Monterey Bay Whale Watch
I had an opportunity to work as a marine mammal trainer through an internship I participated in many years ago. I mean, after all, when you think marine biologist - you think about swimming with the whales and the dolphins! Although I wasn't sure if that was the direction I wanted to go, it was certainly on the list.
I'll never forget the very first question of my interview. It was asked by the head trainer and he'd cut right to the chase: "What do you think about having dolphins in captivity?" I gave my answer - kind of a combination of the need for education and the benefits captivity can provide to animals who can't be released. I believed in my answer at that time, and most of me still does. But killer whales in a pool? I'm having a harder time with that. Especially after this film.
These mammals (dolphins, whales, seal, sea lions) are intelligent creatures. I loved coming in early and being the first to say hello to the dolphins in the morning. We'd play peek-a-boo and they'd follow me around edges of the pool, talking to me as I checked in on them. They solved problems, threw temper tantrums, and played with toys just like humans. They got bored, frustrated, excited...and expressed emotion in their own way. I absolutely loved being around them every day.
The educational program (shows) at this facility taught the audience about marine mammal conservation and the need to keep our ocean's healthy and trash free. The entire program revolved around educating those who may not otherwise care because "it doesn't affect them". But once an otherwise apathetic person got to see a dolphin up close, I have no doubt that experience stayed with them. And that was something I greatly respected about the industry.
I fully acknowledge the biases that can drive a film like this, and for the most part it was pretty one-sided. However, it certainly got my attention seeing trainer after trainer discussing the same problems, the same issues with the industry, and the expressing the same concerns at facilities all over the world. Trainers don't get paid well - they simply love what they do and love the animals they work with. That's their reward. Yet here they were, speaking out about the industry. I understand the difficulty behind that, which is why I think I was so impacted by Blackfish.
The whale that killed a couple of trainers is still at SeaWorld, living in a tiny pool and having minimal interaction with the other whales and trainers (according to the film). But he's also worth a lot of money to the industry and has sired numerous offspring that are also in captivity. Again, I'm basing my opinion on what I saw in the documentary, knowing that's most likely not the whole story. But it still breaks my heart. In this day and age, there are other ways to learn about our fellow mammals. There is no need to rip a baby killer whale away from it's mother and we certainly don't need to breed them anymore. I am supportive of rehabilitation programs, and those animals that can't be released - well there's the opportunity to educate.
So do we keep supporting programs with marine mammals, and particularly killer whales, in captivity? It's a tough question with a complicated answer, I'm sure. And I'd be curious to know what you think.