Did SeaWorld plant shills at Whalefest for John Hargroves’ talk?

Let me set the scene: Ex SeaWorld Trainer John Hargrove, who worked at SeaWorld for a number of years and was privy to what the public never saw: the sinister side of keeping captive orca in barren concrete tanks, is doing a 45 minute talk in the large auditorium at Whalefest, Brighton Centre, UK – which is the biggest festival for cetaceans in the world. He has already had two young ladies run out in front of him holding a white banner with red writing that reads: ‘Hargrove is a Hypocrite’ – which is he bemused about. He says that the banner was ‘better than the coffee’.

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John Hargrove on stage in the main auditorium at Whalefest 2015

Despite giving a thorough speech about SeaWorld and the way the company manipulate orca aggression towards the trainers by muddling facts and outright lies, he has problems with the audio part in his speech. Whilst waiting for the audio to be fixed he asks if anyone has any questions. One lady who is from America asks a ‘sensible’ question (which I cant remember). Hargrove answers it, then she comes back with a more aggressive question. She is asked to leave.

Then Hargrove takes a question from another member of the audience. When he finishes that – he motions the lady who is standing just two rows behind me to ask a question. She is given a microphone by the Whalefest crew. At first it is sensible enough and with no hint of aggression: ‘ I understand that you were a senior trainer at SeaWorld, so what did that encapture as far as taking of other trainers goes and what role do they really play at SeaWorld?’. Hargrove answers. She interrupts him with her next comment which to me seems to be ‘off’.  The terminology she uses doesnt seem right: ‘So they (SeaWorld) are not just throwing everyone into the water and you have a clear understanding that you are putting yourself in dangerous situations.’ I can see where this is going – she is attempting to absolve SeaWorld of any responsibility of trainers getting hurt or even killed and putting the onus on the him and the other orca trainers.

Her questioning is following the same pattern as the first lady who was asked to leave: the first question is a general one about him being a trainer then they go in for the kill with the follow up questions and interrupting him as he is trying to speak. The audio for Blackfish is finally ready to go  – I am not sure if Hargrove has picked up on her aggression or if he just wants to carry on with his presentation: ‘… your question and I know they have the audio’. She jumps in quick: ‘I am just trying to comprehend as somebody who was so high up on his way into management after so long there and you spoke earlier about some incidents in 2006 and some people were killed and you continued to work there through 2012 up until two weeks before Blackfish before you started interviewing for them. It just seems a bit opportunist to me…’ At  this point I have had enough – I just want to see Hargroves’ presentation – all these interruptions are vexing me. I shout: ‘Go away’ out of frustration and as the lady is just two rows behind me I turn around and film her. Ric O’Barry is in the same row as me and I can see him shaking his head. Other people groan and chime in.

Now she has the microphone – she is doing what she came to do: antagonise him and the audience and it does not look like she is going to back down anytime soon.

At this point – she should have been asked to leave but the organisers and guests (maybe naively, including me) were not expecting this. She says ‘How can you go to work everyday and put…’ I cant hear what she says because now I have had enough and to me this seems so suspect as she is the second American lady to be aggressive with the questioning. Has she been ‘planted’ in the audience?  I respond with  ‘Go away you shill!’ She is still speaking: ‘How can you take a paycheck?’  In the background I can hear someone say ‘Come on. Get out.’

The microphone has been taken away from her and but she ‘How can you pay to put other people in danger…I couldnt.’ Ugh. Life is not clear cut nor is it black or white. She seems very self righteous. People start shouting  ‘Get out!’ She comes back with ‘How could you work somewhere for 15 years and put someone in danger.’  Hargrove replies: ‘You have asked a question and I would like to answer it – I have listened to you…’ then Hargrove still being professional, in my opinion, answers her question.

He is aware of how aggressive she is being and she will not back down. She interrupts him as he is talking about the previous trainer deaths of Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque and Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando:: ‘But you still went to work the next day.’ I repeat ‘Go away you shill!’ My father sitting next to me tells me to be quiet as he reminds me that everyone is allowed to have an opinion. He is missing the point though:  I reply: ‘They have been planted! They have been planted!’

Hargrove replies: ‘…you are not going to walk out the door, you love these animals…’ She comments: ‘So you dont leave when you can work at Blackfish’. It has now descended into an argument on her part and with audience members (including me) shouting at her.

Hargrove seems like he has had enough: ‘there is a part of a question that doesnt make sense to me…’ I am beyond frustrated: ‘Can you get security on this!’ I say out loud.  Hargrove is still engaging with her by answering her questions.

I turn around to her and say again: ‘We know that you are a shill and are on the paycheck’ (for SeaWorld). She replies ‘I am not.’ I come back with: ‘You are on the payroll! You are on the payroll! You are on the payroll! You have had your five minutes of fame. Go home!’  I sound like an old fish wife – not my finest hour. But what can ya do?

She then leaves the auditorium and the audio is finally working and Howard Garrett pops up on screen as the presentation continues. Hargrove doesnt seem too fazed. As this is a controversial subject and he has got a book coming out shortly, he probably expects this. She probably isnt the first to question him so aggressively and no doubt she wont be the last.

Obviously everyone is entitled to their own opinion – if you do not agree with Hargrove being a trainer for all those years then coming over to the pro freedom side and releasing a book about his experience working for SeaWorld, then fine. Maybe some people thought he waited too long before he left SeaWorld but his reply to that is he loved those orca. I think that it is easy to judge someone when we are not in their situation. The important thing is that now – Hargrove is on the right side of history and is trying to bring about change in the captive cetacean world.

To those two young women in the audience: Be honest and say what you gotta say – in an assertive but non confrontational way. Dont be sly by asking a question all polite and calm – then keep trying to antagonise the person and interrupt them when they are trying to answer the question/accusations that have been directed towards them. You lose the argument.

I do regret saying what I did to the young woman – I should have just let her say what she wanted to say – that way it would not have put me in a bad light aswell. We are lucky that we are in a country where we are allowed free speech. I think that I said what I did because it was down to frustration on my part.

Let me know your opinion. Do you think that she was a SeaWorld shill? Or just someone who has the view that John Hargrove is an opportunist who worked for SeaWorld then jumped ship to come over to the anti captivity movement?

If the lady in question was an individual who had beef with Hargrove – I wonder if she thought the entrance money that she paid to get into Whalefest was worth it? It probably was to her.

Does anyone know who the two American ladies that asked these questions during Hargroves talk? Or the two young girls who had the held the banner: ‘Hargrove is a hypocrite’ – If so please get in touch – I offer them a right to reply.

The issue of captivity and peoples choices in life are not clear cut nor are they black or white – unlike an orca 🙂

If the two young women who were asking the aggressive questions are on the SeaWorld payroll then just wow. The anti captivity, pro freedom movement for cetaceans has come too far now: There is no turning back. If SeaWorld have flown people over to the UK for Whalefest – the biggest pro freedom festival for cetaceans in the world – this means they are running scared. With ex trainers coming over to the pro freedom side after seeing what they see happening to the captive cetaceans – our voices are getting bigger.

All of us are helping to make an impact – we gotta keep chip, chip, chipping away at that captivity wall and one day it will fall.

At the end of the day: Both of the women got their 5 minutes of ‘fame’, Whalefest is getting bigger and bigger (the marine parks around the world know this), it even more publicity for Hargroves’ new book, he is welcomed into the pro freedom family for cetaceans and I get to write this blog.

Everyones a winner! And word on the street is that Hargrove really enjoyed Whalefest. He done meet and greets, participated in talks and debates and even helped out with the ‘Free Morgan’ raffle. Magic.

Now lets stop the SeaWorld breeding programme and lets get these orca and dolphins to seapens.

We got alot of work to do.

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Emotional visit to see Lolita and I get asked to leave Miami Seaquarium

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Finally after what seems an eternity the metal shutters open up and park guests are allowed into the killer whale stadium to watch Lolita perform her twice daily show.

A brief background for readers who do not know much about Lolita’s plight. Lolita was captured in August 1970 in Puget Sound. Her original name is Tokitae. She was purchased for about $6,000 and has been at Miami Seaquarium in a tiny whale bowl ever since. Another orca called Hugo had been at Miami Seaquarium for two years prior. Hugo and Lolita shared the same tank which is  60-foot by 80-foot by 20 feet deep for about 10 years before Hugo died in 1980. Since then Lolita has only had a few dolphins to keep her company.

Howard Garrett who is the president of the Orca Network has Lolita’s retirement plan written up and desperately wants to get Lolita to a sea pen. Here is details of the plan: http://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/index.php?categories_file=Retirement

With my cellphone on record I enter the stadium and when I spot Lolita I get very emotional. My voice breaks and say ‘Hello girl. This is hard.’ I immediately think of a lady whom I met at this years Whalefest – the biggest whale festival in the world which is held in the UK. Her name is Rita who is also from the UK. Rita adores Lolita – the same way I adore Tilikum. Neither whale has had it worse than any of the other captives but sometimes one captive whale will capture your heart. Words cannot explain why one particular whale is your favourite. They just are. Through the tears I say that I wish that Rita was with me.

I walk round the tiny tank to get a better look at Lolita. She is beautiful. She is being fed dead fish by her trainers at the small ‘island’ of the pool. I immediately spot her teeth and they are magnificent. I have never seen a captive orca with all their teeth before. Because of boredom captive whales usually bite on the metal gates that separate the pools. Their teeth then have to be drilled down to the pulp. With no anesthetic. Maybe Lolita still has her teeth as there are no metal gates here. There is no need with just this one tiny pool.

The music is blaring and I see that there is no shade for her in the 90 degree heat. I tell Lolita that she has lawyers and thousands of people working for her (this is probably an exaggeration in hindsight – probably hundreds). I say that we got to get her to that seapen and back to her Mum. (There is a seapen area waiting for Lolita in Washington State).

I notice that Lolita goes between almost lying motionlessly still – sometimes near the bottom of the tank then switches to chasing one of the dolphins that are also in the tank. Is this what years of captivity have done to her?

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Lolita laying almost motionless

I only spend five minutes filming – I want to find someone whom I can ask a few questions to and express my disgust that this is not okay at keeping this 20 foot long, 7,000 pound beautiful creature in this tiny barren tank with no shade.
Below is the short five minutes of footage I filmed of Lolita:

I dont have much time to try and find someone as the show will be starting any minute. I am not staying as I dont want to watch young men and women riding on Lolita. I walk towards the other side of the stadium where I see the trainers and a female worker wearing the blue Miami Seaquarium staff t-shirt. I call the worker over.

The worker is polite enough. I go straight in for the kill: ‘I just want to say I have never seen a tank so small in my life. How does she get exercise? How does she get mental stimulation?’ She replies: ‘You will see in the show that she gets plenty of exercise she actually moves very well and is able to swim and jump… this is definitely not the largest pool in America.’ I am surprised that the worker is agreeing with me but what can she say? I know that I am not the first person who must have said this to the staff here.

I ask ‘Can they not build a bigger pool for her?’ Then worker looks at my cellphone suspiciously so I have to put the phone down by my leg. Because of the awful loud voice that is booming over the speakers the rest of the conversation is inaudible. She replies in broken sentences that dont make sense. ‘She has been here since 1970, so um.. that was when the pool was built’. I say that there is a sea pen waiting for her and she says to me ‘No there isnt’. I dont think that the worker is aware there is aa seapen area waiting for Lolita in Washington State. I say to her ‘Yes there is.’ She replies ‘We will never release her.’ Ugh. Us whale warriors will see about that. I also say that I am concerned as there is no shade for Lolita and am worried that her skin can get burnt. The worker tells me that Lolita’s skin cannot get burnt… I thank her for talking to me and leave. I say goodbye to Lolita and am glad that I am leaving the unbearable loud music behind. Then I feel guilty: Lolita has to listen to it everytime she performs a show. I am lucky: I can leave. Lolita and the other captives have to stay.

I have got my footage so now I can get the hell out of this awful depressing place. As I am walking out I see a young guy near the dolphin tank towards the front of the park who was there when I arrived a couple of hours ago. I ask him if he has seen Blackfish. I see him step a couple of paces back from me. It makes me smile. He says he hasnt. Then I say that I cant believe how small that tank is. He tells me that alot of people have also said that to him. I tell him that people are trying to get Lolita to a seapen. He just looks at me. I really do think the average worker here has no idea what a seapen is. I wish him a good day and walk towards the exit and where guest services is. Before I go I want the staff at Miami Seaquarium to know that this visitor is not okay with killer whale captivity. Obviously I understand that they dont care. I am a realist. But I cant leave here and not let them know how I feel.

I appoach guest services and ask one of the workers behind the counter if I can speak to a manager. The young man picks up the phone when another worker in his fifties approaches me and asks me if he can help. The young man puts the phone down and I speak to this older man. I ask him very politely and calmly if they can build Lolita a bigger tank. He stares at me for what feels about five seconds then says to me: ‘I am going to have to ask you to leave Ma’am.’ Bingo. It hits me that Miami Seaquarium must get people asking this all the time. It doesnt matter that I am polite and at only 5 foot 3 inches tall and on my own, I do not pose much of a threat – they must have a zero tolerance rule here for guests asking this question. I reply ‘Am I not allowed to ask a question?’ He replies flatly: ‘No.’ Then he says to me: ‘You are not allowed to film in here.’ Which is a strange thing to say as my camera and cellphone are in my bag which is zipped up. I put my bag and bottle of water on the counter to show him that I am not filming. But I know it is just an excuse. I start crying again and ask if there is an email contact whom I can write to. He writes down the managing directors contact then rips it up then writes down the public relation email address. Through the tears I start saying to him over and over again ‘Its very sad.’ I feel vulnerable and upset. He replies that the tank is within government regulations. I know that this is rubbish but I dont want to start arguing with him. Lolita’s tank is only 35 feet wide from the slideout area. The animal welfare act say it should be a minimum of 48 feet wide. More information about this: http://www.miamiseaprison.com/tank.htm

The worker is polite with me despite telling me that I had to leave. Despite crying, I make sure that I am polite and thank him for the email contact he has given me. I am just so relieved when I walk through the exit gate. It feels that it has been the longest three hours of my life.

It was announced on 7th May 2014 that Miami Seaquarium was sold to Palace Entertainment Holdings. Arthur Hertz who was the owner prior said that between 2000-2013 about $20 million of renovations were carried out at Miami Seaquarium. I think he may be tellng porkys because I sure as hell am not seeing it. Please see my previous blogs about rust on one of the dolphin tanks, a sea lion with cataracts and a cafe that looks something out of the 1970’s. The news article that gives details of the sale: http://www.miamitodaynews.com/2014/05/07/seaquarium-deal-flows-swimmingly/

I was hoping that Arthur Hertz would cut all ties with Miami Seaquarium but sadly the same on site management will remain.

Us Lolita fans can only hope that the new owners, Palace Entertainment holdings, will listen to our concerns and get Lolita returned to the sea where she could either be reunited with her family after 44 years or live out her remaining life in a seapen. People could still care for her but she would have so much space, feel the ocean currents again and learn to hunt and feed for herself without having to do circus tricks.
We must keep fighting the good fight to spread the word about Lolita’s plight.

This blog is dedicated to Rita Evans Barnes.

 

 

Footage of the grounds of Miami Seaquarium and a cafe that looks like it is from the 1970s’

I still have got far too much time to wait before I can get the hell out of Miami Seaquarium – time always slows down when you are not having fun.

I decide to go back to the entrance of the park and film because I want the reader of this blog to see what I am seeing.

At the entrance people can have their picture taken with a parrot – how original. There are also posters celebrating the 50th year anniversary of the television show Flipper. Miami Seaquarum is where some of the scenes were filmed. That show has got alot to answer for – perhaps thats why we have so many captive dolphins  today. It also seems that Miami Seaquarium probably last had a lick of paint 50 years ago.

Even the floor seems cracked. I wonder for the 100th time – how has Miami Seaquarium been allowed to get away with keeping the park in this dilapidated state for so long? Where is the outrage at all of this?

I carry on walking and arrive at one of the dolphin tanks –  just outside are two dolphin statues. They depress the hell out of me – they look so old and people still continue to have their picture taken in front of them.

I say ‘We need to up the fight fellow whale and dolphin warriors. This is not acceptable. Not in 2014. This is not okay.’

I film some machines that look like something out of the 1980’s – big ugly square boxes where for a couple of dollars  people can make their very own whale or dolphin souvenir.

I also want to document on film how quiet it is for a Sunday – if there arent very many people here today what must it be like on a weekday? A ghost town.

Earlier on in the morning I met a young girl who was looking after the parrots and I am going to sound controversial but out of all the animals here they seem to be the best looked after. Their wings are clipped which I agree isnt good, but they seem to be content sitting on their perches and being given treats of apple.

I walk towards the Manatee Bay Cafe – I have to go back in to film for the readers of this blog. Seeing is believing. If you want depression then this is it. It is an awful, awful colour of green and brown.  I say ‘What year are we in?’

I say ‘This is depression. If you wanna get depressed come here… would you eat here? I wouldnt eat here!’ It sounds comical when I listen to it back.

This cafe has to be from the 1970’s. It could be retro if it wasnt a real, open for food and drink cafe. Just looking at the brown booths – I want to slit my wrists. No joke: It is that bad.

One of the workers told me that people complain about the standard of the food in here – no shit Sherlock.

Shame on the owner and shame on Miami Seaquarium.

Here is the footage:

After that I head over to the killer whale stadium. I want to get footage of the outside of it – we only ever seen footage from  inside – I want to show people what guests see when they come here. On film I say ‘This place is a f**cking nightmare. It is something out of the 1950’s. Nothing seems to have changed since they filmed Flipper back in the 1960s.’

There are boards of ‘information’  about wild whales. I cant be the only person who understands the irony here? Miami Seaquarium have pictures and info about wild whales yet they keep a beautiful orca just a few feet away in a whale bowl that is no more than 20 feet deep.

I read some of the text out loud: ‘The whale and dolphin programmes at Miami Seaquarium have given millions of people from around the world the rare opportunity to see these animals exhibit their natural behaviours.’ I retort: ‘Natural? Messing with their food supply so they do tricks like circus monkeys. Yeah thats natural all right.’

I carry on reading this nonsense and rubbish – who writes this?

‘Our whale and dolphin programmes include a sophisticated preventive care programme, daily observations, interactions and the  training programme are designed to enhance our animals physical strength and mental well being.’  I am going to break down some of these points:Training programmes? Orca are already ‘trained’ to be an orca when they are born. ‘Physical Strength’ – What riding on Lolitas rostrum? ‘Daily observations’ – What happens when the last show of the day ends? Does Lolita have someone with her? Or is she on her own with a couple of those dolphins until the next day, when it starts all over again? Groundhog day everyday for Lolita and those other captives.

I say on camera: How long has she (Lolita) been on her own for? 30 years in a barren tank. In the smallest tank ever.’  (When I say on her own I mean without the company of another orca. Hugo another captive orca died in 1980) A good feature about Hugo is here: http://www.freewebs.com/let_toki_go_free/hugotheorca.htm

Miami Seaquarium is a million, zillion, trillion times worse than Seaworld. I am not a fan of SeaWorld but at least the park is well kept.

Then I spot the ‘no public filming’ camera sign again. This is so telling. Miami Seaquarium must know how bad this park looks. They cant defend it. I get angry and swear a bit then I say to Lolita who I cant see but is only feet away ‘We gonna get you to that seapen girl. We got to get her to that seapen.’

Sea Lion with Cataracts at Miami Seaquarium

 

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I have still got a bit of time to kill before I can see Lolita the killer whale who has been in captivity here since the 1970s.

I head to the Sea Lion feeding area: It is a very small pool where the sea lions can be ‘fed’ by the public a few times a day. The pool is tiny. There are a few sea lions in there waiting to be fed.

Normally I wouldnt buy dead fish for the animals but it doesnt look like there are many guests buying food for the sea lions today. I go over and purchase $4 dollars worth of five dead fish.

I make sure that I go to the shaded area so the sea lions wont have to look up into the direct sunlight then I drop the fish into the water. The sea lions gobble it up. That food went too quickly, so I go back and buy another tray of dead fish, then another.

On my 3rd visit back to the fish stand the young staff member tells me to try and feed the big sea lion – I think that she tells me he is 29 years of age and the other sea lions steal his food as he has cataracts so he cant see too well. She tells me not to worry though as each fish the sea lions eat is recorded so they make sure that they dont eat too little or too much. So thats okay then…

I have tried to find an inventory of the sea lions kept at Miami Seaquarium but so far I have been unsuccessful.

She tells me cataracts in sea lions is also common in the wild. I hope that she is telling the truth as I dont know too much about sea lions but suspect it is misinformation. Maybe not directly on her part but she has been told from the top and it filters down to the workers who give out this information to the public.

When I get home I do my own research and see that whilst sea lions may get cataracts in the wild it isnt ‘common’ like the member of staff at Miami Seaquarium has told me. It is common in captivity as the sea lions have to look into direct sunlight when they get fed either by the public or the trainers, plus the chemicals in the water and the reflection of the lightly painted walls of the tanks aggravates their eyes. Ugh. I knew it.

Eye problems in captive pinnipeds is documented here: http://www.oers.ca/journal/volume4/issue2/Gage_Galley.pdf

So I go back to the pool and sure enough I see the white covering his eyes – I stand in the shade and try and make sure that he gets most of the fish that I have bought without having to look into the direct sunlight.

I now regret coming to this hell hole: awful, awful place. I get my phone out and film the sea lion with the cataracts – there are people to the right of me who seem to enjoy just dangling the fish over the bar to tease the sea lions so the animals almost stand up out of the water and they are breaking the fish in half – which the trainers told people not to do. I get vexed with them and you can hear it in my voice – at the end of the footage you can hear me say: ‘They are getting on my f**king nerves.’

I get a minute or two of footage then I go back to buy more food. I spent $20 on fish. Big deal. That isnt going to keep the animals full for very long is it? There are more feeding sessions throughout the day so I hope that people buy food so the sea lions can eat.

If people want to call me a hypocrite for feeding the animals then so be it. All I will say is that you wasnt there and it was horrible just seeing the sea lions swimming around waiting to be fed by the public – who were not buying much fish that day.

I have seen enough – I dont stick around to watch the sea lion show.

Couldnt Miami Seaquarium paint the tanks darker, stop making the animals look up when they are fed and find another way to keep the water liveable for the animals without adding chemicals? Yeah I know I am living in a dream world.

I hope that the time passes quickly until the killer whale stadium opens then I can see Lolita and get the hell out of here.

Miami Seaquarium – how has this been allowed to spiral into such decay?

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No one warned me. Nor had I seen any other footage of Miami Seaquarium. I had only seen footage of Lolita the killer whale in one of the smallest captive killer whale tanks in the world. I wasnt prepared that when I visited Miami Seaquarium that I would be stepping back to the 1950’s.

It starts off pretty enough. Visitors drive over a beautiful bridge into Biscayne Bay – surrounded by water. The irony is not lost on me. The beauty ends as soon as you get to the park gates. Visitors are greeted with this welcoming sign.

 

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As you can see it states that any photos/footage you make isnt allowed for public display: you must get written permission beforehand. Why is that? What do they have to hide? I have seen youtube videos of the dolphin and killer whale shows filmed by ordinary people who visited Miami Seaquarium. Did each and everyone of them get written permission beforehand? Is this just a scare tactic that Miami Seaquarium are using on its paying customers? I am sure that I didnt see any signs like this at SeaWorld. It all seems very suspicious to me.

As soon as I take five paces into the park it becomes all too apparent why there are no filming signs for public display at the front gate: A depression descends on me quick time. It appears as if the park has been left untouched in its original state since when it opened in 1955. The floor has cracks in it and is uneven, the buildings look something out of a bygone era, the public areas look like a concrete jungle with trees on either side – maybe the owners are hoping that the trees will disguise the fact that this marine park looks the same as when Ric o Barry trained captives back in the 1960s.

I am here to see Lolita. She is a magnificent killer whale who was captured in 1970 off of Puget Sound and has lived in what could be possibly one of the smallest ‘whale bowls’ since then. She is in a tank which measures 60-foot by 80-foot by 20 feet deep. She has many, many good people working for her to get her to a seapen so she will have more space, learn to hunt again and possibly be reunited with her family.

I have a couple of hours to kill before she is due to perform her twice daily show so I head to the ‘Top Deck Dolphin’ show. This is one of two dolphin shows at the Miami Seaquarium.
I regret coming here immediately: as I enter I feel like I have been transported back in time. The downstairs area is dark and dingy. The interior doesnt look as if it has seen a lick of paint since it opened. I am in a state of shock and get my cellphone out to film. I film myself walking up the stairs – the stairs are filthy and worn out with black patches on them. There is a door on the stairs which is meant to be white but parts of it look black and is covered in dust. Not for the first time I think how has Miami Seaquarium been allowed to get away with this? Why are we not more outraged at this? We should be.

According to the article below $20 million dollars was spent on renovating the park between 2000-2013 – somehow I am not seeing it. Maybe they just spent all that money painting and decorating the CEO’S offices and forgot to make the tanks bigger or at least give them a clean once in a while?

http://www.miamitodaynews.com/2014/05/07/seaquarium-deal-flows-swimmingly/

I arrive at the top of the stairs and see around six dolphins in a very small barren circular tank which is 20 feet deep. Ugh. They are swimming around in circles – I sense that they are hungry and just want the show to start so they can get fed some dead fish in exchange for performing circus tricks.

There are no seats for the audience. Just standing around the side of the tank – this has some sort of circus/carnival feel. I imagine a voice over a loud speaker booming: ‘Step right up so we can see these magnificent dolphins do some amazing tricks. 25 Cents to take a look.’

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Top Deck Dolphin: Nothing more than a dolphin bowl

There is a mock up of a boat on the left hand side with young trainers at the bow. They cannot be any older than 20 years of age. They stand there with the dead fish in their hands. Just before the show starts the dolphins almost stand up under the bow begging for fish. Once you understand captivity then you can see how wrong this is. Am I the only one who realises this? I am not the most intelligent person in the world and this is so obvious at what is going on here yet no one appears to be outraged or upset about this.

I have got really sensitive ears and the music is booming through the speakers. I say on camera that I would like to smash the speakers with a hammer into a million pieces. How must the captives feel?

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One of the captives in only about 20 feet of water in the blazing Miami sunshine

I spot just inside the tank orange patches = rust. Are they kidding me? And still no one comments on this. I carry on filming for a while then stop whilst I wait for the show to start. I havent seen a dolphin show in years and certainly not one since I got educated about whale/dolphin captivity. I am dreading it as I know what is coming: Dolphins being made to do cheap tricks like circus monkeys in order to be fed. Day in and day out.

The show starts and I start filming again. At one point a dolphin stands on its tail and appears to be ‘walking’ through the water. Ugh. What am I witnessing here? This is okay with everyone? I find it obscene. Have we not progressed since we kept elephants, tigers and lions in cages when they were not performing in circus shows? It appears we havent progressed with getting educated with animal welfare. Not one jot.

7 minutes and 30 seconds into the show (see footage below) I get splashed by a dolphin. I get soaked. I move to the back of the standing area. I feel slightly sick as I can taste the chlorine in my mouth for a couple of hours afterwards.
The young trainer announces that one of the captives has just had a baby and that they could tell how the baby was doing by performing an ultrasound on the dolphin. I bet the dolphin loved that – Do they have ultrasound scans in the wild? Plus she says that the pregnant dolphin had someone with her 24/7 – Miami Seaquarium are all heart. Never mind the rust, the chlorine in the pool and the tiny space – the dolphin had an ultrasound and humans with her 24/7 so that is all good.

She speaks in a monotone voice and seems to be reading from a script.She has learnt her lines well. Her voice drones on and on. She tells parkgoers can name the baby online. On camera I suggest the name ‘Free Me.’

After the show and several attempts to rinse chlorine from my mouth I go and find a worker who is keeping an eye on the dolphins from the bow of the ship.
I keep my camera and phone in my bag.I dont want to raise suspicions. I call her over and ask her some questions. I first ask if Miami Seaquarium has been sold yet. She looks at me as if I have two heads. In fact a few days after this it is confirmed that Palace Entertainment Holdings have bought the marine park.

I ask about the rust on the tank – she says it is just salt water marks. I say that I got splashed by a dolphin and I could taste chlorine. She tells me that there is less chlorine in the tank that what there is in tap water. I have tasted American tap water and it does not taste of chlorine. So I think that she has been sold a lie by her bosses.
She starts to look at me up and down – maybe she wants to make sure that I am not filming. I think that she has realised what I am about but I ask a few more questions. I ask whether the captive dolphins sonar can bounce off the tank walls and upset the dolphins. She tells me that dolphins dont use their sonar all the time and it doesnt bounce off the tank walls. She only has to do a search on Google at how captive dolphins suffer with their sonar bouncing off the inside of the tanks. It is equivalent of humans living in a room full of mirrors and never being able to escape.

I dont think this young girl is intentionally telling me misinformation – she just seems so young and naive.
There is only one good thing that I learn talking to her – I ask the same question I asked at SeaWorld ‘Can the dolphins get live fish?’. She says yes and the sea lions get live fish from time to time too.

This pleases me – it gives the captives some stimulation as nature intended. I tell her that when I asked SeaWorld that question they told me it was ‘unethical to the fish.’ The look she gives me is priceless! I thank her and leave.
I am learning that these marine parks have their own set of protocols when it comes to keeping animals in captivity and they make up their own rules as they go along.

I am on my way to see the sea lions and have no idea that what I will see will upset me so much.

Part 5: Vexed at Dolphin Cove

I am vexed. I havent got the most patience in the world (I take after my Father) and I have had to wait 30 minutes in line to enter the park plus I have had to pay $97 for the privledge of doing so. I am no better than the other park goers. I am a hypocrite. I am struggling with that.

At this point I still dont have any footage of Tilikum nor have I got any footage of a killer whale traner and today is my last chance as I fly home in a few hours.

I head to Dolphin Cove – it looks and sounds amazing. There is caribbean music playing, palm trees, beautiful surroundings and in the middle is a pool with dolphins. Dolphin Cove is an area where you can feed and touch the dolphins throughout the day. I think there are three feeding sesssions each day. Park goers pay around $10 for some dead fish and when instructed feed a dolphin by dropping it into its mouth.

It is easy to be tricked: this area looks perfect; something out of a dream. Until you get a little knowledge of realising that the dolphins are not starved but must be kept quite hungry so they approach strangers who have dead fish. SeaWorld is selling a fantasy and the public are being fooled. The truth is far more sinister.
There seem far too many dolphins in this small space. Some dolphins seem very motionless staying in one spot where the others seem agressive with each other. The water is so shallow.

I head to the far left of the pool and find a SeaWorld handler. I decide to be brave and ask some questions. I want to try and talk to a killer whale trainer later so I cant be too aggressive: I dont want to get ejected from the park.

I approach the trainer but she wont even turn around to look at me. I am not sure why. Maybe she senses that I am a crappy mood? But for the whole time I am speaking to her she stands and looks straight ahead when she answers my questions.

I ask about the average age of the dolphins. She replies ‘About 20 years.’  I think that this is true although some dolphins have been known to live up to 40 years in the wild. She continues by saying: ‘We have had some dolphins live into their 30’s and 40’s’. I want to ask how many of the captives die around four years of age. This is the average lifespan of a dolphin in a marine park. But I cant.

I comment that the water is very shallow and ask can the dolphins get burnt? She tells me that the pool goes all the way round and the deepest area is 20 feet. 20 feet? Are they kidding? If they are going to keep dolphins in these pools cant they at least build them a deeper and wider pool?

I ask if the dolphins are fed of a nightime. She says no. I want to ask do dolphins not eat during the night in the wild then? Instead I ask ‘So will they be hungry now then when people come in to feed them? I am told that they have already been fed. I hope that its true but I cant help feeling that it cant be enough otheriwse the dolphins wouldnt be approaching park goers for food.

I ask: are the dolphins kept in here the whole time. I meant do they get a bigger space to swim in during the night but i think she misunderstands my question as she replies ‘At some point in their lives they maybe moved but they are not moved back at forth on a daily basis.’ With that answer I think that these dolphins are in this shallow pool 24/7.

I say that in the wild they can swim up to 40 miles a day and ask can they get that exercise here: ‘Oh yeah, they are constantly playing with each other, interacting with people… We do training sessions with them so they do high energy behaviours’. That translates do witholding their food source so they do jumps and tricks. There is never in a million years that these dolphins can swim up to 40 miles a day. How many circles would they have to swim round to achieve that?

She goes on to say that ‘you will never find a bored dolphin’. I beg to differ.

There seems a bit of aggression between some of the dolphins. She tells me that they are ‘play breeding’. Has anyone heard that terminology with regards to dolphins before? Please let me know.

She gets called away to start the public feeding session. Her body language spoke volumes. She didnt want to talk to me. Maybe she gets these type of questions asked alot.

I talk to the camera: ‘these dolphins are much bigger in real life’. The park goer next to me must think that I am talking to her as says ‘They are pretty cute though.’

I shouldnt have said anything as I am meant to be asking questions and not preaching to the public but I am in a foul mood and say ‘They shouldnt be in a small tank though… All the chemicals in the water makes them go blind, it isnt good.’ She agrees by saying ‘Yeah the water is pretty blue.’ I need to be careful. If I get overheard by a worker I will probably be ejected from the park. But I am on a roll now: ‘In the wild they can swim up to 40 miles a day.’ She seems surprised and says ‘Really?’ I reply: ‘Look at the space’. She says: ‘Wow.’ I almost go into a rant: ‘How do you get a dolphin to do a trick? You mess with its food supply. You dont feed it.’

Dang. I have said too much. I shouldnt be saying this to people in the park. I decide to leave and hope that no worker has heard me. That wasnt the best thing that I have ever said.

The remaining five minutes is of me ranting on camera: ‘F**k SeaWorld and all they stand for.’

This footage doesnt show me in the best of light but you have to show the rough with the smooth, right?

Part 4: SeaWorld killer trainers would make great politicians

It is my last day in Orlando and I still don’t have any footage of me asking some forbidden questions to a SeaWorld killer whale trainer.

I cant come all this way and not leave without even trying to talk to a trainer. I decide to go back to SeaWorld one last time in the hope that I have the courage to get some footage.

I arrive at Shamu Stadium to watch the rehearsals for the ‘One Ocean’ show. For the first time I see Tilikum. He is in E pool with his grandson Trua. The size of him his heartbreaking. He is is 22.5 feet long and weighs 12,000 pounds and is in a pool which around 25 feet deep. What a horrific way to treat a magnificent animal like that. The main pool where the whales perform is only 36 feet deep.When the show starts he just watches through the metal gates. 

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So far away: Tilikum by the gates of E pool, centre left of the picture, watching the ‘One Ocean’ Show

He isn’t brought out for the big splash at the end but for the rest of the whales – all you can see is those metal gates open and close all the time. They are brought into the main pool to perform then afterwards they must swim to the much smaller holding pools when those gates reopen. This sounds cliché but it does remind me of a prison.

It is so depressing the Stadium is massive and is full to capacity. My heart sinks. They are selling towels and raincoats for people sitting in the splash shows plus popcorn and hotdogs. Ugh.

The show starts with a screen showing wild whales – does SeaWorld miss the irony here? Then it shows a young girl growing up and working for SeaWorld as a trainer and she is shown rescuing animals. The propaganda is so good. The whales come out and do cheap tricks for frozen dead fish whilst the trainers are dancing and clapping to moronic music. I think I must have been transported back to the 1980s as this is the same thing that happened all those years ago, except for the trainers were in the water with the whales riding them. It is so cheesy and when you understanding the implications of captivity it is very disturbing.

The music is so loud that it hurts my ears. Imagine how the captives feel.

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The whales are playing a full house: my heart sinks as still too many people are coming to these out of date shows

I sit through the show and am relieved when it is over. The audience seem to have loved it. To quote George Carlins’ thoughts on humans: ‘I am no better or different. I am just apart.’ This is exactly how I feel watching this show. I need to get to a trainer before they leave the stadium. I follow one male trainer but he goes through a staff door. Dang. I should have spoken to them last week when I was able to. I cant leave here without any footage and I hear someone call my name. It is ‘H’ who is also a fellow whale warrior. She comes to the parks around once a month to see how the whales are doing. Its great to meet someone who has much more knowledge than me about the individual whales. We greet each other then I spot a trainer. I rush over to where she is talking to other park guests but H doesn’t come with me as she doesn’t want to get banned from the park. Which I understand.

Below is a breakdown of the conservation. At the bottom of this page is the footage.

SeaWorld killer world trainers have been to the SeaWorld school of propaganda and bullshit. They use extra words when they don’t need to so it makes them sound more important than they really are. They also speak really fast as if to give them more superiority than the person who is asking questions and will never answer with just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  You also realise that when you watch the footage that some if not most of what they say makes no sense. The terminology they use is laughable: ‘Captivity’ is called ‘Human Care.’ They should run for office. They would make great politicians.

I wait for my opportunity then go in for the kill. I am careful not to try and point the camera in her face.

I ask about the size of the pools and ask if they are kept in the main show pool: I know that they are not. The whales are kept in much smaller pools about 1/4 of the size of the main show pool. She doesn’t give me an outright ‘No’ – she just says that there are seven pools.

I ask about exercise as wild orca can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. She replies ‘Yes they can swim several miles a day in the wild’ – Doesn’t several mean two or three but not many? I am learning very quick that she is putting a spin on everything that I am asking. It is clever but not that clever when you see through it all and know the facts.

She then goes on to say that because they don’t have to hunt basically they don’t need to swim as much. Ugh. They have got all the answers planned down to the finest detail.

I ask if they are given jello/jelly. Captives are given this as the frozen fish dehydrates them and also they get stress ulcers in captivity so the jello is meant to help with that. She says it is ‘enrichment’. I ask if whales get jello in the wild and instead of just saying ‘No.’ She says ‘Not specifically, no.’ Their play on words is a masterpiece. Then she goes on to say ‘if we ate like our ancestors we wouldn’t eat cookie and cake.’ I don’t even know what she is talking about here. Answers on a postcard please.

I ask about the whales being given fresh fish. They wouldn’t get dehydrated, it would give them some stimulation and it is what whales are meant to do: Hunt. The trainer says ‘it is ‘unethical’ for the fish. That kills me. SeaWorld don’t mind keeping orca in tiny tanks and mess with their food supply so they do tricks but they are against putting live fish in the tanks. Do wild whales get dead fish aswell then? Nope. I didn’t think so.

I ask if there are any chemicals in the pool and she says no. There is no way that there is not some sort of chlorine in those pools. How else do they keep it clean when the whales defecate?

The only truth she tells me is when I ask her the trick question and ask if Tilikum was born in captivity. I know he wasn’t but I want to hear her reply. She tells me that he was captured by Marineland and when that closed SeaWorld took him. Maybe she is trying to make out that SeaWorld were the saviours in Tilikum’s situation. I am tempted to say but isn’t that like SeaWorld dealing in stolen goods but I refrain from doing so. She says he wasn’t born in ‘human care.’  Good play on words.

I ask if Tilikum could be seapenned. She says that she doesn’t think he would survive. How does she know that? Unless he is much more sick than she is letting on. Which I think he is.

I ask if he has any digestive issues and she says ‘actually he doesn’t have any digestive issues.’  I want to ask then why is he on pounds and pounds of jello a day. But I don’t. I don’t want to antagonise her too much.

I ask if he is on medication. She doesn’t answer but changes the subject.

It came out on April 2nd that SeaWorld have been known to drug their whales by giving them Valium and Xanax.
Article here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2594963/Revealed-SeaWorld-whales-pumped-Valium-Xanax-control-aggressive-behavior-animal-rights-group-say-final-straw-crisis-hit-park.html

I make a mistake and say that I can see him in the med pool but it is infact E pool. This confuses things. My journalist skills are basic and I am learning that I need to get things 100% when asking questions otheriwse it undermines my captivity argument.

I am worried since Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 that he gets ignored and doesn’t have any trainers go near him except to hose him down but only when they stand six feet away. She says he still gets interaction. Weird that I don’t see any human interaction between Tilikum and the trainers whilst I am there. I am pleased that he is with his grandson Trua so they can at least keep each other company.
I am feeling a bit braver now so I ask about inbreeding -isn’t that messing with nature? She tries to turn it around and answers ‘but what about humans?’ I quickly reply: ‘But humans have a choice’.

I ask about a whale whom I thought was at Orlando but is infact at SeaWorld San Diego called Kalia – there is footage of her smashing her head back and forth – this probably due to frustration. It is on youtube and is very disturbing. The title is ‘Kalia has a temper tantrum’. I forget her name and say that it begins with a ‘K’. The trainer outright lies and says ‘We have no K whales here.’ What about Katina and Kayla then who are currently at SeaWorld Orlando? There names begin with K don’t they?

Towards the end I feel that my time is running out with her and I don’t want to be ejected from the park. I shouldn’t say it but I do: I say that I think the trainers do a good job but it is misguided and if the whales could choose either being in captivity or the wild then they would choose the wild. She says that no one knows for sure. I reply ‘I do’. I thank her and leave.

H took a snap of me talking to her. The picture shows me looking towards the back pool where Tilikum is whilst the trainer is looking like she wants to punch me in the throat.

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Putting this trainer through her paces whilst I look over toward Tilikum. Picture by H

So I got my questions in but there was so much more that I wanted to ask: about the whales drilled down teeth, about the loud music affecting the whales and about Gudrun: the pregnant whale who not only lost her baby but also bled to death whilst in SeaWorlds’ care.

I shout out goodbye to Tilikum and thank him as it is down to him that I am trying to spread the word at how bad orca captivity is.

I then walk to the park entrance and say goodbye to H and we both comment that the only animals that are truly free here are the wild squirrels and small lizards.

Was it worth the trip? Absolutely. Us whale warriors have alot of work to do. We shall continue to spread the word to help end killer whale captivity ASAP.

Because of Tilikum change has begun.

 

Special thanks to H

Part 3: I visit the Disney Dolphins at Epcot and do not like what I see

I am a Disney fan. I have visited the parks since I was a teenager. I think that no one can compare to Disney when it comes to family entertainment.

What I didnt know was that in 1985 Disney decided that they wanted dolphins for Epcot so they caught five off Fort Myers in Florida. These captives are long dead.

I have been to Epcot before and do not remember seeing dolphins there. So I am surprised to learn that there are four captive dolphins in The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion.

My father and I go on the ride which is based on the film: Nemo gets captured by fishermen and is put into a tank in a dentists office. He wants to get back to the ocean in order to be reunited with his father. Towards the end of the ride you see the real dolphins and other marine life. Is it only me that finds this ironic that you have a ride promoting freedom for fish yet here they have dolphins that are in a man made tank?

We exit the ride and I decide to find the dolphins. It doesn’t take long and I am shocked that I have never seen such subdued dolphins in my life. There are only two that I can see – one is swimming around very slowly on its back in circles – the other is waiting to go to another pool but seems almost motionless. If that isn’t bad enough – there is no sunlight at all. It is so dark.

I didn’t get any video footage of an interaction with a SeaWorld trainer so I decide that I must be brave and try and find someone to talk to.

I have missed the pleasure of watching a trainer feed the dolphins – no doubt a mini show watching the dolphins do tricks for food. But there is a young cast member talking to some other park goers. I wait patiently then when she is finished I press record on my phone and ask some questions.

The video footage is awful as it is so dark in there but I don’t need that – all I need is the audio.

I ask about the dolphins and say that they look very subdued. Were they born in captivity and where do they come from?

She replies that they are from different aquariums. Which isnt entirely true. Three of the dolphins Malibar, Calvin and Khyber were born in captivity but the fourth Ranier came from the wild and was a ‘working’ dolphin for the navy. Yes, I know it blows my mind too that people train dolphins in the navy. Maybe us humans have got too much time on our hands so we mess with other species. Who knows?

I give the cast member enough rope to hang herself with and ask ‘Where do they come from before the aquariums?’ She pauses and says ‘Umm. I am not exactly sure.’ She knows and so do I.

She goes on to say that two are from Bermuda and one is from Florida. The other is a retired navy dolphin. I want to ask how can a dolphin be retired if it is still made to have its picture taken with people once a day and the rest of the time it is made to do cheap circus tricks? But I don’t. I cant be aggressive. This cast member earns $7 an hour tops. I understand it isn’t her fault. She is just repeating the misinformation what she has been told to by Disney.

I am slightly nervous asking questions and my mind has gone blank – I should be asking that if wild dolphins can swim up to 40 miles a day in the wild – how do they get that sort of exercise in a tank? Doesn’t their sonar bounce off the tank walls and eventually drive them insane?

All I repeat is about them being subdued and I ask if they are on any medication. She says ‘actually no’ and that they are resting. I don’t know if that is true or not. She goes on to say that it is common for them to sleep like this. I have never seen a dolphin look so still on any David Attenborough nature programme.

I ask about natural sunlight – she says that there is another tank with sunlamp glass roofs. What I should have asked then and there was ‘So the dolphins still don’t get any fresh air?’ A missed opportunity. Isnt that the same as a human living in a glass conservatory and never ever stepping a foot outside?

The dolphin will not move – I can that it wants to go into tank where there is some light even if it is through a glass roof.

I ask if they could ever be put into a sea pen. That would be a dream for all the captives and for us whale and dolphin warriors. She doesn’t say no but this is what she is alluding too – basically Disney has a consortium with other aquariums so they can switch dolphins whenever they want to I guess. Of course all this being within the ‘dolphins best interests.’ Ugh.

I ask about stimulation and she says they love ice and they get people to kayak across the tank and the dolphins leap across it. How much do you want to bet that a treat of dead fish is involved?

I ask about infighting and she says when all four of them together they fight so they are split up in pairs.

The two dolphins that I see are Malibar who was born in June 2000 and Calvin who was born in April 1993. She says that they are playful and rambunctious. Well today I am not seeing that. I am seeing two dolphins who seem bored and whom to do not have enough stimulation.

I thank the cast member then leave. I don’t see but my father says that the look that she gives me is priceless.

When I watch the footage back and apart from the difference in accents you can tell the seriousness of my voice.

I am pleased that I got the recording as it is good practice for when I hopefully go back to SeaWorld.

Disney has managed to go under the radar with these captive dolphins as SeaWorld are taking all of the heat. But for how much longer? We need to spread the word about these four captives.

Disney spend millions of dollars on world class family entertainment and rides yet they are keeping these four captives in small tanks with no fresh air and limited light. Is there any need to keep these dolphins for ‘education’ and ‘research’? Sadly the answer is no.
Shame on them.

Special thanks to Ceta-base.com, Freedom Blue, J Patton and Doreen M Dupoint.

This blog is dedicated to dolphin warrior Judy Hickey.

For more info about the Disney Dolphins please visit: http://www.freethedisneydolphins.org/

Part 2. My visit to SeaWorld Orlando – I come face to face with trainer Holly Byrd

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My father and I arrive at SeaWorld Orlando a day after we land in Florida. We are tired, jetlagged and overwhelmed by SeaWorld’s appearance: The park is spotless, the trees and grounds are maintained to perfection. I feel intimidated: I am not a journalist and I already feel nervous and out of my depth at attempting to talk to the killer whale trainers.

There is fast ‘happy’ music playing – to get all of the family in the mood of having a great day of seeing animals up close and personal with some great rollercoasters and ‘educational’ shows thrown into the mix. As it is the parks’ 50th anniversary of being in business there is a lot of self promotion evident. The words ‘SeaWorld Cares’ logo is throughout the park on posters and even on trash cans. The propaganda is amazing.

As we enter the park there are beautiful flamingos which wow park goers and for a split second I almost forget why I am here: to see Tilikum and to maybe try and talk to a killer whale trainer.

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Don’t be fooled by the beautiful flamingos

I have to remember that all of this is a trick – a very clever trick which is to mislead the park goer that this is all about conservation and education. SeaWorld wiped out potential generations of orca in the 1960s and 1970s – is that SeaWorlds interpretation of conservation? Plus how is it education messing with a killer whales food supply so that it does a trick for the audience?

Anyway I digress, as we walk through the park I notice that there are plenty of families with young children here. Do they think about where the killer whale which is in a space that it is the millionenth of their natural habitat have come from? Do they even care at all? I suspect not. Whilst we were on the hotel shuttle I hear a family talking about Dawn Brancheau’s death and the mother says that the whales were called Shamu when she was a child. Her son replies ‘They are all called Shamu. They just replace them’. Then they turn to the next topic of conversation. So people do know – it is just taking the next step as to thinking about the implications of captivity that seems to be a stumbling block for far too many people.

I am not sure if it is a decrease in ticket sales or if it is because its the 50th year celebrations but SeaWorld have week day tickets that are only $50 as opposed to the normal $93 ticket price. What I do notice that out of about 40 people on the hotel shuttle only about eight of us get off for SeaWorld. The rest stay on for Universal Studios. I would like to think that it is because more and more people are getting educated about killer whale captivity but I would be lying to myself: Universal is attracting more park goers with the Harry Potter rides over in Islands of Adventure. Still, anything to get SeaWorlds’ attendance figures down is fine by me.

As we make our way to ‘Shamu Up Close’ we walk past many shops that sell toy Shamus and trainer Barbie dolls. I have to hand it to SeaWorld the propaganda that they are pushing is mind blowing and it seemed to be working or at least it did work until Blackfish hit our screens.

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You can take home your very own plush Shamu – making the public believe that whales are cute and cuddly

It hits home for the 90th time at how big a institution SeaWorld is and how they have fooled the public for so long at how it is acceptable to keep killer whales in small concrete tanks.
I realise that us ‘misinformed activists’ have got a monumental task of informing the public about killer whale captivity with the ultimate goal of ending it.
I am getting anxious walking towards ‘Shamu Up Close’- there are no shows in the main stadium at the moment so the audience get to see the killer whales in even a smaller tank who do a mini show every hour or so.
As we walk past the under water viewing area I see the tank and that ever so perfect crystal blue water. I think that is what unsettles me the most. Water should never be that blue unless of course, it is the ocean. There is no way that there isn’t some sort of chemical or chlorine in there. No one can convince me otherwise. The colour of that water is very sinister. It hits me that this is the actual tank where Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum. If these tank walls could talk.

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As we are about to enter the ‘Shamu Up Close’ area I slow down. My Father asks if I am okay. I nod. As we enter I ask the young man on the door what whales are on display today. He rattles off about five names but fails to mention Tilikum. My heart sinks but I ask anyway ‘Is Tilikum going to be out today please? I know the answer before it even leaves his mouth. ‘No. Tilikum hasn’t been out for a few weeks. He has been under the weather for a few weeks. He is with his grandson Trua.’ I knew it. I have heard about Tilikums’ health problems for some time now and to be honest I am surprised that he is still alive. If you go to youtube and watch some videos of him in the past of couple of years, he seems so slow and sluggish. I wonder if it is bad health and him being on medication for his health problems. I have heard that he is given pounds and pounds of jello a day as his digestive system is shot and that maybe he also has stress ulcers which captivity causes. It wouldn’t also surprise me if we learnt that he is on some sort of tranquiliser to keep him sedated.

I am disappointed that I wont get to see Tilikum but have to remind myself that this visit isn’t about me – it is just to observe the killer whales and to see if I can speak to a trainer – basically just act like a naïve tourist.
I have written in my notebook ‘LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR’ – I try to remember this if I feel myself getting upset or angry at what I am witnessing.
As my father and I move all around to the left of the pool – this is the first time that I take a good look at it properly. It is just a mass of concrete – ugly and there is a glass or plastic petition which separates the public from the trainers and whales. This is the Dine with Shamu pool. Only four years ago before Dawn was killed all that was there was a rope. Gone are the days of being physically close enough to touch the whales and it has been quite a few years since the trainers would select one ‘lucky’ child, pick them up and plonk them on Shamus’ back for a once in a lifetime photo op. It still blows my mind that ‘only’ four people have been killed by two captive whales.

The current glass/plastic petition speaks volumes. I think this is down to Tilikum. I keep saying it but I do think because of him killer whale captivity will end within 10-20 years.
The size of this pool doesn’t impress me. To me it looks pitiful. It could be your local pool in any town. It is barren, nothing at the bottom, just lifeless, soulless and nothing in there that could provide any stimulation for the whales when they are not made to do tricks for dead frozen fish. I think this pool is only 36 feet deep.
There are five whales in this tiny pool, Yes you read that correctly: FIVE captives who all seem to be floating aimlessly or swimming around in circles. Immediately as soon as the trainers appear in their blue wet suits with the silver buckets of dead frozen fish the whales perk up. I notice that the whales seem almost violent with each other – jostling the others out of the way so they can get as close as they possibly can for feeding time. This isn’t ‘love’ as the SeaWorld propaganda machine would have us believe. This is survival – I am not saying that they are starved by any stretch of the imagination but if they want their treat of dead fish – they must perform the ‘behaviours’ – which translates as ‘trick’, correctly.

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Feeding time at the zoo for these five captives

My father isn’t a killer whale expert nor has he seen Blackfish at this point but he too has noticed that the whales follow their trainers around the pool whenever they see them with the silver buckets of fish.
When you understand captivity and you finally ‘get it’, it becomes all so transparent.
One of the trainers walks round and stands directly in front of us and starts doing ‘behaviours’ with her whale. She is wearing a dark baseball cap straight away and I recognised her. It is Holly Byrd. SeaWorld rolled her out via youtube to go against Blackfish. In the clip you can see that she has had the SeaWorld lobotomy.
In Blackfish Sam Berg discusses when she first rode a killer whale and it cuts to Holly riding the whale – you can see that it isn’t Sam Berg riding the whale but the producers just used that footage to illustrate a point. After months of ignoring the documentary, this is one of the things that SeaWorld disputes. They took the whales from the ocean in the 1960’s and 1970s yet this is all they are concerned with and the best they can do to debunk Blackfish? I can see why SeaWorld have used her – she is very attractive – big eyes and white teeth – she is being used to sell the SeaWorld dream.

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Holly Byrd discusses the ‘misinformation’ of Blackfish. Copyright: SeaWorld

Anyway so there she is right in front of us and this is where I make the biggest mistake – I haven’t thought about pressing record on my cellphone or camera – to document what is going to come next. I will kick myself for the foreseeable future for not recording this.
She is getting one of the whales – Katina to do tricks by using hand signals. (I want to give some of the trainers some of my very own hand signals but worry I will be ejected from the park so I refrain from doing so) After she finishes she turns around to my dad and I and asks if we have any questions. The area is quiet as it is only 10am. My dad jumps straight in. He asks a typical basic park goer question: ‘How old do whales live for?’ Nice and easy. This shouldn’t be to hard for you answer Holly but she disappoints as it becomes apparent that she has graduated from the SeaWorld school of misinformation and propaganda. Her reply:’About 35 years.’ She points to Katina and says she is 35. Holly fails to mention that Katina was captured off of Iceland waters in 1976. Katina is also featured in Blackfish after her daughter Kalina is separated from her and is transported to another park. Yep SeaWorld cares about keeping those family bonds together…

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Holly Byrd with Katina

Holly goes on to say that studies of wild orca in Washington State show that they live for around 35 years. My dad has seen enough nature programmes about orca to know that this is rubbish, that infact female orcas can live to around 80 and males 50-60. My Dad gives her a puzzled look and I pray silently that he wont blow my cover and question her answer. Thankfully he doesn’t but he does something much worse: He goes straight in with the ‘So one of your whales killed a trainer here?’ I nearly die and walk a few paces away – I want to strangle him! I am still within ear shot and I sneak a quick look at her face. She looks shocked for a split second but she gives the SeaWorlds’ PR version of events- I am gutted that I didnt record this. My journalist skills leave a lot to be desired. I am such an idiot – I promise to myself to record if I ever get a chance to be face to face with a trainer again.
Holly answers that Tilikum wasn’t born in ‘human care’ – this translates to he wasn’t born in captivity. So he wasn’t desentized like the other captives to ponytails. Which we know is rubbish. All of the whales are taught not to get too excited by a ponytail. She said that he grabbed Dawn Brancheau’s ponytail and pulled her in and that she drown. She states that it wasnt malicious and was highly stimulating for Tilikum. Wasn’t malicious? Maybe Holly doesn’t know that anyone can access the autopsy report? The poor girl was scalped and Tilikum ate her arm plus there were a host of other injuries that are too horrific to detail on here. That doesn’t sound like malicious to you? Highly stimulating? Nothing to do with the fact that he had done the trick of waving his pectoral fin and it is suspected that he didn’t hear when Dawn blew the whistle so he carried on doing it. Then when he got back to Dawn she didn’t feed him so as far as he was concerned he had done the trick and wasn’t being rewarded. That sounds like a vexed captive whale to me. Holly goes on to say that there has been a lot of ‘misinformation’ in the media regaring Dawns’ death and that she was a close friend. I imagine the ‘misinformation’ that she is referring to is Blackfish. She can dispute Blackfish all she likes but how can she or any of the other trainers dispute the tourist footage of Tilikum doing the trick then not being fed for it? Then a little later on we can hear that there isn’t much food left in the bucket as it looks like Dawn is feeding him just fish water.

These trainers must be under some SeaWorld mind control – do they think that most of their paying public do not have access to the internet and can do their own research? Holly lists all of her qualifications in the SeaWorld video. Surely she knows that what she is taking part in isn’t quite right? What SeaWorld do and what she has learnt in biology class is at odds with one another? Or does SeaWorld not respect its visitors? Does it think that they will just buy the popcorn and the Shamu toys and just enjoy the shows and not ask questions?

My dad asks about seeing Tilikum that day and she says that he hasn’t been out as SeaWorld is renovating the main pool – I learn really quickly that what these trainers say makes no sense and they speak really fast as maybe they think that if they do it sounds like they know what they are talking about. She says maybe he will be out later – I doubt this – just more smoke and mirrors: Tilikum isn’t well as the man on the door said so himself.
Holly however is very pleasant we thank her for speaking to us and watch the 15 minute show.
I haven’t questioned any of her answers – I do not feel brave enough yet – all I have done is taken a note of what she has said.

I thought that I had seen it all but during the show one of the trainers gets one of the female whales to pee in a cup. Are you kidding me? This takes it to a whole new level of perversion. Do trainers get flown out into the middle of the atlantic to take urine samples of the wild orca so they can see ‘what month of their hormonal cycle they are in?’ No. I didn’t think so.

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Perverse: The whales have been trained to pee in a cup

Is this whales eye leaking? Is it due to the bright blue coloured walls of the tanks and where it reflects when they have to look into the direct sunlight to get their food? Is this due to the chlorine? I find it difficult to tell but to me it looks as if the eye is weeping:

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Does this whale have a weeping eye?
I have seen enough and decide to leave – I am upset that I didn’t see Tilikum and I want to kick myself for not capturing the footage of Holly Byrd talking to us.
I don’t know if I can face returning but if I do I need to toughen up and get some footage of me engaging with one of the SeaWorld trainers.

Part 1. Some background history at how I got interested in killer whale captivity

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I never considered myself to be an animal activist. Sure I love animals but I was never passionate about trying to protect or educate people about the mistreatment or neglect of animals. I have three cats whom rule the roost, come and go as they please and who are spoilt rotten but I never put my head above the parapet with regard to animal welfare, until I saw a documentary called ‘Blackfish’ at the London Sundance film festival in April 2013.
I had seen ‘The Cove’ back in the summer of 2010 and I got educated about the plight of dolphins in Taiji, Japan whom are killed or selected for a life in captivity.

I found ‘The Cove’ harrowing and started to think back to all of the times I had visited America and had visited marine parks like SeaWorld…

In 1991 I was 13 when I had my first encounter at SeaWorld. I remember being blown away at the size of Shamu stadium. I didnt really understand why the whales at all of the SeaWorld parks around the country are called Shamu (Many years later I learn that SeaWorld use this stage name for all the performing killer whales. Shamu was the fourth killer whale to be captured and she was the first whale to be captured intentionally. One of the previous whales captured was a male orca who was named Namu so its presumed that this female whale got its name by having the ‘She’ added to ‘Namu’ hence the name Shamu. She was also the first orca to live for more than 13 months in captivity). But never mind all of that, the adolescent me is having too much fun- I remember sitting in the splash zone and getting soaked by all the whales who are splashing the audience with their flukes and everyone having a whale of a time! Laughing, being splashed, enjoying the warm sunshine – great fun to be had by all. The trainers ‘educate’ the audience by giving bits and pieces of info about the whales. This is great being entertained and educated at the same time: better than being at school!  What I don’t notice and don’t realise until I get much, much older is that everytime a whale does a ‘behaviour’ – SeaWorld lingo for a ‘trick’ – the whale gets a treat of dead fish. I come away from SeaWorld feeling happy and excited – my first trip to America has been so much fun.

I revisit SeaWorld for my 21st birthday in 1998. Again I don’t question anything – the massive tank that the whales are kept in still looks huge to me and I have a great time watching the Shamu show. I don’t question where the whales have come from and they all look happy to be performing ‘behaviours’ that the trainers ask them to do. A great second visit, as far as I am concerned – the best marine park in the world.

Fast forward to 8 years later. My third visit. I get to Shamu Stadium and immediately I think to myself ‘This tank was much bigger when I was a kid.’ For me something is a miss and I cant quite put my finger on it. I also notice that everytime a whale does a ‘behaviour’ – I soon work this out to mean ‘cheap trick’ – they get fed immediately. I don’t ever remember seeing wild whales poke their tongues out or nod their heads up and down in David Attenboroughs’ wildlife programmes. That water also looks so blue to me; almost sinister. I leave after the show feeling uncomfortable then I visit the SeaWorld Skytower. Then I get the shock of my life: as the Skytower rises I see that when the whales are not performing in the main stadium they are kept in back pools that don’t even seem the quarter of the size of the main pool performing pool. They just seem to be bobbing up and down with not much room to do anything else. That cant be right surely? I leave SeaWorld and say to myself that I wont ever return there.

February 2010 – the world learns of a trainer that has been killed at SeaWorld. Her name is Dawn Brancheau. The whale that is responsible for this is a whale called Tilikum. This is the first time that I hear his name. I read press reports and soon learn that the trainer may have been pulled in by her arm and not a playful tug of the hair as SeaWorld first suggest. I don’t think anymore about it apart from thinking ‘What did anyone expect? The space that those whales are kept in is tiny.’

2010 – I visit Vancouver and go out on a boat ride for the morning to watch wild whales – I notice straight away that all of their dorsal fins are upright and the ocean is as far as the eye can see. I feel almost small and insignificant as I am in the whales terrority now. They dictate to us whale watchers when and where we shall see them. The boats are not allowed to come within a certain distance of the whales and it is up to the whales if they want to swim near us. We are not allowed to chase them.These whales owe us nothing. We are privileged to watch them in their own habitat. Deciding where they will swim and I discover immediately that the wild orca seem to swim in straight lines instead of going round and round like they do at SeaWorld and though magnificent they do not look to me as being ‘cute and cuddly’ as they are portrayed as SeaWorld. After about four hours of whale watching an orca spy hops (where they come straight up out of the water to have a look around) just to the left side of the boat that I am on. I am so lucky to have my camera ready and press click. I have the one in a million picture. I realise that the wild is the only place to see killer whales.

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In the summer of 2010 I watch ‘The Cove’ – though harrowing I get up to speed real quick about the killings and life in captivity for dolphins. I start doing some research and learn that wild dolphins can swim up to 40 miles a day in the wild, that the chemicals in marine parks can render them blind and burn their skin, that their sonar bounces of the tank walls and drives them insane. I also learn from Ric O’Barry that a dolphins face is most deceptive: they have no facial muscles. So it looks like they are smiling the whole time: a dead dolphin will pretty much look the same as an alive dolphin.

Beginning of 2011 I visit a message board that is dedicated to a certain American theme park and who also features SeaWorld on their boards – whom shall remain nameless – I get into various debates with other forum members on there. I realise apart from only one or two people on there, I am pretty much alone in my views and come away defeated.

I join a few facebook pages about killer whale captivity and in the summer of 2012 posts begin to appear about a publication of a book by author David Kirby called ‘Death at SeaWorld’ I pre order the book and read it within a couple of days. It is hard hitting and the information at what goes on and what has previously happened at behind the scenes of SeaWorld depresses the hell out of me. I realise that there is so much I don’t know about with regards to killer whale captivity. There are so many aspects about captive killer whales and wild whales that I am ignorant on: from inbreeding at SeaWorld to learning that male orca are mamma’s boys and stay with them most of their lives.

One particular story that touches me is that of Gudrun (pronounced Goo drun) A bit of background information: she was captured off Iceland waters in 1976 by SeaWorld and a dutch aquarium. She lived at the Dolfinarium Harderwijk theme park in the Netherlands until 1987 when she was transferred to SeaWorld Orlando on a ‘breeding loan.’ (Those two words sound like messing with nature to me and creep me out – sounds so clinical). I read that despite not getting along with some of the other captives, she is a gentle whale who bonds with Tilikum and they even have a calf together naturally who is named Nayr in 1993. Nayr has a lot of birth defects though and Gudrun doesn’t bond with her baby and has to be separated from her as she continually tries to drown her. As I continue to read this I think to myself: None of the trainers mention any of this in the shows. As I continue to read Gudruns’ story I learn of her fate: In 1996 she becomes pregnant again and SeaWorld figure a way to make even more money from their customers. They make Gudrun slide up on a dry area that is called the ‘slide out’ which is basically a concrete ledge where she is made to ‘pose’ for paying customers for up to several minutes at a time. In the wild the whales are in the water having their weight supported – so for a pregnant orca to have all that pressure on them and their unborn baby by laying on a concrete ledge it just doesn’t bear thinking about. I have to stop reading for a minute – this sounds barbaric and I haven’t even got to the end of the story yet. But I suspect the outcome from all of this: There isn’t a heartbeat and Gudrun cannot give birth naturally so the team at SeaWorld have to pull out the calf by its flukes manually. There is more detail of this in David Kirbys’ book.
I begin to cry when I read that Gudrun bleeds heavily and doesn’t move for four days. Taken from David Kirbys’ Death at Seaworld:‘On the fourth day, Gudrun finally moved. She swam slowly over to the gate where her disabled young calf Nyar, was watching. Nyar had had to be separated from Gudrun after the mother began attacking her daughter. Now, Gudrun gently nudged Nyar’s rostrum through the bars, as if asking for an overdue rapprochement. Gudrun died a few hours later.’

Gudrun’s story breaks my heart. Myself and fellow park goers were never told about this whilst watching the whales doing backflips and poking their tongues out to the trainers. It is meant to be all fun and games for the trainers, audience and of course the whales isn’t it?

I can only read Death at SeaWorld once – it is far too harrowing for me but I recommend this to people who want to get educated about captivity and to even learn about whales in the wild from Dr Naomi Rose whom is also featured in the book.

There is word on the street later on in the year about a documentary called Blackfish – immediately I like the poster as it is very dark and looks sinister. It focuses on the story of Tilikum whom was captured off of the East Coast of Iceland in November 1983 and whom has been involved in 3 deaths – the latest being Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. He is still at SeaWorld Orlando. I look forward to its UK release.

It seems forever for Blackfish to get a UK showing but I attend the London Sundance film festival in April 2013. It is a full house. The film blows me away – again there is so much that I didn’t know about captive killer whales. I cannot watch the capture scenes and look to the floor. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite does a question and answer session with the audience and I am surprised to learn that like myself she isn’t an animal activist but a mother who took her son to SeaWorld and couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something not quite right about the killer whale shows.

I fall in love with Tilikum. For me he represents all the captive whales past and present.

Now I am focused: I join even more facebook pages and follow people on twitter who are also pro freedom and anti captivity for orca and dolphins.
I decide that I want to help spread the word – however small – and try to educate people at how damaging killer whale captivity is. I realise that I cannot tell people what to do – I cant tell people that they shouldn’t visit a marine park – I can only try and point them in the right direction of reading books like ‘Death at Seaworld’ and watching documentaries like ‘The Cove’ and ‘Blackfish.’ Then they make their decision whether to visit a marine park knowing all of the facts, not just listening to SeaWorld and blindly paying the admission fee without questioning captivity and if it is best thing for the whales.

December 2013 I go to my first whale protest in at the Dutch Embassy in London. I am nervous. I have never done anything like this before and do not know what to expect. There are only a handful of us there. I really enjoy it though. We are protesting for the release of a young orca named Morgan who was ‘rescued’ off the coast of the Netherlands and who like Gudrun also lived at Dolfinarium Harderwijk theme park for while but now ‘lives’ at Loro Parque in Tenerife. In the beginning it was promised that she wouldn’t be displayed. But guess what? Four years later she is doing cheap tricks with, I think, six other captives in a tiny pool. There was no decision on the day of the protest as to whether or not she will be released which is disappointing and at the time of writing this the Dutch courts keep delaying the decision as to their decision. Us whale warriors are worried that the powers that be are trying to make her pregnant which would hinder her release. I am unsure if SeaWorld owns Morgan.

At the protest I hear from others about a festival in Brighton, UK called Whalefest. I have never heard of it before. It is the biggest pro freedom, anti captivity whale festival in the world and has been running for a couple of years. The word volunteer is mentioned. When I get home I decide to email the organisers and find out some more. This sounds exciting!

Suffice to say I do end up volunteering for Whalefest in March 2013 and have a blast. It is two days spent with people like me: against whale and dolphin captivity. There is even a mock release of ‘Morgan’ into the sea to symbolise the ‘Free Morgan’ campaign. There are guest speakers who are heros to some including myself: Marine biologist Dr Ingrid Visser, marine mammal scientist Dr Naomi Rose and ex SeaWorld trainer Sam Berg, amongst others. I ask alot of the experts how long killer whale captivity has got and they estimate around 20 years. I hope that they are right. My predictions were more depressingly 50 years. I will go with their estimate.Their talks throughout the weekend educate me even more and I come away feeling that I am even more fired up for this pro freedom, anti captivity cause now.

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Throughout the weekend the message is loud and clear: DONT VISIT MARINE PARKS – that is the only way to stop captivity. I agree 100% but part of me wants to revisit SeaWorld to try and see Tilikum, ask the trainers some questions and to see the health of the captive orca. I have constant conversations in my head about this – going backwards and forwards. I think that it is selfish of me to visit SeaWorld as I am adding the problem of not ending killer whale captivity sooner but I reason to myself that the only way that we have footage and photos of some of the captives who are in bad shape is because fellow whale warriors have gone there themselves to document it and whom have put it out in the public domain.

With this is mind I try and see if I can get into SeaWorld without paying – I email some people who I think that might have connections that could help me get into the park for free but sadly no one can help me. I have to pay like everyone else. I ask my Dad to come with me for some moral support and also ask him if he can pay for my ticket that way it isnt me directly giving money to SeaWorld.

I am apprehensive as I will be visiting a place that I am so dead against.

With a heavy heart I book the flight and hotel and just a week later we take off for Orlando, Florida. For the whole nine hour plane ride, I am constantly thinking of Tilikum. Because of him I am on this journey. To my delight Blackfish is being shown on the inflight entertainment and I spot at least two people watching it. I wonder if that will affect their holiday plans when they make their choices at what parks to visit.

Not long now until we touchdown in Orlando, home to SeaWorld and the killer whale who in my opinion that has started the end of killer whale captivity in America: Tilikum.