For our first anniversary, my sweet husband Jake took me to SeaWorld. For the past few months, all I’d been able to talk about was how much I wanted to touch a dolphin. Dolphins had been showing up in my paintings. They even ended up in a couple of my dreams. Jake, fully aware of this, surprised me by letting me have my hearts wish to actually touch one. I was, of course, beyond excited about this, to the point where I was physically shaking with joy. He beamed with happiness to see me happy. He’s just the best.
When we were in line to pet and feed dolphins, my pulse was racing. I made Jake feel it in my neck. I understand for most people that happens in line for rollercoasters and not for dolphins, but for me, this was the ultimate thing. The British people in line behind us were laughing at how weirdly excited I was.
And I had expected that excitement. But I honestly did not expect the rest of my emotions that day at Seaworld.
I had, at best, paid half-attention to the idea of Shamu at Seaworld for most of my life. I remember when the tragedy happened a few years ago where a whale had killed an Orlando trainer, my reaction was, “well, duh, you can’t take a wild beast out of Iceland and expect it to act like a domesticated puppy or something. You certainly can’t blame the whale.” But that was pretty much the extent of my thoughts about it. I didn’t really consider the frustrations in the mind of the whale that may have led to the tragedy. I still had a mental picture of Shamu that was really a caricature of a whale: a cartoonish, tame, Mickey-Mouse-of-SeaWorld type thing.
As the Shamu show started, I felt a small and unexpected nausea. The pool was bright artificial blue and there was loud music and theatrics and colors and lights. Everything was typical of a major Orlando themed attraction, except for the creatures that swam into the tank. They weren’t the cartoons I’d somehow expected. Before us were incredibly real, enormous, powerful living beings. I remember being struck with the obvious yet overlooked fact: they’re smart. They’re like, the smartest animals besides us. They’re surely thinking, and they’re surely feeling. Their authenticity juxtaposed with the artificiality they were surrounded by made me feel uneasy. All at once I felt embarrassed to be there.
I tried to push those feelings aside in order to enjoy the show. The whales performed tricks for fish kind of like my dog Henry “shakes” for a treat. They were really cute. We smiled as they wiggled and spun around. Jake leaned over and asked, “Don’t their fins only flop over like that in captivity?” I didn’t know. “No I think they’re just like that.” I said.
A quick google search that night proved me wrong. Less than one percent of whales in the wild have that floppy fin-atrophy thing. In tanks, nearly all of them do. In the wild, they’re swimming at high speeds all day. They live their entire lives with their families—caves never leave their mothers, even as adults. Within pods, the whales use what we can only describe as languages to communicate with one another. They can live to be a hundred years old. But in captivity, 35 is as old as they usually get. They’re isolated from their natural families, babies are sold away from mothers, and a lot of the oldest Orcas were captured as babies in Iceland.
As I lay in bed next to my husband that night, I was able to focus on just one thing: the memory of a music box my grandparents had given me as a child. I had cherished it. Three small porcelain Orca Whales sat immortalized atop a rolling wave of blue. They were frozen in one perfect moment of joy, leaping together, smiling. I use to stare at them and imagine the water surrounding them extending forever--that they were boundless--a part of endlessness. My young mind pondered the implications of eternity as I watched them turn. When I wound the bottom, a quiet melody played, bitter sweet.
The sudden flashback was enough to make me want cry. I knew could no longer defend to myself the idea that keeping these sentient, spiritual, wild beings in captivity was okay.
I had to forcibly shove “Whale Thoughts” out of my mind in order to get sleep for work the next day.
When I did wake up, I left the house early to go to Barnes and Noble and buy a book about Whales. It’s called “Death at Seaworld.” I have a feeling I might stay up all night for a few days reading it.
For the past few days, I have been able to think of little else than Killer Whales. I’m not entirely sure why this in particular has affected me so deeply, but it certainly has. Part of my spirit feels tied to this. I feel like I’ve just begun to realize something important and urgent right in front of me, and I can’t look away. I’m not sure what the next step will be for me, but I’m trying to educate myself right now, and feel all the emotions I have associated with this. I am looking forward to watching the Blackfish documentary at the Downtown Disney theatre this Friday with my hubby and sisters. I am looking forward to that book I got. Most of all, I’m looking forward to a hope that maybe I can be involved in some kind of change for these animals in the near future…