James Shillinglaw | March 23, 2015 4:15 PM ET
Behind the SeaWorld Story
Two years ago a documentary called "Blackfish" first aired on CNN that continues to have an effect on SeaWorld parks across the country. The film is the story of the death of a whale trainer Dawn Brancheau during an accident at SeaWorld Orlando involving Tilikum, a killer whale in her care.
The film's conclusion, supported by footage of other incidents involving captive whales over the past 30 or more years, is that killer whales in captivity are prone to violent attacks on their trainers, and that the accident involving Tilikum occurred after a history of similar attacks by the whale on his trainers.
In effect, the film maintains that Tilikum had become psychotic because of his captivity, so he killed his trainer. The movie also makes the further leap that his offspring (and Tilikum has bred other killer whales) might potentially exhibit similar behavior.
The uproar caused by the movie, which has become a favorite of activists who don't believe any animal should be held in captivity, has reportedly hurt attendance at SeaWorld Parks & Resorts and even the company's financial results. In response, SeaWorld had engaged in its own campaign to counter the allegations made in the move, which it says is misleading and often factually incorrect.
Sadly, "Blackfish" has been elevated almost to the level of urban myth, as it has been broadcast and rebroadcast over the past two years. The story it tells has literally been taken as gospel by many, including many children who have seen it.
Nevertheless, SeaWorld maintains there are numerous factual errors, misrepresentations and flat out untruths in "Blackfish." Indeed, SeaWorld officials have responded with an entire section of their website devoted to debunking the film. You can find that information by clicking on SeaWorld Learn the Truth.
Earlier this month I traveled down to SeaWorld Orlando to see for myself how the killer whales were cared for and what training techniques are used today, as well as how the park addresses the issue of trainer safety. First of all, until I visited SeaWorld I did not realize that Tilikum is still very much a part of the show. He's the largest whale at the park and he's still a favorite as he splashes the crowd with his massive tail and hoists his massive frame onto a platform directly in front of the audience.
I also interviewed some dedicated SeaWorld employees who told me they couldn’t be involved with the company if it mistreated its marine animals or if the safety of trainers wasn’t a big priority. Indeed, since Brancheau’s death there have been changes in the way trainers interact with killer whales. For instance, they no longer swim with them and they stay at a safe distance when rewarding them with fish for their performances; but they still can stroke their skin and interact with them in other ways.
I spoke with Kelly Flaherty Clark, director of animal training at SeaWorld, about the care that killer whales get at SeaWorld Orlando. “Their care and wellbeing is my biggest job and my top priority second only to the safety of our trainers and our guests,” she told me. “Our care program is huge. We enrich the animals each and every day…by giving them toys, time by themselves and time together. It’s a comprehensive program for all seven [killer whales] in this facility.”
Indeed, Clark, who has been with SeaWorld for more than 30 years, told me the whales participate in their own health care program and learn to provide samples so their health can be maintained and so that SeaWorld can keep learning more about them. The whales are scheduled to perform between two and four shows daily, but their interactions with trainers constant. They have access to all seven pools in the SeaWorld Orlando facility at different times of the day.
I also asked her about Tilikum. “He's an amazing animal,” Clark told me. “He's 35 years old and interacting with his trainers. We certainly took a step back after the incident. It shook me and our entire team to the very core, but within hours I was working on a new care program for Tilikum. He’s responding so well to new training techniques.”
PHOTO: Guests can see massive killer whales up close during the One Ocean show. (Photos by James Shillinglaw)
At the same time, Clark told me that SeaWorld trainers no longer perform in the water with the whales. “That changes some things, but we've added other things,” she said. “You now see five, six or seven whales in the water at the same time.” Still to come by 2018 is a big new habitat called the Blue Water Project in SeaWorld San Diego that will double the environment that killer whales have at the park. Massive glass panels will allow the public to view the whales up close and give them even more room to swim around and interact.
“I think we offer tremendous value to the public and also to these guys living in the ocean,” Clark told me as she pointed to the killer whales swimming in a large tank behind us. “What matters most to me is that what we are doing contributes to the world at large, the oceans and to the whales themselves.”
I also spoke with Toni Caracciolo, vice president of sales and marketing for SeaWorld, specifically about how travel agents should be selling SeaWorld today to their clients. She told me SeaWorld Orlando now includes three parks: SeaWorld, Discovery Cove and Aquatica, so it truly is a multi-destination for guests. It’s also a hub for any Orlando vacation.
I also asked Caracciolo, who has been with SeaWorld for 25 years, how travel agents should respond if their clients bring up “Blackfish” and its allegations. “All we can do is to make sure our customers and travel agents simply know the truth,” she said. “The best thing is to go to seaworld.com/truth. Do your homework and learn the truth so you can be the advocate when selling SeaWorld.”
Beyond interviewing Clark and Caracciolo, I also took a backstage tour of SeaWorld Orlando with John Peterson (JP), supervisor of animal care. He described what I think is an essential role of the park in marine life rescue and care. Over the past 50 years, SeaWorld has rescued more than 25,000 marine animals, including roughly 1,000 in the past year alone. These range from dolphins to manatees to pilot whales and more.
JP showed me rescue boats, mobile marine ambulances and cradles that have been specially designed to rescue marine animals in the wild, largely at SeaWorld’s expense. If those animals are injured or hurt, SeaWorld uses its own team of veterinarians to care for them and then, in nearly all cases, releases them back into the wild. JP was quick to emphasize that SeaWorld’s goal is to get these animals patched up and back into their natural environment as quickly as possible. “We don’t collect animals,” he told me.
In the past few months alone, SeaWorld helped to rescue 19 manatees that were stuck in a large drainpipe in Florida, It also saved 500 sea lions on the West Coast who had been stranded on the beach. JP also told me its animal rescue efforts were overseen by fish and wildlife officials from the U.S., Florida, California and other state governments.
Indeed, these federal and state officials are the ones that often call SeaWorld in first because the park has the facilities and equipment to handle complicated animal rescues. More than 45 staff members are dedicated to animal rescue and care in SeaWorld Orlando alone, with 1,500 staffers available companywide for such care.
Now before everyone sends me emails and letters (and I’m sure they will), I’m not saying everything in the film is wrong and that some of the events depicted didn’t actually transpire. Sadly, a human life was lost, and other lives have been lost in other parks over the past 40 or 50 years. Trainers who interact with wild animals do take on an inherent risk, though one that can be minimized with proper procedures and care. I believe SeaWorld does have such procedures in place now and cares deeply for its killer whales and marine animals.
You can, of course, be of the mindset that all animals should be left in the wild, but that really discounts the fact that the “wild” is decreasing at an alarming rate along with the wildlife in it. There needs to be a place where people can truly come to understand and enjoy nature, and also become advocates for conservation and preservation. I believe SeaWorld does that and thus provides an essential service to the public.
PHOTO: SeaWorld Orlando’s One Ocean killer whale show remains a popular attraction.
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