parks, and draws on background research by scientists. SeaWorld declined to be interviewed and is currently appealing a judge’s ruling that trainers must be kept behind barriers during shows after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) took them to court. Cowperthwaite, an experienced documentarian for ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the Discovery and History channels, obtained material for the film from personal interviews with experts and former trainers, news footage, and the Freedom of Information Act.
The issue for the film is in the interest of both the whales and their trainers. The whales are confined in small spaces, and are put in a 20 X 30 foot pool for the night from 5:00 pm to 7:00 am the next day without any light. This makes up about 2/3 of their life. It is not clear whether the practice still continues, but they have been trained with both positive reinforcement (food, praise) and punishment (deprivation of food and allowing other whales to “rake” them with teeth if they do not perform properly).
We learn from scientists and animal behavior experts that in the wild whales live in families that stay intact throughout their lives. Female whales live to be 100 (although in captivity they die in 25-30 years), and their young stay with them continuously. They are considered to be very intelligent (as in a group cooperating with a complex plan toward an agreed upon goal) and have language. MRI scanning shows a brain structure that humans lack, the paralimbic cleft, which allows for “highly elaborated emotional lives”, according to Lois Marino, a neuroscientist. When SeaWorld and similar groups capture the whales and later when they own them, they think nothing of separating children from their mothers, leaving the mothers wailing and in a deep state of grief. SeaWorld claims they have not captured whales for 35 years, and that all their whales have been born in captivity. Nevertheless, they are still separating them from their families by selling them to other facilities or moving them around at their convenience.
By the way, orcas’ reputation as “killer” whales seems to be based on superstition; they have apparently only killed humans when they have been in captivity. Normally, if encountered in the wild, they are friendly and social. A number of injuries and death have occurred among trainers, and whereas SeaWorld always blames it on trainer error, the filmmakers and former trainers have good evidence that this is “spin”, and that the whales are aggressive because of their living conditions.
Therefore, the appeal of this film and of former trainers is that we need to end SeaWorld environments because it is inhumane to capture whales, separate them from their families, and confine them to small pools simply for our entertainment.
By: Donna R. Copeland