Ever since I was 6 years old, I dreamed of working with killer whales. I always loved animals, but I fell for whales in particular during a childhood trip to SeaWorld. They are magnificent, intelligent, sentient beings.
In 1993, when I was 20, my dream came true: I was hired by SeaWorld. I rose through the ranks and eventually became a senior trainer, working at both SeaWorld of California and SeaWorld of Texas. I also supervised killer whale training at a marine park on the French Riviera.
I worked with 20 different orcas and performed in the water with 17 of them — including the corporation's riskiest and most dangerous killer whales. I formed truly reciprocal relationships with the animals. I loved each of them as deeply as possible and have memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. But unfortunately, not everything is the way it seems. On August 17, 2012, after several years of growing uneasiness about SeaWorld's killer whale program, I quit.
SeaWorld just announced that the company will end its breeding program and that this will be the last generation of orcas in captivity. Am I elated? Yes. Do I still have questions? Sure.
What it was like to work at SeaWorld
At first, and for many years, I was happy working at SeaWorld. I didn't understand what was healthy or unhealthy, normal or abnormal. I was just thrilled to have accomplished my dream, my passion.
But the more I learned and the further I moved up the ranks, I saw and did things that haunt me to this day. I realized that we were exploiting these whales for enormous profit and disguising it as education and conservation. The reality was that I was being exploited too, but it would take years and the deaths of two colleagues for me to truly understand that.
I was part of the first artificial insemination on an orca, in the year 2000; it was on a wild-caught Icelandic orca named Kasatka, and the program grew from there. I remember my supervisors telling me we had a moral responsibility to diversify the orca gene pool, and that we were actually caring for the whales by experimenting with artificial insemination. At first I believed what we were being told — that it was a good thing and we were pioneers, the first in the world to achieve something groundbreaking. Then it became clear to me what the procedure was really for: Whales were becoming baby machines for profit.
SeaWorld crossbred whales through forced confinement together or through artificial insemination, creating hybrid whales that don't even exist in the natural world. Inbreeding, which also doesn't happen with orcas in nature, started becoming common: SeaWorld had a male, Taku, who bred with his own mother, Katina, resulting in the birth of a calf named Nalani.
To make matters worse, SeaWorld also separated mothers from their calves. Separation doesn't happen in the wild. Family units stay together for life. When I was at SeaWorld, calves were typically taken away from their mothers around age 3 or 4, but I witnessed it as early as 20 months of age. Keet was still nursing from his mother, Kalina, when she was taken from him and sent to another park. To my knowledge, they were never reunited.
I witnessed the physical and emotional ravages of captivity. The whales would bite the steel gates, causing their teeth to fracture and completely break off. The whales would excessively bite on the corners of the concrete tanks and peel off the blue paint, causing their teeth to wear down to the point where we, the trainers, had to manually drill a hole in the tooth and then invasively irrigate this hole with a hydrogen peroxide solution, using a metal catheter.
Another symptom of boredom: I saw the whales float motionless for hours upon hours every day, leading, among other things, to complete dorsal fin collapse on 100 percent of all captive adult males and even some females. This happens in fewer than 1 percent of wild adult males. In the wild, it's believed to be caused by traumatic injury such as being struck by a vessel — in captivity, it is the unnatural amount of time spent at the surface and the inevitable pull of gravity.
I witnessed and distributed the enormous amount of drugs the whales were doped up on: antibiotics to treat chronic infections, medication to treat ulcers and fungal infections, drugs to treat epilepsy. I even gave whales Valium when we would do an invasive procedure, take a calf away from its mother, or move whales from one park to another.
Though SeaWorld claims to offer its whales world-class care, some of the whales were dying in their teens or younger. (National Geographic lists average life spans in the wild to be between 50 and 80 years.) Unna died at the age of only 18 this past December from a rare fungal infection resistant to treatment, and now SeaWorld has announced that Tilikum is dying from an as-yet-unnamed bacterial strain.
The last three or four years of my career, I fought constantly with management regarding separating mothers from their calves and the intensified artificial insemination program, but nothing I did changed anything. Despite being one of the most experienced killer whale trainers in the corporation, I was powerless.
What finally made me decide to leave
A huge turning point for me came when two of my colleagues were killed. Alexis Martinez was killed Christmas Eve in 2009 at a marine park in Spain by an orca that was born and trained at SeaWorld. Then Dawn Brancheau, who I had known personally for nine years, was killed just two months later at SeaWorld Orlando. I could comprehend and accept their deaths: every experienced trainer knows what killer whales are capable of. I myself have been a victim of at least 10 major aggressions in the water with orcas where I was fortunately able to redirect the whale and safely escape. Unfortunately Martinez and Brancheau were not as lucky.
As I remember it, SeaWorld blamed both the trainers for their own deaths, at least within the company. It was said of Martinez that he was relatively inexperienced and most likely panicked and drowned when Keto pulled him under. The autopsy report and trainers who were there tell a very different story: He had been crushed, and his chest exploded with massive internal injuries. He died a violent death; when he was pulled from the pool, it appeared he had blood coming from his nose, ears, and mouth, indicative of the scope of his injuries.
For Brancheau, the explanation from senior management was that she was too complacent and put herself in too vulnerable of a position. SeaWorld's expert witness, Jeffrey Andrews, testified in the 2011 federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration hearings regarding Brancheau's death that the only thing that led to this fatality was a mistake by Brancheau.
The truth is more complicated: We will never know why Tilikum made the decision to grab Dawn, pull her in, and dismember her, but what we do know is that it was an aggressive attack. These are wild apex predators.
SeaWorld officials claimed they had no knowledge that it was unsafe for trainers to work in close proximity to killer whales or with them in the water — which is ridiculous. The signatures of these same SeaWorld managers were all over internal documents describing how dangerous the whales were and the need to have only the most experienced trainers work with certain whales.
Federal Judge Ken Welsch wrote, "No reasonable person ... would conclude that SeaWorld was unaware that working in close contact with killer whales during performances creates a hazard for its trainers." SeaWorld lost the case and its appeal.
Why I'm cautiously optimistic about the future
I chose to speak out for the first time when I was interviewed for the documentary Blackfish, only seven days after I resigned. Since then, I have been fighting to achieve what SeaWorld has just announced: the end of captive breeding and the orca captivity program. This is terrific news that I greet with cautious optimism.
One reason to be concerned is that a SeaWorld whale is pregnant right now. I'm assuming she was impregnated well before SeaWorld chose this historic new direction. But it does unfortunately mean one more whale will be born in captivity.
Another reason is this: Talk can be cheap, and SeaWorld has made announcements similar to this in the past. Those have amounted to nothing more than PR moves. Now I would like to see SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby, who took on the job about year ago, back up those words with actions. For a new leader to make a change, he needs a team that will help him with his new vision for the future, which means firing the old guard and hiring the new. With an executive level shake-up in February, this process has started.
Next, we need to see exactly what his plan of action is. Yes, we need to be sure the protocols won't allow an accidental pregnancy in the future. And what, if any, side deals have been made to make this happen? How will this affect not only the orcas but other animals in captivity at SeaWorld? Answers to these questions won't come overnight, but I hope they come soon.
Despite my concerns, I say bravo to Joel Manby for seeing the writing on the wall and making decisions that could save the company, decisions no one before him was willing to make. I choose to support Manby and give him a genuine chance to do the right thing. If he backs up his words with actions, which I believe he has already begun doing, then this is a historic change and a win for the whales that so desperately deserve it.
John Hargrove is a former senior killer whale trainer at SeaWorld. After resigning from SeaWorld, he was featured in the Sundance-selected documentary Blackfish. He is the author of Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish.