Since the 2013 release of Blackfish, a documentary that exposed the sad truths about keeping orca whales in captivity, SeaWorld has found itself facing increasing criticism for its insistence on keeping captive killer whales. The backlash and public criticism isn’t going away. Over the past two years, things have gotten increasingly worse for the water park, culminating earlier this month in a ruling by the California Coastal Commission prohibiting SeaWorld’s San Diego location from breeding its orcas, either by artificial insemination or natural breeding. Now there’s another documentary on the horizon, Superpod, and from the looks of things so far, its assessment of SeaWorld’s practices isn’t any more complimentary than those of Blackfish.
A clip from Superpod was just released on social media. In the 4-minute video, two killer whale experts visit SeaWorld’s San Diego location and encounter a depressed mother orca and her calf unsuccessfully trying to nurse. The footage is incredibly sad, especially given the commentary by Dr. Igrid Visser and former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove.
Dr. Visser is the founder and director of the Orca Research Trust and has been working with and studying killer whales in the wild for over twenty years. John Hargrove worked for SeaWorld from 1993-2012, when he resigned as a senior level trainer. He’s also the author of the book Beneath the Surface, which explores the fragile relationship between humans and killer whales.
As the two of them stand beside a tank and observe a mother orca swimming with her calf nudging her abdomen, John says, “You see that head bump? That head bump is a precursor to nursing.”
The calf keeps bumping its mother repetitively. Over and over again, despite the fact that no actual nursing occurs. Dr. Visser describes the action as a “stereotypic behavior.” She says, “Here in captivity, we see stereotypic behaviors, and these are abnormal, repetitive behaviors that have no outwardly obvious functions.” Stereotypic behaviors are a result of stress, anxiety and extreme boredom. (Think compulsive chewing, spinning and barking in dogs who are kept on a chain or grow up in puppy mills.) For whales in captivity, a typical stereotypic behavior would be staring for hours at a concrete wall.
The bumping motion of the calf in the video is just this sort of stereotypic behavior. When the mother rolls over, you can even see bruising on her smooth white belly.
“Look at that bruising on her belly, and that’s just because the calf is constantly trying to get food, so desperately hungry, so bored. It’s a stereotypic behavior now,” says Ingrid.
For a while, the mama whale goes still, floating vertically underwater. The calf keeps bumping away, and John says, “It can’t even nurse in that position, so imagine a crying baby needing something from the mother and the mother is so depressed, incapable of taking care of her calf.”
Upon the release of the video, SeaWorld communications director Aimee Jeansonne Becka told the Daily Mail that Ingrid and John were mistaken. She contends there is no bruising on the mother whale and the baby is fully weaned. It no longer nurses, and eats about 65 pounds of fish a day. She went on to say, “The video is actually indicative of the many things killer whale biologists still learn from our animals, as field researchers have very few opportunities to witness their full lifecycle, from calf births and nursing to adulthood. No one is more dedicated to the health and well-being of our killer whales than the expert veterinarians and animal care staff working with them every day.”
But according to John, most of the experts at SeaWorld have never even seen a killer whale in its natural habitat. In the Superpod clip, he says, “If you go to any SeaWorld park right now and you ask, I doubt any of them have ever seen killer whales in the wild. There’s just that type of brainwashing mentality that all the orca researchers, the marine mammal scientists, are crazy people.”
Dr. Visser says the solution to the problem is education. She says, “A lot of people who’ve never seen the animal in the wild, they’re taking the behaviors that they see completely out of context. There’s no mistaking it if you know what you’re looking at, and that really is painful to watch…We just need better education because most people, you know, they’re not malicious. Most people when you see these animals and you explain it to them, you show them these behaviors and you say, ‘Do you think that’s normal? Do you think that an animal lying at the bottom of a tank and staring at the wall is good for it?’ And then they go, ‘Well, when you put it that way, no.’ Then they kind of get it.”
No one wants to see animals suffer. Anywhere, be it in the wild or captivity. But there’s just something especially tragic about the idea of an animal suffering at the hands of humans for monetary gain, which is precisely why John chose to leave his job at SeaWorld and become an activist on behalf of captive killer whales. “For me, the whole reason why I chose to speak out is I had incredible guilt about abandoning those whales. We have no right to rob them of their life and put them in these tanks and disguise it as conservation when all it is is entertainment.”
You can follow the progress of the Superpod documentary on Twitter @Superpod_doc and see the clip from the movie below. Warning: you might want to keep a few tissues handy.
Image via YouTube.