This series will look at statements circulating publicly about the parks, some by those for the parks and some by those against.  Some, like the fact that Shamu’s mother was killed by a harpoon, are true.  Others are complete fabrications.  And some, like today’s, either add unrelated information or omit facts, on purpose or by accident.

Did you know that “62 Orcas Have Died at SeaWorld – Not a Single One From Old Age?”

That’s the title of a piece appearing on The Dodo and written by Jacob Krushel.  It uses data from the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), the nonprofit behind the film “The Cove,” to come to its conclusion.

The first problem is the inclusion of Komogawa Sea World in Japan (unlike how it’s written by Krushel, note the space I placed between Sea and World, as that’s the actual spelling of the park).  Activist groups, such as Sea Shepherd, often attempt to link the American chain with this Japanese park in an effort to tie SeaWorld (US) with the Japanese drive fisheries, from which Komogawa has a history of obtaining animals.

Though SeaWorld has had a longstanding business of exchanging animals with this Japanese park, it does not have a financial interest in Komogawa nor in the orcas that reside there.  But did SeaWorld capture and sell orcas to Komogawa?

Two of Komogawa’s early orcas came from the same notorious orca capture as Lolita at Penn Cove in August 1970.  A 1977 chart of live capture statistics for killer whales on the US and Canadian Pacific Coast, compiled by SeaWorld’s Edward Asper and Lanny Cornell, shows that 80 orcas were caught at this event.  Four died in the netting (the three juveniles who were later weighed down with stones and chains, along with an adult), and sixty-nine were released, resulting in seven captures.

Based on data from Erich Hoyt, those seven orcas were named Tokitae (Lolita), Lil Nooka, Winston (Ramu), Clovis, Ramu 4, Jumbo, and Chappy.  They went, respectively, to the Miami Seaquarium, Sea-Arama in Galveston, Texas, SeaWorld San Diego, Marineland Antibes in France, and Marineland in Australia.  Jumbo and Chappy were both sent to Komogawa Sea World, where they both died within four years.

This famous capture was conducted by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry under the company name of Namu, Inc.  It was not until later that Goldsberry would work as a direct contractor for SeaWorld and the marine park company would apply for permits to capture in Washington State waters.  SeaWorld was not involved in any way with the capture and sale of Jumbo and Chappy, so they can be eliminated from The Dodo’s list.

Komogawa Sea World eventually began acquiring orcas through the Icelandic live capture fishery.  It is well established that SeaWorld, under the guidance and expertise of Don Goldsberry, played an instrumental role in this fishery’s formation.  But according to “The Icelandic live-capture fishery for killer whales, 1976-1988,”  a 1988 paper by Johann Sigurjonsson and Stephen Leatherwood:

“With the exception of permits issued to a French national for 2 animals in 1975 and 2 in 1976, all permit holders have been Icelandic.  The Sædyrasafnid or its director, Mr. Jon Kr. Gunnarsson, received permits for 56 animals and, and the more recently established company Fauna of Hafnarfjordur, permits for 16 animals.”

There are a number of activists who believe SeaWorld was secretly running the entire Icelandic operation, but using the Sædyrasafnid Aquarium as a front.  Likewise, a 2001 report by WDCS, titled “Captive Orcas: ‘Dying to Entertain You’” states that FAUNA “was nothing more than a ‘cover’ enabling Sea World to covertly continue capture operations.”  The problem with such statements is that there is no documentation or testimony to back them up.  Without such, the facts must be taken at face value with SeaWorld having no direct role in the sale of Icelandic orcas to Komogawa Sea World.

It’s important to also take into consideration that there was a well documented transaction where SeaWorld acquired false killer whales, which may have been connected to drive fisheries, from Komogawa in order to exchange them for an orca in Holland, who was then shipped to the states.  But this did not involve Komogawa’s orcas at all, so as SeaWorld had no investment in the Japanese park’s killer whales, the twelve deaths at Komogawa listed by The Dodo should not be included.

Sometimes, what’s hidden is what makes the difference.  The Dodo article lists quite a few stillbirths, miscarriages, and infant deaths among its mortality numbers.  In all, there are 50 deaths, including neonatal, juvenile, and mature, listed at SeaWorld’s existing three parks since 1971.

How does this hold up to the Southern Resident population?  As of November 1, 2013, the Orca Network listed 80 individuals – 25 in J pod, 19 in K pod, and 36 in L pod.

58 orcas are listed as missing or dead since 1998.  But when looking over the list, not one stillborn or miscarriage is listed.  Why this omission?  In the book “Cetacean Societies: Field Studies of Dolphins and Whales,’ Hal Whitehead and Janet Mann write in the chapter on “Female Reproductive Strategies of Cetaceans:”

“In almost all studies of living cetaceans in the wild, female reproduction has been measured by the presence of a living calf – miscarriage and neonatal mortality are not recorded.”

Does this apply to wild orcas as well? In a June 7, 2010 press release by the Humane Society of the United States, Dr. Naomi Rose responded to statements made by SeaWorld regarding stillbirth rates in the wild.

According to Rose: “The successful birth rate in the wild is unknown — scientists cannot distinguish a miscarriage, stillbirth, or death of a calf before reaching 6 months of age when observing wild orca populations. From one well-studied orca population, it is estimated that the calf survival rate to six months is 60 percent, but this is merely an estimate and refers to six-month calf survival, not successful birth, which includes all live births where the calf survives for some period of time, usually about a month. . . The stillbirth rate in the wild is also unknown.  Births are rarely observed in the wild, let alone stillbirths.”

There is a way to estimate the rate of stillbirths and miscarriages that take place in the wild.  One method appears in “Life History and Population Dynamics of Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in the Coastal Waters of British Columbia and Washington State,” written by Olesiuk, Bigg, and Ellis and published in 1990 by the International Whaling Commission.

The paper defines neonate mortality as occurring between birth and 0.5 years of age, including stillbirths.  Researchers based their estimate on a combination of neonate bodies recovered, typically washed on shore or beached, and survival rates of newborn calves. Based on the number of stillbirths recovered, the researchers determined that 20% of neonate deaths are stillbirths and that the neonate mortality rate should be around 43%.  This corresponds with a separate study which determined a 42% neonate mortality for the Northern Resident community.

The problem with utilizing these rates to approximate stillbirth and neonatal mortality numbers in the Northern and Southern resident populations is that they’re based on a very small portion of the overall population.  If a census of a larger number of individuals where conducted, there is the possibility that these rates could increase or decrease significantly.

No such estimate has been made for other populations, such as the North Atlantic orcas that were caught off Iceland. Researchers will often cite a neonatal mortality rate between 37% and 50%, which are the approximations Olesiuk, Bigg, and Ellis came up with their two methods.  The average rate between the two is the 43% mentioned above.

Naomi Rose has estimated the neonatal mortality rate, including stillborns, to be 50.2% in captivity.  This number should be reflective of all facilities that have held orcas since the early 1960’s, not just SeaWorld.  For example, there were seven cases of neonatal death involving Corky prior to 1987. Those should factor in to the overall 50.2% for the industry, but not be included in SeaWorld’s overall neonatal mortality count as Corky was not a SeaWorld owned orca at the time.

In order to properly compare The Dodo’s list of SeaWorld deaths with wild populations, it is necessary to add stillbirths, miscarriages, and other neonatal mortalities at that 43% rate to wild orca death counts worldwide.

But as that’s practically impossible based on incomplete survey data with most wild populations (Naomi Rose, during the California Assembly hearing on AB-2140, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, gave an estimate of between 50,000 and 100,000 orcas in the wild), we can go the other way and remove all stillbirths, miscarriages, and deaths under six months of age from The Dodo list, resulting in 33 deaths since 1971.

Did you know 33 Orcas Have Died at SeaWorld – Not a Single One From Old Age?  Although it looks like that’s getting close to changing. Corky’s in her late 40’s and Tilikum is in his 30’s.  And they’re just two getting up there in years.

And did you know that the sinking with stones of those three juvenile orcas at Penn Cove in 1970 is connected to a stuffed gorilla? That’s for next time.


My Six Rules



Since a few have asked about what governs my writing and research, here are my six rules:

  1. Unless it’s for a professional publication, I freely speak my mind and share my stance.  But I rarely, as with the upcoming post on the Copenhagen lion kills, take an advocacy position.
  2. I talk freely with individuals on either side of any issue.  This is important because there truly are two sides to each issue.
  3. If something is shared with me in confidence, it remains confidential.
  4. If someone, and I don’t care who they are, asks for assistance, I will gladly guide them to publicly available information that either answers their question or guides them in the right direction.
  5. When writing for professional publications and their websites, I remain fully objective.  However, I am aware that articles may be edited to reflect the publication’s stance on issues.
  6. This blog is written in a sarcastic and sardonic fashion to look at issues in different and unique ways.  It’s my intent in many of the posts to piss someone off.  I try to alternate which side I’m targeting if it’s a major issue.  If I piss everyone off with a single post, then it’s a good day that calls for a meal of baghali polo, a traditional Persian dish consisting of lima beans and dill rice.  Of course, I like mine a little more robust with lamb shoulder cubes sauteed in moose fat.

[Note 6/29/14: Rule #6 refers only to those posts ported over from the ThemedReality blog and included under the category SeaWorld/Blackfish Archives.  Due to the nature of their content, newer entries under the category SeaWorld Myths attempt to be fair and impartial to all concerned while using a straightforward approach with presentation.]

From Russia with Love . . . and Delays: The Strange Saga of the Really Big Tanks


The city of St Petersberg, Russia, announced last month that it has allocated nine acres of land for the construction of a new oceanarium. Construction will begin in August, with the oceanarium opening around three years later.  The US$96 million project will feature an aquarium, two arenas for performing marine mammals, and six pools for swim with dolphin programs.  But will it open on time?

Marine Gardens Aquarium

Marine Gardens Aquarium

In Moscow, where a large aquarium already is open at the “Rio” shopping and entertainment center, two other oceanarium projects are trying to overcome hurdles.  The “Marine Gardens” Aquarium on Poklonnaya Hill halted construction in 2008 when the Kazakhstan bank financing the project went bankrupt.  According to Russian sources, when Marine Gardens’ owner was accused by Kazakhstan officials of cheating the bank and forcing it into insolvency, the  owner left the country.  Ownership of the construction site has since been taken over by the Russian national bank and it looks as if plans for an oceanarium on that site will be dropped in favor of one with sports and medical centers, including a curling stadium.

This is the other project, the massive Moscow Aquarium currently under construction at the All-Russian Exhibition Center, taken in February:


According to press releases:

The building of the aquarium will consist of underground and ground parts. Underground part, its total area will be 9.68 million square meters, will include the aquarium (about 9 thousand square meters) and the theater of pinnipeds (680 square meters). Dolphin Therapy Center (2 thousand square meters), technical facilities, cafes and restaurants will be located on the top floor. Auditoriums of the dolphinarium can host 2,500 people. Preparatory works have already been started.

Visitors of the largest aquarium in Europe, the aquarium with dolphins can not only entertain, but also get new knowledge and improve their health. Five special pools will also operate for children with special needs. In the educational and entertainment center one will see killer whales and beluga, South American sea lions, sharks, rays and many other species of fish. Visitors will be able to travel around the world and meet the aquatic flora and fauna of Russia, the Far East, China, Southeast Asia and America. Project is developed by a team of professionals, for example dolphins, caught in Japan, will be trained by the Japanese experts.

Moscow Aquarium at the All-Russian Exhibition Center (VVC)

Moscow Aquarium at the All-Russian Exhibition Center (VVC)

Its announced opening is May, 2014.  But will it make the deadline?

On the Eastern coast of Russia sits the city of Vladivostoc, and on an island off that city sits Primorsky Aquarium, a sprawling project of the Russian Academy of Sciences consisting of a research laboratory, oceanarium, and housing for over 200.


The project is currently two years past its scheduled opening date with an estimated cost of half a billion US dollars.  One source has told me the oceanarium will open later this year while another tells me its on indefinite hold.  Meanwhile, the oceanarium’s collection of animals, including seals, walruses, and dolphins have been living in an indoor storage facility, some for as long as two years. The facility’s belugas, two of which were traded to Japan last year for dolphins, have remained in outdoor sea pens for just as long.

In this Russian language news story filmed one year ago, you can see the belugas in the iced over bay.

One of the biggest attractions in Russia not to make its opening date was constructed in Sochi for the Olympic Games, but won’t see a full opening until Summer.  Tomorrow, we’ll explore that project and others like it as we take a look at the surprising experiences that leading themed entertainment design firms Jack Rouse Associates, PGAV Destinations, Thinkwell Group, and Jora Vision have had while master planning theme parks for the emerging economies of Russia, China, and Poland.

It's Pussy Riot. You have to end a story about Russian screw ups with Pussy Riot.

It’s Pussy Riot. You have to end a story about Russian screw ups with Pussy Riot.

Anima Mundi


Apologies to the great Godfrey Reggio for appropriating the title of his short film.  Make sure you take your children to see his latest, Visitors.  It has a real gorilla.

This blog post may seem very insensitive.  Because it is.  You’ve been warned.


Recently, there’s been a big comotion about the Copenhagen Zoo killing one of its giraffes.

At first, as an American, I thought perhaps it was a cultural thing.  But Europeans don’t do strange things.  Belgium, the seat of the European Union, is so advanced that it’s illegal to kill children there and, certainly, in Germany, they never made lampshades and soap out of the bodies of killed Jews.

So perhaps it comes down to the fact that we in the civilized Western World of the UK, United States, and Canada can’t tolerate such things because we have become pussies.

The reality is that it’s a battle of perceptions.  Animals, in legal terms in most nations, are natural resources.  It’s why in the United States, our ocean animals are regulated by the Department of Commerce, our terrestrial and endangered animal resources by the Department of the Interior, and animals in zoos and aquariums by the Department of Agriculture.  Essentially, zoo animals are livestock.

On the other side of the coin are those with the belief that animals have souls and are sentient beings, and therefore should be afforded the right to life and, as some believe, freedom.  This is dangerous thinking.  When you start to anthropomorphize non-humans, you end up with Toy StoryCars, and Andy Dick.

What the Copenhagen Zoo did was natural resources management.


Biology 101.  That’s why.  I would give my left nut to be able to see a real giraffe being cut up.  By seeing this, the children are preparing themselves for future roles as leading doctors, biologists, and butchers.  If you can make it through the grocery store without having to explain to your child what that meat is behind the glass, good for you.  But medical students have to learn about anatomy somewhere.  I wouldn’t want a doctor that had never glanced beyond the skin.

Many moons ago, when I was a volunteer with the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, one of the biology professors at Texas A&M University at Galveston would occasionally bring his freshman class through the Fisheries lab when we were performing necropsies on washed up dolphin carcasses.  We would preemptively put out buckets because inevitably two or three students would throw up, either from the smell or from what they saw.  One of the Fisheries scientists told me: “They get into marine biology because they want to work with dolphins.  They think they’re cute, like Flipper.  Then when they see the reality, some of them decide it’s time to drop out or change majors.”

By viewing that giraffe being cut up in Copenhagen, some of those children may have been steered towards the priesthood.


In times of war, zoos often fare quite poorly.  Zoo staff is minimized to usually one or two keepers at best.  Food for the animals is difficult to procure.  And often, zoos, by their locations, may be in the midst of battle zones and prime target for mortar and rocket fire.  It is quite common in these situations to kill herbivores and feed them to carnivores.  Again, this is resource management.

But zoo animals sometimes eat zoo animals in the friendliest of times.  In February 2012, there was great uproar when Ash, a barn owl at the Colchester Zoo, escaped.  And why?  Because he hit a window, got disoriented, flew over the lion enclosure, got swatted down, and ripped apart.  In front of screaming and crying children.  But one parent got it right, telling the Daily Mail: “It’s in the lion’s nature. I have taught Daniel that lions are not fluffy animals. He was very upset but we will be back in the zoo again.”

In other words, it’s natural for animals to eat other animals.  It’s nature.


There’s been a bit of fuss about SeaWorld’s orcas and the lack of genetic diversity.  If the Copenhagen Zoo could kill one giraffe to limit inbreeding, why can’t SeaWorld do that with its orcas?  In fact, why not with all their orcas?  Since none are from the Southern resident population, I don’t believe they can be considered endangered.

Their dead carcasses can be chopped up in front of school children (meeting requirements for conservation AND education) and fed – wait for the great irony here – to sea lions and penguins.  Or better yet, the high protein meat can be shipped overseas to help survivors of catastrophes like those recovering from the typhoon in the Philippines or the storms in England.  Or victims of wars in Syria and the Sudan.  I wonder how many Taiji dolphins could be saved if we shipped SeaWorld orca meat to Japan.


I have it on good authority that the Holy See has known for centuries that crows and gulls are the minions of Satan.


Vatican Peace Doves



When a keeper or a trainer gets into an enclosure with a carnivore or a large or dangerous animal, he or she is aware of the risk and is conscientiously taking that risk.  It’s like a bus driver being aware that the potential for an accident is always there.  When a visitor taunts an animal or doesn’t follow posted guidelines, he or she is an idiot.  I say good riddance when the idiots are ripped apart by the carnivores.  Leaves us with fewer of them.  Again, resource management.

There is one exception – and that is for the one that didn’t understand what he was doing.


This is a true story.  To protect the innocent, the name of the victim and of the religious order have been changed.  And the species of cetacean has been changed from orca to beluga.

There was a young man, Bob, who, by all accounts, was a man-child.  It’s unsure what caused this condition, but it is known that he did some somewhat strange things.  He was a habitual shoplifter.  He broke into the home of a famed video game designer, who then found Bob naked in his bed.

He spent some time with the Branch Davidians in their South Florida compound.  He nursed a bird back to health while there.  The Davidians would often see him stare into blank space.  Once, they had to run into the road to pull him out of oncoming traffic.  I now continue as per the Miami Herald:

When [Bob] first arrived at the temple, he would not speak and, as if
keeping a vow of silence, he would write out what he wanted to say on a
piece of paper . . .

When [Bob] was arrested June 29 for shoplifting candy bars and hot
sausages at a 7-Eleven in Vero Beach, that’s the way he communicated
with police Sgt. Kevin Delisle.

[Bob] scribbled that he was “hungry and not thinking straight and he
had bad luck,” Delisle wrote in his report.

[Bob] was staying that night on the covered part of the grounds of the
Indian River County Courthouse, about six blocks from the convenience
store. Police went there to recover his belongings before taking him to

His possessions included four strands of beads, a silver ring, a metal
pendant on a wire, a picture in a frame (no description), several phone
cards and a Timex watch. He also had a green pouch that contained
papers, a toothbrush, a circuit board, spoons and an open pack of Camel
cigarettes and $27.10 in cash.

A few days later, Bob’s naked body was found draped over the back of a beluga in a marine life park.  This led some to believe he had tried to live out a sexual fantasy with the beluga.  I doubt this, because when Bob entered the tank, he was wearing swim trunks.  One scientist/advocate has stated she believes the swim trunks to be what garnered the beluga’s attention, that the beluga wanted to play with the trunks.  I also doubt this idea.

If I human child is abused during its developmental stage, there is an increased release of cortisol, resulting in a change in brain architecture.  The flight or fight and fear responses are increased while emotional and cognitive skills become minimized.  I’ve consulted with two animal psychologists and an animal neurologist and all have confirmed this happens in cetaceans as well.  This particular beluga had lived in abusive conditions for the first decade of its life in Canada.  In essence, it was a child in the body of a mature whale.  And when the man-child came in to play with the bull-calf, the beluga wanted to play as well.

It wasn’t with the swim shorts.  On those instances where male trainers got in the water with the beluga, they wore skin-tight bodysuits.  Their “balls and chain,” if you will, were held steadily in place.  But not so with this young man in his swim trunks.  Something was moving around and the beluga wanted to see what it was.

So the whale tore open the trunks, serrated Bob’s scrotum, and ripped out his left testicle.

And that’s why it’s not cool to let two man-children play in the same tank.


This 1971 Australian classic starts with a man trying to shoot his children, setting his car on fire, and then shooting himself dead, leaving his kids stranded in the middle of the Australian Outback.  But it’s the perfect family film.  As Judith Ripp wrote in Parents’ Magazine:

A rare magical experience, as meaningful to adults as their youngsters, we are recommending it without reservation, despite the short scenes of violence and nudity treated as they should be; as facts of life.

A fact of life is that animals die.  They die in captivity.  They die in nature.  Children can see a giraffe being eaten by lions, as in the first video on this post, in person.  Or you can show them this:

And you can tell them how 37 orcas have died at SeaWorld over fifty years.  Or you can share with them the nine that died on a single day this week, Wednesday, in the wild in New Zealand.



Death is natural.  It happens in captivity and in the wild.  And don’t worry about these animal’s souls.  They’re coming back as chihuahuas.

The Loro Parque Letters


Responsible Travel’s letter to tour operators urging them not to sell tickets to Loro Parque 1/23/14:

loro parque 1.pdf-page-001

loro parque 1.pdf-page-002loro parque 1.pdf-page-003

Loro Parque’s letter to tour operators 1/31/14:

loro parque 2.pdf-page-001loro parque 2.pdf-page-002loro parque 2.pdf-page-003loro parque 2.pdf-page-004

Loro Parque’s Rebuttal of the Responsible Travel claims:

loro parque 3.pdf-page-001 (1)loro parque 3.pdf-page-002 (1)loro parque 3.pdf-page-003 (1)loro parque 3.pdf-page-004



Tale as old as time.  Girl meets boy.  Boy meets dolphin.  They make love Barry White style.  And we have Ric O’Barry to thank for this going public.

If I had been an observer instead of a participant, trying to stop a horny dolphin from rubbing off on my shoes while my girlfriend watched, I would have burst out laughing. On the shore was Elaine, who professed to like me but wasn’t about to let me so much as cop a feel, while out here was Ruby, who would happily screw my brains out but happened to be the wrong species.

Ah, Malcom Brenner’s semi-autobiographical book Wet Goddess, about a boy, his girlfriend on the beach, and his other girlfriend, a dolphin in the water.

But this isn’t about Brenner and Dolly.  This is about JoJo, seen here in this footage from the Oscar nominated IMAX documentary Dolphins:

Now this is where editing content out of a film becomes important to maintain plot and adhere to your audience, in this case a family audience.  Had the actual story of JoJo been included, it would have been about resort developers encroaching on his home and how resort guests enticed a sexually addicted dolphin (aren’t they all) to the point of some female guests letting him mate with them.

Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re going to show your kids Blackfish, you might as well show them this as well.  From esteemed researcher Patricia St John, here is the other side of JoJo’s story.

THE BIG PICTURE – SeaWorld’s “Silence” on Taiji


Like the rest of you, we at VOTO are deeply saddened & heartbroken by what is happening right now near Taiji, Japan. Thanks to the brave work of SeaShepherd volunteers we are all witness, in real time, to the termination of entire pods of bottlenose dolphins at a roped off cove. Approximately 250 have been captured. The few animals that are now “blessed” by their corporate masters, and spared, will spend their lives impoverished, swimming in circles and performing tricks for human tourists at sea circuses. 

As described by attorney Martha Brock, “After all desirable calves are taken for captivity, most of the pod will face ‘death-by-spike’ and processed for human consumption. Those deemed unfit for capture or consumption will then be forced back out to sea, forced to fend without the companionship of their pods.”

At VOTO we ask, Why hasn’t SeaWorld spoken out and denounced this practice? 

In the words of Dr John Jett, “Interesting the great conservation organization SeaWorld has never spoken out against this practice. They’ve never commented on it at all to my knowledge. Hmmmm. Could it be that this helps supply the industry with cheap “assets?” The public should press them on this. Bogus.

— Voice of the Orcas 1/18/14

But SeaWorld has indeed spoken on the drive fisheries.  The following three videos, a bit outdated, have been available on its website and YouTube channel since 2010.  For the record, I am not endorsing these videos, rather sharing them.

SeaWorld’s involvement with the drive fisheries did not begin until the mid-1980’s, and they were joined in Japan by another purchaser of drive fishery dolphins and pilot whales – the United States Navy.  However, the first recorded capture at the Taiji drive took place a few decades before SeaWorld’s involvement, in 1969, when four pilot whales were taken captive and moved to the Taiji Whale Museum.  Even if SeaWorld had never purchased from Japan, it’s quite likely with the exponential increase in aquariums and dolphin attractions throughout Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, that the current growth we’re seeing in captures would take place anyway.  As a former trainer for the Whale Museum told the BBC: “Foreigners would often come to Taiji to buy dolphins and I remember them saying that Taiji was the only place in the world where they were able to buy dolphins so easily.”

On January 21, 2014, SeaWorld released the following statement:

Each year, hundreds of dolphins are slaughtered by Japanese fishermen in a brutal hunt known as the “drive fishery.”

SeaWorld is opposed to these drive hunts in Japan and elsewhere. Every accredited zoo and aquarium in America also is opposed to the practice.

No animal in our collection is from a drive hunt. The overwhelming majority of marine mammals in our parks were born in our parks.

In fact, it is a violation of U.S. law to bring an animal collected in that manner into the U.S.

An elongated version of this statement has appeared for a number of years on SeaWorld’s website:

SeaWorld, like every zoo and aquarium in America, is opposed to hunts like the ones shown so graphically in The Cove.  It is a violation of U.S. law to bring a marine mammal into this country that was collected in a drive hunt.  None of our marine mammals came from a drive hunt.  In fact, more than 80 percent of the marine mammals in our care were born at SeaWorld.

The Cove is purposefully misleading on these points, which diminishes what is otherwise a moving and important film.

In the 1980s, SeaWorld and other U.S. parks saved a handful of marine mammals from these fisheries, but we stopped many years ago because we didn’t want to be a party to a hunt of this kind, even if we were only present to save animals.

SeaWorld is also opposed to the practice of killing dolphins (known as drive fisheries) and remains committed to seeing it stopped.

No animal at SeaWorld came from these hunts nor does any other U.S. marine institution purchase animals from this hunt. The collection method is in violation of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means that it is illegal for any animal taken as part of this fishery to be brought into the U.S. for display.

A day after SeaWorld released its statement, Merlin Entertainments, another attraction company partly owned by Blackstone, released their own statement on the drive fisheries.  It was released through Merlin’s non-profit Sea Life Marine Conservation Trust, an offshoot of the company’s Sea Life brand of aquariums and marine mammal sanctuaries.

In light of the ongoing dolphin drive hunt season in Taiji, Japan, the Sea Life Marine Conservation Trust (SLMCT) – the conservation charity launched by the global network of Sea Life centres – strongly condemns these activities and calls upon all zoos and aquaria to cease association with the dolphin drive fishery in Japan.

“The Taiji drives involve the herding of dolphins at sea to be then driven and corralled into the confines of a cove. After sometimes being held for days, the dolphins are then slaughtered for meat or kept alive for sale to marine parks and aquaria across the globe,” said Sarah Taylor, Head of the Sea Life Marine Conservation Trust.

“Yearly quotas for these drive hunts reach into the thousands. They are a brutal reminder that we have a very long way to go towards securing a safe and humane future for all whales and dolphins,” she added.

Sea Life, with 44 attractions around the world, is working with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), to establish the first permanent sanctuary for captive whales and dolphins where they can be retired or rehabilitated and live a more natural life.

We likely won’t hear anything stronger out of either SeaWorld or Merlin this year.  It doesn’t have anything to do with acquiring animals, but rather corporate expansion, and in this case, it’s not SeaWorld’s.  Today, THE BIG PICTURE looks at


And here with the answer direct from her twitter account is Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite:

BREAKING. SeaWorld’s largest shareholder Blackstone claims Dawn’s death was her fault.

— GabrielaCowperthwait (@GabCowperthwait) January 24, 2014

Actually, Gabriela, it didn’t.  He never mentioned her.  He said “the person involved violated all of the safety rules that we had.”  I’ve been told he knows much more about what happened than you and I combined.  And I don’t believe he was talking about Dawn.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Once you get past the emotional screaming of a CNBC anchor that SeaWorld “abuses fish,” and rewind to the beginning of that interview in Davos, you’ll notice that Blackstone’s CEO Steve Schwarzman did not confirm when questioned that Blackstone would be investing in Japan, but he did state that he had met with Prime Minister Abe and the head of Japan’s central bank.

However, one company in the Blackstone portfolio is putting a huge investment in Japan.

Four hours up the coastal road from Taiji sits Nagoya, the third largest city in Japan.  All the dolphins headed to points north and to international destinations are driven through this town.

Merlin is planning to open the LEGOLAND Japan theme park in Nagoya in 2016, complete with LEGO themed hotel.


And this is where things get sensitive.  This is where either SeaWorld or Merlin having a louder voice on Taiji can be detrimental to this project.

The land the park will sit on is part of the Port of Nagoya.  The Port, through its nonprofit Port of Nagoya Foundation runs a number of museums and educational attractions in the vicinity.  One of those is the Port of Nagoya Aquarium.


Most of the aquarium’s dolphins come from drive fisheries.  In 2010, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) announced:

WAZA has worked with the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) and the Port of Nagoya Aquarium, to establish a new, transitional approach to the capture of dolphins as part of a tradition of Japanese inshore fishery. At this time it has been officially confirmed that during September dolphins will be collected for aquaria, the only species taken will be the Bottlenose dolphin, and the method employed will be ‘herding’. No dolphins will be taken for human consumption during September, and all surplus animals will be released.

But activisit groups have expressed concerns that this more “humane” method is only at the start of the drive season and that there is nothing to prevent the aquarium from purchasing directly from Taiji fishermen or other aquariums such as the Whale Museum.

In the meantime, one wonders if there will be a joint ticket between the two hottest attractions in Nagoya.

THURSDAY: As promised, how an IMAX film on dolphins didn’t let you know how sexy dolphins could be.

THE BIG PICTURE – Lolita’s New Home


In August, 2012, a pseudo-scientific advocacy group and California farmers petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to delist the endangered status of the Southern resident population of orcas.  Their reason: they believed “the classification of the Southern Resident killer whale population as a distinct population segment of an unnamed North Pacific Resident subspecies was in error.”

Their true purpose: With the population, which resides in the Puget Sound area, being endangered, the whales preferred food, salmon, needed to be protected as well.  This meant that water levels in the American and Sacramento rivers needed to be maintained in order to allow the salmon to reach their spawning grounds.  As a result, the amount of irrigation water the farmers could take from the Sacramento River delta diminished, increasing costs as they looked to other sources.

After an extensive year-long assessment, the NMFS determined that the endangered status was correct.  This allowed a petition to list Lolita, the orca at the Miami Seaquarium captured in 1970, as endangered to proceed.  Which is why today we look at THE BIG PICTURE of


Once she becomes protected under the Endangered Species Act, one of two things are likely to take place.  A lawsuit filed by Peta, the Animal Defense Fund, and others in 2012 has been on hiatus in Federal Court in Miami since the eligibility of one of the plaintiffs was brought into question.  This lawsuit filed against the Seaquarium and the US Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that oversees animals in captivity, seeks to show that the facilities are not only inadequate, but that the Seaquarium’s license for Lolita was renewed in violation of federal standards.  Under the ESA, acceptable husbandry becomes an even more important factor than with the Animal Welfare Act.

If the plaintiffs win this case, barring any appeals, they have plans to fly Lolita to Washington and reunite her with her family.  But she could be headed to Europe instead.  I’ve confirmed that Palace Entertainment has entered into an agreement in principle to purchase the Seaquarium.  Palace is best known for its chain of Boomers! and Monterey Grand Prix family entertainment centers, as well as historic amusement parks such as Lake Compounce and Pittsburgh’s Kennywood, and numerous waterparks.

From speaking with someone associated with the chain, I’ve learned that they have been well aware of both the lawsuit and the Fisheries filing. And although the ESA prevents the interstate or international sale and trade of protected animals, it does not prevent a company that already has an animal from transfering it to a bigger and better facility at another one of their parks.

Palace Entertainment is the American arm of Madrid-based Parques Reunidos, the fourth most attended chain in the world according to the most recent AECOM/TEA Themed Index (after Disney, Merlin, and Universal).  Of their operations, quite a few are zoos, aquariums, and marine life parks.  That includes Sea Life Park in Hawaii, operated by Palace.

If Palace purchases the Seaquarium and she is not labeled endangered under the ESA, expect them to move her to one of the world’s largest orca tanks, at Marineland on the French coast.


So when I asked Lolita what she thought of all this, this is what she had to say:


THE BIG PICTURE – Sochi’s Orcas


I’m not an animal activist by any means.  I’m not, as they say, “anti-cap.”  Which is why as I read through the writings of the anti-SeaWorld and animal rights crowds, I continually become flabbergasted at how single-sided and incomplete the articles and the blog posts are.  Lately, I’ve been reading how orcas are headed to the Olympics in Sochi, how a new petition might set Lolita free, and that SeaWorld is staying silent on Taiji.  But there’s a whole other side to these stories and I’m sure you’ll find what Blackfish star Jeff Ventre likes to call “The Big Picture” fascinating.  In the first of three installments, we look at the fate of:


The Vlodivostok Center for Marine Mammal Adaptation has become a training center and clearing house for dolphins, belugas, orcas, and other species in much the same way the Seattle Public Aquarium operated in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The two orcas, one of which is believed to be Narnia, were scheduled to arrive at the Sochi Dolphinarium, operated by White Sphere, in time for the Olympics.  You can see the Dolphinarium in this photo.  The widest point of the tank where the orcas were scheduled to perform is 27 meters.  For reference, the swimming pool just to its south in the photo is around 90 meters long.  This is a different dolphinarium than where the dolphin will be swimming with the Olympic torch (that one is a swim with dolphins type operation).


The public outcry (and the concern that Putin’s release of Greenpeace activists might backfire) resulted in the orcas being sent to Moscow instead.  Although it’s not certain where they might be, the best data shows they are likely near the construction site of the new Moscow Aquarium in the All-Russian Exposition Center, an enormous complex of buildings that once showcased the best of Soviet accomplishments.  Russian activist Mirumir Dobrosklonov shared the following photos online via social media.  The first shows tanks constructed to “acclimatize” marine animals for the new aquarium.

10. Выводной круг.

In October, an inflatable structure was placed over the tanks:


To give you a sense of scope, a poster on Russian Orcas using the handle “MacAlpine” took the following video:

It’s assumned that these orcas will eventually find their way to the Moscow Aquarium when it opens, though that still has to be at least two years away.  And here’s what they have to look forward to:


The building of the aquarium will consist of underground and ground parts. Underground part, its total area will be 9.68 million square meters, will include the aquarium (about 9 thousand square meters) and the theater of pinnipeds (680 square meters). Dolphin Therapy Center (2 thousand square meters), technical facilities, cafes and restaurants will be located on the top floor. Auditoriums of the dolphinarium can host 2,500 people. Preparatory works have already been started.

Visitors of the largest aquarium in Europe, the aquarium with dolphins can not only entertain, but also get new knowledge and improve their health. Five special pools will also operate for children with special needs. In the educational and entertainment center one will see killer whales and beluga, South American sea lions, sharks, rays and many other species of fish. Visitors will be able to travel around the world and meet the aquatic flora and fauna of Russia, the Far East, China, Southeast Asia and America. Project is developed by a team of professionals, for example dolphins, caught in Japan, will be trained by the Japanese experts.

Meanwhile, the question remains what will happen with the orcas during that interim period of construction.  An associate of mine in the Russian attractions business asked around and came back with this: “Very likely Sochi before the big summer season starts.”

In addition to the two orcas in Moscow, two or three (depending what source you use) were sent to China late last year.  Rumor had it they were going to perform at the new Chimelong Ocean Kingdom on Hengqin Island, literally next door to the resort town of Macau.  When the rumors surfaced, Tom Mehrmann of Ocean Park, an AZA-certified zoo and theme park in Hong Kong, told Post Magazine, “There is a lot of concern in the industry that they don’t have the space [for killer whales].  The arena they have is sufficient for belugas and dolphins but orcas were never in that mix. If they went and acquired orcas I would assume they would have to scramble to develop and expand their facilities.”

In fact, orcas are planned for the park, but as this map shows, not until a later phase of construction:

ocean kingdom map

If the orcas are on property, they’re well hidden.  But there’s the posibility they could have gone elsewhere.  I asked someone in the Chinese attractions industry to look at all the existing aquariums, theme parks, and zoos in China to see if orcas were spotted at any.  No luck, but then he told me something that bothers me: “One aquarium guy told me ‘Not China.  Try Pyongyang.'”

Kim Jong Un has been on a major building spree lately, with a new state of the art waterpark last year.

Spectators watch people use The Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang in this undated photo released by North Korea's KCNA

And in 2012 a new Dolphinarium, inspired by the belugas placed on display during the World Expo in Yeosu, South Korea.  Even more troubling is what else this Chinese aquarium manager had to say to my associate.  “We were approached by Pyongyang asking where we could find orcas.  He likes that SeaWorld movie so much, he wants one for himself.”  Sometimes advocacy films can backfire when reason isn’t in play to begin with.  In the case of North Korea, the Rungna Dolphinarium is just too small for orcas.  Take a look:

Rungna Dolphinarium, Pyongyang, North Korea



In the end, we don’t know where the orcas flown to China are nor the ones intended for Sochi.  They won’t be performing during the Olympics, but they will be, somewhere, for someone.  And the Russians will continue to catch orcas and sell them for an estimated value of $1 million apiece to parks around the world.

That’s “The Big Story” on Sochi’s orcas . . . for now.

TOMORROW: The effort to free Lolita from the Seaquarium, how the cost of lettuce almost derailed the process, and how the ultimate decision on her future may lie with the Spanish.

How SeaWorld’s PR Firm Shut Blackfish Out of the Oscars



There’s a very good chance this blog post might either piss you off or make you very annoyed.  It’s also pretty damn long.  You’ve been warned.

I wrote a report titled “Dissecting Blackfish” which analyzed the creative edits, substituted footage, inclusions, and omissions in both Blackfish and David Kirby’s book Death at SeaWorld.   What I didn’t mention is that I believe all their choices to be correct.

Let me explain.  When making a film or writing a book, it is necessary for them to retain plot, pace, tone, and audience retention throughout the work.  Something like Lori Marino’s involvement with the animal rights movement was not necessary to the plot.  She wasn’t in the film as an animal rights activist, she was there as a neurologist. But that’s the art of making a film.

Although it’s perfectly acceptable to make those editorial choices from an artistic point of view, the extensive use of substituted footage and omitted data erodes at the film’s objectivity.  While it is true that it doesn’t preach to the audience, it instead uses its imagery to create a much more visceral and primal reaction.  Davis Guggenheim and Leni Riefenstahl also mastered the art of agenda driven films in slick packages.   I’ve watched their films numerous times, but neither one encouraged me to become a NAZI or support charter schools.  I support the fight against global warming because I took the time to research that as someone interested in my planet.

But you won’t find me protesting for the orcas to be released, even though I’ve seen the film more than fifty times and have it memorized forward and back.  I support a different solution, described below, that would encompass a radical change in SeaWorld’s business model and the cooperation of the free-cetacean activists.  I base this in part on a belief held by many, including Dr. John Jett of Stetson University, that the whales currently in captivity are ineligible for release to the wild.  If you don’t know who Dr. Jett is, you haven’t seen Blackfish.

My biggest fear for Blackfish is that it’s a gateway drug in the quest to remove all animals from captivity.  Next thing you know, Blackfish fans will be at the new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada in Toronto to protest the “slavery” of fish.

Oh lord, it’s already happened.


For the record kid, I don’t eat fish.  They’re better left in whales’ bellies.

As with the report, I’m not going to attempt to contradict the “facts” presented in the film, nor will I attempt to validate them.  I’m not a cetologist, veterinarian, or marine mammal trainer.  I have not worked for the current SeaWorld management and have not been to one of their parks for more than fifteen years.

The film is a perfectly constructed piece of work.  But it’s also extremely one sided.  Now you can argue that it’s one sided only because the other side is telling nothing but lies.  I’ve heard an excuse to an issue like that before.  It came from a group of Holocaust deniers.  So if that’s your excuse, you’re in good company.  Blackfish is just one part of a battle of propaganda between both sides of the captive orca argument, with both sides acting like the issue is black and white, when in fact it’s very complicated.  It’s very much a Kramer vs Kramer scenario, but instead of a kid, there’s a bunch of performing animals stuck in the middle.

Since Blackfish first aired on TV, I’ve seen a wide variety of responses on what people think should be done.

  • There are those who just don’t give a crap.
  • There are those, primarily theme park fans with their propagandist websites and podcasts, that believe nobody knows these animals better than SeaWorld.  I will give credit to the keepers, trainers, and veterinarians that have worked with and are currently working with SeaWorld’s animals for truly caring deeply about them and for them and for providing them with some of the best care in the zoological park industry.  And I wish to clarify something here.  I received some negative feedback about my report for “villainizing” Dr. Lanny Cornell.  That was not my intention.  I was exploring how Kirby covered him in the book.  Dr. Cornell remains one of my heroes and the reason I followed my SeaWorld internship by working for a veterinarian.
  • There are those that want the animals returned to the wild.  As shown with Keiko, this is both a lengthy and costly proposal for orcas.
  • There are those that want a sanctuary developed – a netted off cove or sea pen where the whales can continue to be cared for while experiencing an ocean environment.  While also very costly, I question the validity of returning Tilikum to a sea pen when he experienced his first decade of abusive care in one at Sealand of the Pacific.

I fully respect each individual’s right to have their beliefs and to express them as they wish.  Case in point – Dr. Lori Marino.  I’m actually a huge admirer of her research.  Dr. Marino was gracious enough to recently answer a question I had on cetacean brain development.  But when it comes to what should be done with SeaWorld’s orcas, we differ and here’s why:

She believes no cetacean should be in captivity.  I respect her right to that belief.  But I believe that SeaWorld’s orcas are too habituated to humans.  They crave the attention of park guests.  So I prefer a strategy that would benefit SeaWorld, its visitors, and the animals’ welfare.  Many former SeaWorld trainers that I’ve spoken to or listened to advocate this plan, at least in part.

    • End the captive breeding.  The gene pool can only go so far before defects from inbreeding start to show.  Eliminate wild capture or the importation of wild caught orcas from international parks or the importation of orca sperm from donors in other parks.  Essentially, the current SeaWorld populations will die out within fifty years, but it won’t spell the end of SeaWorld.  The chain existed before housing captive orcas, it will exist after.
    • Eliminate the choreographed shows.  Keep the trainers, but instead of having them instruct the orcas to perform behaviors on cue, have them encourage the orcas to perform natural behaviors at their own whim.
    • Build the orca sanctuaries within SeaWorld parks.  It’s time for bigger enclosure space, perhaps with inlets the orcas can explore.  It can be done.  The construction techniques are there.  SeaWorld should be able to get it funded.  They can earn extra revenue with VIP viewing areas and a full service dining restaurant.  And an attraction resulting in a big reveal, like PGAV Destinations has done with their preshow for the Space Shuttle Atlantis (see video), would give the same sense of awe as an orca jumping in a spotlight.

Is this feasible? Yes. Will it happen?  Well, let’s look at business 101.  If a company like SeaWorld has the ability to build these facilities, which are multi-year investments likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, why would it expend the money to build these larger tanks for its orcas when it is continually at risk of losing them through the threat of legal action and actual lawsuits like the recent 13th Amendment suit that was filed by Peta, another one of my heroes, Ric O’Barry (shocking that I support some of what he does and also some of what SeaWorld does), Dr. Ingrid Visser and three people that appeared in the film – researcher Howard Garrett, and former trainers Samantha Berg and Carol Ray?

As much as I admire Mr. O’Barry, I feel, much like Lori Marino’s group, that this was a desperate and not well thought out attempt to free the orcas, with the result being setbacks for their improved welfare at the parks.  That includes the “orca treadmill.”  Contrary to what David Kirby has written, it exists.  But again, why would you expend millions of dollars on this when you risk losing your animals within months of installing it?

Zoos when they started were pleasure gardens, often for royalty, featuring exotic animals captured by hunters and poachers in the far corners of the world.  When the capture of orcas started in the early 1960’s, it was no better.  In 1964, one of the first captives orcas, Moby Doll, was harpooned to become the model for a statue commissioned by Vancouver Aquarium owner Murray Newman.  He survived for 86 days.

In 1967, this what an orca tank looked like at Sea World of California:


In 1970, they moved to this larger pool:


In 1987, this:

296182The enclosure space has not been enlarged for close to 30 years, even though more orcas are occupying it.  A surface space three times as big as all the orca pools currently in San Diego would be the approximate size of the land allocated for the Manta coaster.  It can be done.

The one thing I’ve become more jaded about in my old age than performing sea mammals is the “Dolphin Encounter” or “Dolphin Swim” experiences.  Why?

  • If you want to talk about habituating animals to humans, this certainly is the way to do it.
  • Dolphins by their nature are prone to aggression.  It has been documented at these establishments and it will continue to happen.
  • Dolphin encounters continue to be one of the fastest growing segments of the captive marine mammal industry, partially because they can be placed at any resort in a sea pen or concrete pool and partially because they don’t necessitate as much oversight as most aquariums.  And the owners can charge an arm and a leg.  Guess where a lot of those Taiji captures are going.  Demand for new animals and locations continues to increase year after year, facilitating more captures from the wild.  Now, I’m not including Discovery Cove in this as most of those dolphins were either retired to the interactive park after years in SeaWorld parks or were born into those collections.  However, I am calling SeaWorld out for having Commerson’s dolphins at Aquatica.  What the hell? These aren’t tropical dolphins!


  • Finally, there’s the socioeconomic disparity of such attractions.  Children of low socioeconomic status can’t afford such activities, either individually or within a school group.  For instance Marineland of Florida in St Augustine charges $6 for children to just enter the place and look.  $10 will get them a behind the scenes tour.  $30 for a session to touch and feed a dolphin (the same is charged per student for school groups) and $169 for 20 minutes in the water with a dolphin.  The unfortunate effect of this disparity is that these low income children are the very ones that should be given access to the dolphins in order to build an appreciation for the animals and an interest in conservation and marine sciences.  Marineland of Florida is owned and operated by the Georgia Aquarium, the institution appealing a decision denying the importation of captured belugas.  It also maintains a business partnership with CNN, the network that slammed SeaWorld, but crap, lesser of two evils right?

So let’s move on to the main topic at hand.  I told you this would be a long post.

Just after the Oscar nominations were announced, Jeff Ventre one of the members of the Blackfish tweeted the following:

Rec’d an email: SW PR firm 42 West reportedly calling themselves “Oscar Whisperers” & claiming to have impacted vote

42 West, SeaWorld’s PR firm is indeed known as the “Oscar Whisperers” due to the number of successful Oscar campaigns the firm and its staff have managed over the years – including for No Country for Old MenCrashThe Departed, and Hurt Locker.  So one day, according to myth, SeaWorld approached their public relations people and told them about this problematic Blackfish film.  The folks at 42 West sat around for a while and then implemented a very radical and controversial strategic plan.




And it worked.  Blackfish did not get nominated for an Oscar.

The film’s director Gabriela Cowperthwaite told the LA Times, “A lot of times the documentaries that do well have a lot of original footage, and a lot of the footage in ‘Blackfish’ is archival.”  The same can be said of Oscar winners The Fog of War and Man on Wire.  So it had to be something else.

The first thing we need to look at is who chooses the nominated films for the Best Feature Documentary category.  The Documentary Branch of the Academy is where that decision’s made.  It’s chaired by Rob Epstein, two time documentary Oscar winner for The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.  And a sampling of some of the other Documentary Branch members gives us Joe Berlinger, Liz Garbus, Alex Gibney, Mark Lewis, and Julie Reichert.  In other words, the people picking the nominations for the documentary Oscars are all documentarians themselves.

So I made it past the Blackfish poster with the lovely photo of Keiko the whale rehabilitating in the Oregon Coast Aquarium, darkened in the way that TIME magazine manipulated OJ Simpson’s mug shot to make it more menacing.


I saw the trailer, which is almost entirely about Dawn’s death.  I heard former trainer Jeff Ventre say “They never told us.”  I heard him say “I was told to throw away the tape.”  I expected a film exposing a huge conspiracy of a SeaWorld cover up.  I was disappointed.

So the bullshit misleading marketing aside, here’s where the film erred.  There are only three sympathetic characters in the film – Dawn, Tilikum, and John Crowe.  The rest leave us no room for emotional attachment.  In fact, the film is so well made, so well packaged, and so streamlined that it tugs at the heartstrings not through pure emotion but rather through shock value.  Blackfish comes across as a long-form episode of the Animal Planet exploitation series Animal Nightmares that both Cowperthwaite and the film’s producer Manny Oteyza were involved with.  It is the complete opposite of Stanley Minasian’s anti-captivity film A Fall from Freedom.

FEAR/ANIMAL NIGHTMARES (National Geographic/Animal Planet 2001) from ASKlabs Productions on Vimeo.

An unfortunate side effect is that while people show sympathy for the bloodied and manhandled animals and for the dead trainers and the dude who learned the hard way about castration (though it wasn’t mentioned in the film), the injured trainers become nothing more than a statistic.  A twitter search on “Ken Peters” and “Blackfish” did not return a single tweet concerned about Ken Peters’ well being, rather this:

The film does not treat Peters (who continues to train orcas in San Diego) as a person and that’s one reason why it didn’t get nominated.

If you look at the Oscar nominees for documentary since the first year it was offered, 1942, they all, with the rare exception of films like March of the Penguins, explore the human experience – people on voyages of discovery, overcoming adversity, improving lives for others.  Something could have and should have been done with the cast of trainers.  We get to know them at the beginning and begin to like them, but they end up becoming nothing more than color commentators on incidents they mostly weren’t involved with.  We see John Hargrove, with over a decade experience at SeaWorld parks in Calfornia and Texas and Marineland in France, with a bloody face.  But there’s no description, even though he’s participating in the film on camera.  Was he attacked by an orca?  Did he walk into a screen as one former SeaWorld trainer has attested, or did he injure himself by colliding with concrete while doing water work with Corky, a completely non-aggressive whale related injury.  I’m going with the Corky answer, but only because I’ve heard John explain this himself. What could have made the difference?  How could this become a story about the human condition?  The answer lies with the filmmaker and the cast.  Here are some possible approaches that could have been used:

  • Go into depth with Lori Marino.  Let her discuss her experiments on self-cognition with captive dolphins and how that led her to understand no cetacean should be in captivity.
  • Make the conspiracy subtext stronger.  Have Jeff Ventre discuss his termination from SeaWorld for “asking too many questions.”
  • Have Dean Gomersall discuss his termination for allegedly “kicking an otter” and how he cares so much for the animals that he is currently a leading pinniped rescuer on the California coast.
  • Bring up Ray and Berg’s attempt in Federal court to free the whales they love.
  • Make this like The Cove.  The trainers enter the park and attempt to get backstage to check on the whales they left behind.
  • Make the director a character.  Chronicle the grueling six months spent trying to bring SeaWorld and The Dawn Brancheau Foundation on board (if it was a full six months.  You can make it appear that way if it wasn’t).
  • Do a Roger & Me type scenario, chronicling a lengthy quest to meet in person with either SeaWorld or Blackstone’s CEO
  • Even though she could not participate, make a story arc about OSHA’s Lara Padgett and her investigation, especially since she had called on Howard Garrett, John Jett, and Jeff Ventre to assist (as outlined in Kirby’s book).
  • It could be about man’s relationship with orcas in both the wild and captivity, of which it’s only a facsimile.
  • Or it could have been about Dawn and her life.

Blackfish lost out to 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about the Civil Rights movement (see it, you’ll understand); The Act of Killing, about homicidal war criminals and their sense of reality; Cutie and the Boxer, about a tumultuous marriage between artists; Dirty Wars about an investigator on the trail of US war crimes in the Middle East, and The Square, about the uprisings in Egypt.

Blackfish failed to be about the human experience.  Unless that experience is death.  What intrigues me more than the failure to get an Oscar nomination is that it’s not nominated for an independent film Spirit Award.  That could only be because of two reasons – it didn’t meet the film funding and budget requirements or it was not submitted.  It’s not an oversight on Magnolia’s part, I hope, as they have another film on the nomination list.

In the end, SeaWorld and 42 West and the Academy had nothing to do with Blackfish not getting nominated.  The only person that can be blamed is Gabriela Cowperthwaite – for she released the version of the film she wanted.

COMING MONDAY —  You may not know the whole story, so I’ll be sharing “THE BIG PICTURE” on Sochi orcas, Lolita’s freedom, Taiji and UK theme parks, and the link between a beloved IMAX film and interspecies sex.


I hope you enjoyed that quote at the top about animals.  I edited it down quite a bit.  The full quote is:


These words of wisdom come from Bernard Hugo Goetz, a self-avowed racist who shot four young black men on the New York City Subway in 1984. I left out the vegetarianism and the person quoted because they didn’t have anything to do with the plot or pace of my blog post.

That’s how it works.

Have a good day.