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Blackfish made a huge splash in 2013 when it revealed SeaWorld’s captive orca program to be unnatural, cruel, and highly secretive. Ex-orca trainer John Hargrove was one of several former SeaWorld employees featured in the film, and he described for viewers many of the atrocities he witnessed during his 14 years with the theme park.

His testimony in Blackfish, however, only scratched the surface of what really goes on behind SeaWorld’s closed doors. Hargrove dives much deeper into these secrets in his new book, “Beneath the Surface,” released on March 24, 2015. In this first-hand exposé, Hargrove recounts his time as an orca trainer, his journey towards realizing the cruelty inherent in holding orcas captive, and his determination to use his experiences to speak up for captive marine mammals everywhere.

A Dream Realized

“I have wanted to become a whale trainer for SeaWorld since seeing my first show at Shamu Stadium at the age of six,” Hargrove tells One Green Planet.

Absolutely enchanted by the beautiful animals who performed in the show, Hargrove immediately knew that this was his path.

At the age of 20, a thrilled Hargrove began working with marine mammals at SeaWorld. For the next 14 years, he worked at both SeaWorld San Antonio and SeaWorld Orlando, where he did eventually become an orca trainer.

Hargrove cared deeply for the whales he worked with, but did not initially realize just how unnatural and cruel SeaWorld’s orca program was. “I was six years old when I wanted to do this and age 20 when I began my career,” Hargrove explains to One Green Planet, “I had no idea what was normal or abnormal at those stages in my life.”

Over the course of his career as a SeaWorld trainer, Hargrove saw numerous whales change as a result of their captivity. As he became more knowledgeable about these majestic creatures, it became more difficult to deny the damaging effect that captivity wrought on both their mental and physical well-being.

Close Calls and Outright Lies

“Beneath the Surface” follows Hargrove through his time at SeaWorld, focusing on the danger and deception that make up the captive orca program. In addition to exploring numerous non-fatal incidents, Hargrove discusses the deaths of two of his SeaWorld trainer friends, Alexis Martinez and Dawn Brancheau, who were both killed while working with orcas. He also details SeaWorld’s desperate attempts to hide what truly happened to Dawn.

Hargrove recounts several shocking instances where current SeaWorld trainers and executives told outright lies to keep SeaWorld afloat. For instance, Hargrove reveals that Assistant Curator Robbin Sheets lied to the California State Assembly, which was considering the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, by stating that he had never been injured by a whale in his 25 years of working at SeaWorld.  “I was personally present on two separate occasions when he was hospitalized,” Hargrove states in disbelief.

Hargrove himself experienced several close calls while interacting with SeaWorld orcas, which he also describes in the book. “I’ve personally had several major aggressions while working in the water, where whales have grabbed me in their mouth and pulled me underwater.”

In isolation, these events are tragedies; however, when they are put side by side, they illustrate the larger theme of neglect and abuse from which SeaWorld profits.

“I have always been keenly aware of the risk of interacting and swimming with killer whales,” Hargrove tells One Green Planet, “It was more a realization that despite the best efforts by trainers and how much we loved them, we simply could not provide them with enough to keep them healthy and thriving in captivity. This prompted me to really stop and question the moral and ethical aspects of it all, and I found that this made me more astutely aware of the corporate greed and exploitation of both the trainers and whales.”

Fighting for What’s Right

John Hargrove knows first-hand that it can be hard for people to come to terms with the realization that SeaWorld’s captive marine mammal program is unacceptably cruel. He explains to One Green Planet, “even I fiercely believed and defended SeaWorld for years, even once I recognized the reality of the situation.”

Since he first donned a SeaWorld wetsuit at the age of 20, however, Hargrove has become more knowledgeable about orcas and their needs.

He sees now that SeaWorld robs its whales of two things that are key to their health and happiness: freedom and family. In addition to denying its orcas the ability to live freely in the vast ocean, SeaWorld also routinely separates family units by shipping mothers or babies off to various theme parks. For orcas who naturally swim up to 100 miles per day and remain with their mothers for life, this is devastating.

The only companionship that an orca at SeaWorld can depend on is their trainer. While SeaWorld proudly claims that the orcas love and care for their human trainer, Hargrove is determined to voice the truth about this relationship.

“There can be harmony between whales and their trainers, but at what price? Maintaining captivity and yes, a sense of slavery for the whales is horrible, as is the threat of death to trainers who are interacting with these pained creatures,” Hargrove continues, “Without a doubt, there is a real and reciprocal relationship that exists between trainers and the whales. I deeply cared for the whales I worked with. But this does not negate the fact that it’s still wrong, and that we have no right to inflict this life onto the orcas.”

Though many have come to terms with the cruelty inherent at SeaWorld and all other marine parks, the captivity industry is still fighting to stay afloat. SeaWorld continues to pretend like there is nothing wrong with marine captivity, as evidenced by their new ad campaign and plans to expand into international markets, despite the fact that their stock prices are plummeting and attendance has dropped drastically. All of SeaWorld’s attempts to “clean up their act” and improve their image are futile when stacked against growing evidence that people no longer want to see animals suffer for the sake of “entertainment.”

Following the strong anti-captivity ripple started by Blackfish, “Beneath the Surface” stands poised to put to rest any lingering doubts as to whether captive marine mammal programs should continue to be allowed. Hopefully, with the addition of this powerful testimonial, the rising tide against marine captivity will sink the industry for good.

Image Source: Antoine Taveneaux/Wikimedia Commons