January 24, 2014

The Pandas of the Sea.

I have loved the ocean, and the wonders hidden deep within it, for as long as I can remember.

I love the beach and sound of the crashing waves. I love the endless blue water and the cool salty air. I love the brightly colored fish. I love dolphins. I love sharks! There is just something about the deep blue sea, and the fascinating creatures it contains, that captivates me.

I went to Sea World once, as a young child, about six old. I don’t have much memory of the trip, other than getting really wet in the first few rows at the “Shamu Show.” My sister now lives in San Diego, and last September she had some discounted tickets to share. Being a lover of all things aquatic, when I heard about the opportunity I was super excited to visit the oceanic theme park.

We went Labor Day weekend, and honestly I had a great time. We got to see sharks and penguins and adorable beluga whales. And of course, there were the shows.


Did you know there are like five “Shamus” per show now? Breathtakingly beautiful, magnificent animals, performing choreographed flips and tricks. It was quite a spectacular performance.

I recall feeling so moved to be in the presence of these captivating animals. And I was so excited for my son to experience the radiance and beauty of these phenomenal, sleek, black orcas up close. It was quite an experience.

However, I also recall walking around the back of the amphitheater, as we continued our travels around the park, and seeing the behind-the-scenes pool where the orcas hang out until show time. It was a fairly big pool but damn, there’s like five (or more?) whales chillin’ in there together!

Freakin’ whales! They are big.

Those guys need space! They are accustomed to swimming around in a vast 20,000+ leagues of sea!

The “waiting pool” seemed pretty tiny when I thought about it that way. This must just be where they hang between the shows, right? There must be a tunnel or something that leads to some much bigger water area where they go when the day’s performances are down, right? Right?  There must be.

What about all the very intelligent dolphins, swimming in various tanks and pools around the park? They must go to a rad, giant pimped-out dolphin oasis at the end of the day, right? Hmm…

These thoughts gnawed at me in the back of my mind, but I pushed aside the unpleasant thoughts. It was easier to keep thinking, there must be a bigger pool they go to somewhere.

Yes, I had a good time with my family that day at SeaWorld, but a couple months later, I spent a few nights in a hotel which, unlike my home, had cable. I was flipping through the channels one evening and happened to stumble upon Blackfish on CNN.

Blackfish. Damn.

It’s a sad tale, but a film very worth watching. A large part of the documentary focuses on Tilikum, a huge male orca owned by SeaWorld. The film puts focus on the psyche of this intelligent mammal, who is responsible for the death of three humans.

I had heard a bit about the most recent death, Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer. Like others, I heard that it was a freak accident that occurred when the trainer’s ponytail got tangled in the whale’s mouth.

As it turns out, there is more to the story, than what SeaWorld stated to the press at the time of the incident.

Take away what you will, after viewing Blackfish, but at the very least the film makes us question – Should these huge oceanic mammals really be held in captivity for our entertainment?

Is it safe? Is it cruel?

How would I feel if I was separated from my family and forced to live in an over-sized bathtub and perform tricks on command? I think I’d feel pretty pissed off. And eventually hopelessly depressed.

Of course, this leads into the ongoing heated debates over zoos and aquariums. Should any of these animals, large or small be held in captivity?

What about the flipside? Conservation of species, as well as outreach and education for children, and well… everyone. Everyone who values and appreciates animals.

It’s a slippery slope, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I feel confused and conflicted.

I know many zoos and aquariums truly do a lot for animal conservation, and they do everything they can to care for the animals that live in their facilities. I’ve also experienced the joy of taking a child to the zoo for the first time, and seeing how it can fuel an interest and love for animals in that child.

So where does one draw the line?

In addition to the Shamu Shows we viewed at SeaWorld last September, we also watched a show called “Pets Rule.” It featured several dogs, cats and other domesticated animals like ducks and pigs. It was a cute show, and the trainers mentioned that all of the dogs in the show had been rescued from shelters. Dogs that had been deemed “untrainable” and would have otherwise been eventually euthanized. I thought that was pretty cool, although I realize now that SeaWorld may not always be completely honest.

Of course, they want to portray the good things they’ve done – like rescuing dogs and contributing to marine animal conservation. However, at the end of the day, SeaWorld is still a multi-million dollar corporation that seeks to make a profit by entertaining tourists (and locals) through animal exploitation.

It’s just not the same ultimate goal as a non-profit zoo or aquarium. Conservation and marine education appears to be more of a guise than goal for these theme parks.

For lovers of the ocean and all things aquatic, there are other ways to get close to the animals. Last spring, I took my son whale watching for the first time, and though we didn’t get to see any whales up close, we did experience several happy dolphins swimming and leaping joyfully next to the boat. Super awesome.

And while I’m not going to judge another parent who wants to take their kid to see Shamu, I may recommend that they view Blackfish first and let them decide if they want to continue to support SeaWorld or not.

I don’t plan on going back.


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Editor: Bryonie Wise

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Yoli Ramazzina  |  Contribution: 21,150