I watched the documentary Blackfish on Netflix last month, and it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe the kinds of atrocities that happened to orcas in captivity. I remembered when Dawn Brancheau was killed by the whale Tilikum in February of 2010 and how horrifying it was. I also remembered when David Kirby’s first came out in 2012–I’d flipped through it, but it didn’t grab my attention. This time, however, knowing a bit more about the context and situation made me really invested.
Death at SeaWorld takes on several threads of a rather complex plot: a brief history of killer whales in captivity; scientist Naomi Rose’s introduction to orcas and her dedication to the anti-captivity cause; the story of Tilikum and the incidents for which he became infamous; and the several trainers who intersected at SeaWorld, many of whom have become dedicated to anti-captivity for orcas.
What struck me about this book was incredibly thorough timespan and depth with which Kirby conducted his journalistic research. He talked with several ex-trainers, documented as much as he could, and proved that SeaWorld has held back a lot of information that is crucial to understanding the dangers that come to people when orcas are held in small concrete tanks. Something goes terribly wrong, and when a whale snaps…who knows what could happen?
I think critics of Kirby’s book, and really, of Blackfish, could complain that it’s not presenting the entire view, but that conveniently ignores the fact that both Kirby and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite tried repeatedly to get statements from SeaWorld, and cooperation was refused time and again. Rose’s research, among many others’, has shown that wild orcas live 50-80 years (especially females) in the wild, but Tilikum is the only captive orca to have lived past 30. Something is wrong, and SeaWorld won’t admit it. After reading/watching, I do not ever want to go to SeaWorld. I will not give them money to perpetuate the system of keeping these majestic animals in captivity. Instead, I will head out to Vancouver/Washington and go on an ethical whale-watching tour where I can respectfully observe these animals in their natural settings.
I liked this book a lot, even though it’s outside my normal fiction preferences. It’s informational and very interesting, with lots of interviews and story to make this whole ordeal even more complex and rich. I am sad that Dawn Brancheau died the way she did, and I am even sadder that SeaWorld is now blaming her for doing what they told her to for years.