BONUS BOOK: Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan

“Captivity is always captivity, no matter how gentle the jailer.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “As a senior orca trainer for SeaWorld’s multi-billion-dollar company, John Hargrove has had elite access to some of the most dangerous killer whales in captivity. For over two decades, he worked with 20 different whales on two continents, building intense relationships with these mystical creatures. However, as his understanding of the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. And after the horrific deaths of two trainers by Sea World owned and trained orcas, he was certain that SeaWorld’s wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and increasingly dangerous for trainers. Since leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove starred in the award-winning documentary Blackfish. The enormous success of the film and the advocacy movement in which Hargrove is involved has caused an outcry across the nation. Beneath the Surface explores the dark corners of orca captivity. Hargrove gives a heartbreaking account of the psychological and physical damage caused by captivity – and contrasts it with orcas’ lives in the wild. His journey is one that humanity has just begun to take – toward the realization that the relationship between the human and animal worlds must be radically rethought.”

Review: As a firm supporter of the marine mammal anti-captivity movement, I’ve been looking forward to reading Beneath the Surface since I saw Blackfish and read Death at SeaWorld.

“They may, with time and the effort of advocates, get a better life than they have now. But they will never experience what humans had no right to take from them in the first place.”

Unfortunately, I found Beneath the Surface to be a lackluster read that didn’t actually give the reader the advertised super-exclusive look behind the SeaWorld facade. I’ll preface this all by saying that I think Beneath the Surface is an inherently valuable and rare book, given that it comes from a disillusioned ex-trainer at a time when SeaWorld largely attempts to discredit the anti-cap movement by labeling everyone as a misinformed anarchist or extremist. But that didn’t make it easy to read about Hargrove’s experiences, largely because he doesn’t show the level of remorse I initially expected. He also frequently interprets the feelings of the whales he worked with, which I found to be grating. I also got sick of Hargrove’s constant reference to whales going over to “the dark side” when they acted aggressively.

“I enjoyed these moments and so did the whales.”

“Takara emitted sounds that told me how prepared she was to perform one of her favorite acts with me in the water at SeaWorld.”

“I was told by trainers in Florida that Tilikum exhibited what they described as mourning behavior after he killed Dawn.”

This was something I grappled with throughout reading, but ultimately I realized that my own biases were getting in the way of my respect for and interpretation of Beneath the Surface. I had to remind myself of something that I strongly believe: animal trainers are not the bad guys on the SeaWorld/marine mammal captivity spectrum. Hargrove’s account of his time at SeaWorld, and his retrospection now that he has left, is so important because it shows how a trainer who initially fully supports the SeaWorld mission can come around to the opposite side of the spectrum. This look at trainer mentality, and how trainers justify SeaWorld’s actions, was fascinating.

“I don’t blame anyone for sticking with the company line. I too was a loyal corporate citizen and felt I had to do my duty to defend SeaWorld against those who might hurt it-and the whales.”

“Then, they had Wendy record a video segment on their ‘Truth About Blackfish‘ page where she said that absolutely no whale was involved and that ‘[Hargrove] simply ran and dove into the concrete.'” **This is said by a trainer Hargrove had shared a 20 year friendship with, after he left SeaWorld and participated in Blackfish. Hargrove’s account of the incident in question almost certainly involved the whale Orkid.

My views on trainer mentality aside, I do not think that Beneath the Surface was particularly well-written. The ordering of topics throughout the book felt disjointed and despite the “promises” made by chapter titles, I never quite knew what I would end up reading each time I started a new chapter. All in all, I think Beneath the Surface was more an interesting look into the minds of trainers than a SeaWorld expose. I would still direct interested readers to Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby, which I found to be a more empirically-based, less emotional look at killer whales in captivity. I think Death at SeaWorld delivers on the promise of “the truth beyond Blackfish” much better than Beneath the Surface does.




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