SeaWorld Part III of XIV: The Whales

“See the animal in his cage that you built
are you sure what side you’re on?
Better not look him too closely in the eye
Are you sure what side of the glass you are on?”

The recent accident that claimed the life of trainer Dawn Brancheau created a sense of urgency that I visit SeaWorld sooner rather than later to catch a glimpse of these magnificent animals. While the juvenile Dolphins were the first stop I made once inside the park, I quickly made my way to the underwater observation area for the Orcas, more commonly referred to as Killer Whales.

If one put stock in the Romantics, the weather was certainly appropriate. I left for SeaWorld at 6:30 AM, arriving a little after 10:15. The skies were heavily overcast, despite the forecast for partly sunny skies, and it was a cool 51 degrees. There was ample parking when I arrived, even though the park had been open for over an hour. Once I left the juvenile Dolphins and determined where the Orcas were located, a light rain began, much the same as the beginning of Moby-Dick, or The Whale.

Although a crowd was forming at the turnstiles, gift shops, and cafes, here on the other side of the park I was utterly alone.

Initially I looked into the bank of windows and could not see any life. I reasoned that they must be in a separate area at the moment. I was momentarily afraid that the worst was unfolding- that while the park had publicly maintained that the animal involved in the incident would not be euthanized or released into the wild (which would spell a rather quick death sentence), the shows that had resumed over the weekend had been scrapped and the animals even removed from mere observation while management weighed their next move.

I hoped I was wrong, and headed to the Wild Arctic exhibit for the time being, as covered in the previous installment.

Planning my trip for the day, I started thinking back to the 1993 film Jurassic Park. I realize full breadth of the association is perhaps not readily apparent.

Whales and dinosaurs may not be close bedfellows according to evolution. Whales are mammals, after all. However, both rank as the largest living creatures to roam the earth. What makes whales even more wonderful is that they still exist, and we can marvel not only at their immense size, but be humbled by it as well.

The film comes to mind first for the general similarity that both are about theme parks featuring biological attractions, and in both the film and sadly in life, people lost their lives. In neither instance should either the dinosaurs nor the whale be condemned as vicious. The film points out that “they’re [dinosaurs] not monsters, Lex, they’re animals”, and “you never had control over this place to begin with- that’s the illusion”. While the film entertains a hypothetical scientific scenario wherein dinosaurs are cloned using DNA from mosquito blood samples drawn out of fossilized amber and the whales are captured on the open seas, both Jurassic Park and SeaWorld attempt to recreate habitats we barely understand, presume we have the ability to govern, and package and sell for a profit.

Let me be clear. I support SeaWorld’s efforts to educate the public about the importance of conservation and to use live animals to bestow an appreciation for sea life. Each of the animals I saw appeared to be well-cared for and is isolated from natural predators.

What I am getting at is that there is a certain amount of risk involved when you climb into the water with a 30 foot, 12,000 pound animal. Granted, there are little if any precedents for an Orca in the wild killing a person. It simply doesn’t happen. When you compare this to say sharks, which scientists reason attack swimmers and surfers mistaking them for seals, I think it speaks highly to the whales’ intelligence. I should point out that whales generally don’t frequent shallow coastal waters and people spend a fraction of their lives in the ocean.

The book and subsequent media adaptations of Moby-Dick, or The Whale did create a public perception that Sperm Whales (who are vastly larger than the Orcas of SeaWorld) were not to be crossed. The whaling industry no doubt reinforced this notion, as whale oil and other products were used as lamp fuel, cosmetics, and a host of other products in the 19th century. There is no finer candidate for a real-life Byronic hero than a whaler. Whales were not things to marvel and meditate over back then. They were sentient natural resources, and were ferocious obstacles to be conquered.

The story of Moby-Dick, in which a Sperm Whale enacts vengeance upon a whaling ship, is based on a true story. The real-life Sperm Whale dubbed “Mocha Dick” did haunt the waters off Argentina, and the whaleship Essex was foolhardy enough to try and slay the 90 foot creature. I can’t really blame him for turning back, ramming, and sinking the ship full of people launching smaller ships and trying to lay into his hide with harpoons.

The accounts of the incident I have read and shared about the recent events at SeaWorld have noted the following: the cause of death was found to be drowning, and he took her by the hair. After recently reading that walruses and seals can hold their breath for half an hour (and he had her underwater for fifteen minutes), considering that he could easily have ripped her in half, I don’t see it as an act of malice. It looks like it was rough play that tragically went awry.

After all, I’m not sure you could have a poolside chat with Tilikum or any other whale and explain that humans can only hold their breath for a fraction of the time that whales or other marine mammals can.

I also noticed in the show that the trainers were careful to point out that they “ask” the whales to do something, never “tell”. There really isn’t a way to force a whale to do a trick. You can convince them with positively reinforced behavior, but it is neither ethical or practical to punish a whale.

Going back to the similarities I saw between SeaWorld and Jurassic Park, the images of Orcas were omnipresent. I cannot imagine the expense and sense of alienation should the parks remove all Orcas and their related merchandise.

I also noted a minor similarity. In the film, the T-rex was undeniably the most impressive attraction Jurassic Park could boast. I would say Orcas are a fair parallel. Both are the second largest carnivores of their families (the Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III is larger than the T-Rex, just as the Sperm Whale is larger than the Orca), and with both dinosaurs and whales, the largest species are both herbivores (the Brachiasaurs dwarfed the T-Rex in the film, and the Blue whale is three times as long and over ten times as heavy as an Orca).

These animals were perhaps my favorite as a child, aside from turtles. I thought of many things during the drive to the park- the ocean, the size of the state of Florida, the randomness of life and the thousands of ways it can end, and whether or not it was in good taste or in good conscience to keep these animals in captivity.

For all of the research we have done, the ocean is vastly unknown. In this case, the animal did not clearly act out of self-preservation when it killed the trainer. But from the behavior of the other animals and the descriptions I have read of what happened, I felt many things looking it in the face. Hatred and danger were not among them. I feel it is merely an accident, horseplay gone wrong. A creature that size and that powerful could have killed her within seconds, and that is simply not what happened.

With that in mind, I present to you two of SeaWorld Orlando’s eight Orcas. In these first six pictures, both whales are actually sleeping in two different ways. I learned that whales only rest half of their brain at a time, in order to prevent drowing. The smaller female here in the first two pictures (22 feet long, about 6,000 pounds) swam very slow, wide circles close to the surface with her eye shut on one side.

Her dorsal saddle-patch looks like a heart, no?

In this third picture you can see the whale of recent fame in the background on the right, Tilikum. He’s also asleep, floating in place near the surface.

Unidentified female with Tilikum in the background

Unidentified female

Here is the stadium in which the whales put on their show. Six of them fit into the tank you see at the bottom. I sat one row back from the area in which you were practically certain to be drenched.

Shamu Stadium

Shamu Stadium

These next photos were taken after the show in the same observation area as before. This is Tilikum on his own, fully awake now.

Orca Sidewinder

Look at his flippers. They're roughly the size of car doors.

Tilikum in mid-turn

Tilikum from afar

Tilikum

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