After Blackfish

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of TED.

I was five the first time I visited SeaWorld, completely overwhelmed with awe, as any five-year old would be, with the beauty and immensity of the killer whale. Sitting anxiously in the splash zone, I was sure that any droplets of Shamu water had some kind of Neptunian anointing power that might bring me closer to this beautiful animal. From that day on, I contemplated how I might moonlight as a mermaid to swim with the local gray whales migrating down the coast. I held bake sales at my elementary school to raise money for the endangered right whale. I took every possible opportunity to write papers and do presentations on whales, until my teachers made me choose to do something else. For more years than not I was certain, absolutely certain, that I wanted to be a whale trainer at SeaWorld.

I took Blackfish pretty hard.

And as I’ve watched the story unfold over the past year and seen the different reactions of those around me, I’ve begun to question my own reactions and assumptions.

Earlier this week, Scott Gass spoke on the TEDYou stage about the cooperative power of the killer whale. Scott is the Director of Zoological Communications and Interpretation at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. While he did not cover Blackfish in his short, but fascinating 6-minute talk, he invited anyone interested to discuss the film with him throughout the week at TEDActive. I jumped at the chance.

Scott grew up in the midwestern United States, more than a thousand miles from the closest seashore. From an early age, however, he was captivated with the sea, and ravenously consumed everything he could to feed his passion. When he was a bit older, Scott’s family moved to the Florida Keys, where finally, the ocean was at his fingertips, and after pursuing a degree in biochemistry, he showed up at SeaWorld for what originally meant to be a year off before going to grad school. Nearly 20 years later, he now spends most of his time at SeaWorld focusing on ways to better connect people to the animals and habitats living at SeaWorld, as well as the issues these species face.

As you might expect, Scott has an opinion about Blackfish, and given his background, it’s a particularly informed one. “It’s not that everything that is portrayed in Blackfish is wrong or untrue,” he says. “But there is a whole host of stuff in the film that is highly manipulated, highly twisted and turned, and started from a very distinct viewpoint. You’re being manipulated throughout the course of this film.” Where the film shows you one thing, they’ll say another, Scott explains. He points to an example where one of the former trainers featured in the film, Samantha Berg, is sharing the story of her first time in the water with a killer whale, while the overlaid footage is of another trainer altogether. This is only one of many misrepresentations and untruths, he notes.

One of Scott’s biggest frustrations, and one which with I empathize, is that Blackfish severely undermines the passion and intent of the employees of SeaWorld, in particular the trainers. “I work with these folks every single day,” says Scott. “My wife is an animal trainer. I know for certain their passion, their position, the things that are driving them, and the way decisions are being made about how to care for the animals. To try and suggest that anything other than what’s best for the animals is what these people are about, is just dishonest.”

My conversation with Scott reiterated what we’ve been hearing from SeaWorld over the past nine months or so; it is worth noting that the purpose this conversation (and this article, for that matter) was not to debate which parts of the movie were true and which were false. But whether or not you agree with or believe what he’s saying, he brings up a good point. I think it’s important to recognize that when we’re talking about Blackfish, we do so with the understanding that this film is designed to send a very specific message. It has an agenda. And while I’m compelled by the premise and the evidence put forth by the film, I’m equally as interested in the other sides of the story, and even more interested in the questions that have arisen in its wake.

What is so exciting about this conversation is that it provides us with a new opportunity to reimagine what could be. Interestingly enough, I think Blackfish and SeaWorld actually have the same mission, and are both succeeding wildly at it, which is to inform and encourage people to care about protecting whales, and by extension, our oceans. “It’s important for folks always to be asking or thinking about the welfare of the animals being maintained in zoological settings,” says Scott. I couldn’t agree more.

Which brings us to this big, hairy question that we’re all facing now (new legislation proposed in California is fast-tracking an answer), which is: Should whales be in captivity at all?

I think this is fundamentally the wrong question. The question we should be asking is, what do we want our relationship with nature, in this case whales, to look like in the near future?

Now I’ve already told you how SeaWorld changed my life, and I’m certain there are many others who share my same story. What SeaWorld has done over the past 50 years, has actively and deeply engaged generations of children and adults with the sea. When you first see a killer whale, up close, there’s an undeniable emotional transformation that occurs, at least for most. Scott and I share the same take here. “Most folks are never going to have a chance to see, let alone be close to, a killer whale, a shark, a penguin. For the vast majority of my childhood, I’d never even seen a starfish up close.” And if we’re disconnected from animals that we’re actually capable of accessing, like killer whales or dolphins or sea turtles, it’s less likely we’re going to be engaged with the ones that we may never see, such as endangered blue whales for example. “I don’t care about something, I don’t think about something, I don’t act on something’s behalf unless I’m emotionally engaged, and have had some sort of direct kind of connection to it,” Scott says. SeaWorld has made these connections for people not only with killer whales, but with sea turtles, manatees, and hundreds of other species that need our help. Not to mention, over the last 50 years, SeaWorld has rescued and rehabilitated more than 23,000 animals, funded wildlife research globally, and shed light on behaviors and characteristics of animals that we might not have been able to determine from studying them in the wild.

However, there is something that does feel painfully unnatural about keeping such a powerful animal in a tank. I honestly believe SeaWorld when they say that their facilities are state of the art, and that the animals lead healthy, relatively happy lives in these parks. But that doesn’t change the pang of guilt I feel as that powerful rush of adrenaline runs through my veins while I stand nose to nose with a whale in what is a very large swimming pool. Scott and I talked about performances, and he believes the assumption that it is innately damaging or disparaging to the whales to engage in public performance display is false. And this is where our opinions begin to diverge slightly. While certainly educational in many ways, the Shamu show, in my opinion, can often feel a bit like spectacle, and somewhat inauthentic to the majesty of the whale. That’s not to say that the show is without educational and emotional value. Indeed, their killer whale show has evolved significantly in the recent past. For example, for the past four years, trainers have no longer performed in the water with the whales, and the newest iteration of show emphasizes more than ever our responsibility to protect and respect the ocean. Scott spends a lot of time thinking about and crafting experiences, from digital experiences that put you in the shoes (flippers?) of a sea turtle, to the newest Shamu show, called “One Ocean.” For Scott and his colleagues, the message that comes through, more than anything, is the most important part. “Every moment must be considered, and designed, and made impactful on behalf of the species in our care.”

Performance has the opportunity to be a key educational platform, and on that front I think SeaWorld has room for improvement. For example, I would love to learn more about the whales’ natural and group behaviors through a performance experience. With its immense brand power, SeaWorld can shape how we as a society define the expectations around the zoological experience. “I’m certain it’s not impossible to create a very entertaining show that also feeds the mind and gets you super engaged with what’s going on,” Scott says. I’m certain too, but I don’t think we’ve totally hit the mark, yet.

Take killer whales away from SeaWorld and out of the public eye, and we risk something very grave: A world where it is difficult to generate empathy for and personal and emotional connections to creatures whose species and habitat desperately warrant our attention and care. Killer whales aren’t just iconic of SeaWorld, they are an icon of the ocean, says Scott. They’re the most broadly distributed mammals in the world – save for ourselves – and have a direct relationship with a dizzying array of species. There’s an argument to be made here that killer whales have become critical, sacrificial ambassadors for the ocean, and that the role they play in a place like SeaWorld and for children like myself is critical not only to the long-term survival of their species, but to the survival of the entire ocean. “If our job is to connect people to the ocean, the quickest and most powerful way we can do that is with killer whales.”

Which brings me to my final point and my challenge to the TEDActive community. Blackfish has created some great discussions about the nature of the relationship between humans and whales. But this need not be a war, nor a crusade against SeaWorld. I don’t think it requires a hard and fast decision about whales or no whales, and taking down SeaWorld is, quite simply, a ridiculous proposition.

Rather, what I see here is one of the greatest design challenges our collective generations, together with SeaWorld and its stakeholders, have the opportunity to solve. Within this challenge, these are some of the questions we might begin to answer:

How might we reimagine the zoological experience with regard to both habitats and public display to be more authentic to the animals’ size, natural behaviors and group interactions?

How might we create an engaging performance experience that increases the educational value but dials down the degree of pure spectacle?

How might we redefine our relationship to killer whales?

Earlier this week, Scott shared some 1979 footage of a pod of killer whales hunting a blue whale. This hunt required patience, calculation, and collaboration. Different skills across different whales were leveraged at different times for different outcomes. And in the end, these whales had taken down the most immense creature on planet, a whale that is five times longer and 40 times heavier than a single orca. Talk about a whale of a challenge.

Instead of divisive measures and hateful language, can we work together to attack this problem in a way that leverages the best of what we all have to offer? Can we take what we’ve learned from the killer whale and practice cooperation, coordination and collaboration? Scott ended his talk on Tuesday with this line, “No matter how big the challenge, while it might be beyond you or I, it is not beyond us.”

So this is my call to TEDActive, SeaWorld, and the collective community of ocean ambassadors: what are we going to do together?

The header image of this post was taken by @heaterholder the day before TEDActive began just down the road in the Squamish Blind Channel, where onlookers witnessed an incredible display of orcas hunting a pod of dolphins. 

2 thoughts on “After Blackfish”

  1. Hello, I was glad to see the somebody addressed the issue, of which i am particularly fond, on TED. I am incredibly strongly opposed to the captivity of any animal, and I have no patience for SeaWorld’s ridiculous reasons used to justify their brutal capture of killer whales from the wild, taking them apart from their families, and driving them crazy by confining them in concrete pools, and moving them from one facility to another depending on where they are needed. Anyway, I suggest that you read Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby (which I am currently translating into Italian), and would love to discuss this more with you. Thanks for bringing up this topic. I believe that in these”wars” between the parts, the only real victims are the killers whales. Thanks again and ‘ hope to talk to you soon. Elena


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