"When you're ready, come on into the pool," the trainer said, smiling at me. Behind her, a dolphin named Sally breathed out of her blowhole, sending spray up into the air. I put on my goggles and stepped into the cold water, the sand squishing beneath my toes.
But my excitement lessened instantly. My heart felt so heavy as the trainer showed me how to properly pet Sally, and what hand signals meant "roll over" and "shake your tail." The eyes of this poor creature looked so sad, so lost, that it was impossible for me to ignore. The pool, and the tank Sally was kept in were so much smaller than I expected. My gut knew that the whole situation in front of me was just plain wrong. And it was.
I had been so excited for that moment. Actually, I had been waiting for that moment for years. My room was covered in whale and dolphin paraphernalia--I had posters, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, a dolphin nightlight, and even a dolphin alarm clock. At fourteen years old, swimming with dolphins was my biggest dream. So, when my family arrived at Discovery Cove in Florida for our own private swim session with a bottlenose dolphin, I was absolutely ecstatic. I couldn't sleep the night before. But one look into Sally's eyes was all it took for me to change my mind entirely. I was angry. I could feel my blood boiling, my face becoming red as I stepped out of the pool and dried myself off. I couldn't believe that people actually kept animals like Sally in these ridiculously small tanks, and thought it was okay. How could people do this when it was so clear how incredibly unhappy she was? I could not grasp the concept.
That was my first personal experience with a captive animal. I really needed that moment to understand what phenomena like Discovery Cove and Sea World really are. On television, and in commercials, watching humans swim with these magnificent creatures is breath taking. And trainers speak in awe about being able to spend so much time in close contact with the whales. "The job left a lasting impression on me. I still to this day value the time that I spent with the animals and the relationship that they reciprocated with me.," says former SeaWorld trainer Bridgette Pirtle of her job at Sea World, in an interview with National Geographic Magazine.
It is important to remember that although these animals are beautiful and watching them leap through the air at Sea World is mesmerizing, captivity is not where they belong. How could they belong there, when the minimum depth requirement of a tank at Sea World is twelve feet, and Orca whales range from twenty to thirty feet long? By keeping these animals contained in such a tiny space, they suffer from depression and illness and are basically deprived of all natural things they would have in the wild. They do not kill their own food, they do not belong to a pod, and they are separated from their families, usually at a very young age.
Although Sea World now breeds many of their whales in captivity, in the past they have taken Orcas directly from the wild. Calves are targeted because they easier to transport. They are torn from their mothers, taken from the ocean, and placed in a tank at Sea World with other Orcas they don't know. This can be extremely traumatizing for the whales. And even when Orcas are living at Sea World, there is a chance that they will be transferred to a different park. There is a scene in the documentary Blackfish, directed by Gabrielle Cowperthewaite, where a four year old calf named Kalina is taken from her mother, Katina, in Sea World Orlando, and transported to Sea World Ohio. In the scene, the two whales make heart-wrenching sounds, calling out to each other even after Kalina is on the truck and the transporters are driving her away. And days after their separation, Katina refused to eat and did not participate in any shows.
The emotional connection between Orcas and their mothers is something that is supposed to last a lifetime. In the wild, younger whales never leave their mothers. Instead, they stay in the same pod, and basically form a family. Orcas are meant to have very, very close relationships with their pod members, and they are denied that in captivity. In Blackfish, there are many indications that Orcas have a distributed sense of self. In an interview with The Raptor Lab, Lori Marino, a neuroscientist prominently featured in Blackfish, discusses the social needs of Orcas. "When you look at how they communicate with each other, how they move amongst each other, and what their social lives are like, it suggests that there is something about being an orca or a dolphin that might actually be different than what it would be like to be just an individual," she says. There is a level of social cohesion amongst these whales that is highly complex. There is also research that shows whales have a higher emotional intellect than humans do. "Whales have an extra lobe of tissue that sort of sits adjacent to their limbic system and their neocortex. That lobe has something to do with processing emotions, but also something to do with thinking. It’s very highly elaborated in most cetaceans and not at all or not nearly as much in humans or other mammals, so it suggests that there’s something that evolved or adapted in that brain over time," says Marino. "It would be difficult to say that the human brain was capable of more emotional depth than the orca brain, because what you see in the orca brain is an elaboration on the limbic area that the human brain doesn’t have."
This research begins to explain how much these whales can feel emotionally, and how much they know intellectually. By living in captivity, and going through traumatic events such as maternal deprivation, these whales are suffering mentally. As humans, we should not be forcing these animals to perform, while sitting back and watching them suffer through unnecessary hardships. After an Orca at Sea World named Tilikum fatally attacked one of the trainers, Dawn Brancheau, CNN aired a discussion about the issue. "If you were in a bathtub for twenty-five years, don't you think you would get a little psychotic?" said journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell. She has an excellent point.