Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Evidence of Harm and Animal Factory—a groundbreaking scientific thriller that exposes the dark side of SeaWorld, America’s most beloved marine mammal park 


Death at SeaWorld centers on the battle with the multimillion-dollar marine park industry over the controversial and even lethal ramifications of keeping killer whales in captivity. Following the story of marine biologist and animal advocate at the Humane ...

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Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Evidence of Harm and Animal Factory—a groundbreaking scientific thriller that exposes the dark side of SeaWorld, America’s most beloved marine mammal park 


Death at SeaWorld centers on the battle with the multimillion-dollar marine park industry over the controversial and even lethal ramifications of keeping killer whales in captivity. Following the story of marine biologist and animal advocate at the Humane Society of the US, Naomi Rose, Kirby tells the gripping story of the two-decade fight against PR-savvy SeaWorld, which came to a head with the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Kirby puts that horrific animal-on-human attack in context. Brancheau’s death was the most publicized among several brutal attacks that have occurred at Sea World and other marine mammal theme parks.


Death at SeaWorld introduces real people taking part in this debate, from former trainers turned animal rights activists to the men and women that champion SeaWorld and the captivity of whales. In section two the orcas act out. And as the story progresses and orca attacks on trainers become increasingly violent, the warnings of Naomi Rose and other scientists fall on deaf ears, only to be realized with the death of Dawn Brancheau. Finally he covers the media backlash, the eyewitnesses who come forward to challenge SeaWorld’s glossy image, and the groundbreaking OSHA case that challenges the very idea of keeping killer whales in captivity and may spell the end of having trainers in the water with the ocean’s top predators.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In February 2010, SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau died after being pulled underwater between the teeth of Tilikum, a 29-year-old, 12,000-pound killer whale. The thrashing drowning death of this veteran trainer made headlines around the globe, but for SeaWorld critics, the killing should have been only the final nail in the coffin of the marine mammal theme park. Death of SeaWorld by award-winning investigative journalist David Kirby places this much-publicized tragic incident within the context of decades of warnings by marine biologists and animal advocate about the risks of keeping these giant predators in captivity. A real-life scientific thriller.

Publishers Weekly
Journalist Kirby offers another passionate industry exposé (after 2005’s Evidence of Harm), focusing on SeaWorld Orlando’s popular orca display and its costs in happiness and safety for both the animals and the humans who care for them. The main issue at hand is trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death, caused in 2010 by the orca and star SeaWorld attraction Tilikum, but Kirby’s painstaking account takes its time before arriving at this central tragedy. In addition to the long history of previous violent incidents involving captive killer whales, Kirby teaches readers more than they ever expected to learn about such subjects as marine park management and orca social dynamics. This comprehensive background can sometimes be more diligent than engrossing, but the narrative goes into high gear with its concluding confrontation between what Kirby portrays as SeaWorld’s corporate juggernaut, and the scrappy “anti-cap” (captivity) activists. From this latter camp, the book gives the most attention to disillusioned former trainer Jeff Ventre and, taking center stage as the story’s heroine, marine biologist Naomi Rose. Kirby’s exhaustively researched chronicle offers the definitive look at its subject, coming down squarely on Rose’s side to conclude that the human use of orcas for entertainment does neither species any favors. Agent: Todd Shuster, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. (July)
From the Publisher
“Should some of the most social, intelligent and charismatic animals on the planet be kept in captivity by human beings? That is a question asked more frequently than ever by both scientists and animal welfare advocates…Now the issue has been raised with new intensity in Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby, just released in paperback.”—The New York Times

“Kirby makes a passionate case for captivity as the reason orcas become killers (and) tells the story like a thriller. His argument is, for the most part, fair and persuasive… We probably can't free the orcas in captivity today, but we could make the current group of captive killer whales the last.”

—Wall Street Journal

 “A chilling depiction… Kirby lays out a compelling scientific argument against killer whale captivity”New Scientist

“A gripping inspection… Hard to put down.”—Booklist (***Starred Review)

“Brilliantly and intensively researched and conveyed with clarity and thoughtfulness, Kirby’s work of high-quality non-fiction busts the whale debate wide open… Reads like a thriller and horrifies like Hannibal Lector.” —San Francisco Book Review – FIVE STARS

“Kirby says people do not realize that whales often live with the same pod from birth and that when marine parks take them from their pods they are separated from their families… The killer whales then, in some instances, take out those emotions on other whales, which doesn't happen in the wild as much.” – CBS This Morning

Thanks to investigative journalist David Kirby, we are now equipped to consider (attacks in captivity) in context. His book is packed with facts about killer whales and the stress caused by keeping them in captivity and asking them to perform for humans. –

“Nature has a way of biting back. The true story told in the 2012 scientific thriller Death at SeaWorld exposes the dark side of America's most beloved marine mammal park. From the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 to other less-publicized incidents, the book chronicles the perils of attempting to subdue the species.” Al Jazeera


“David Kirby, author of ‘Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,’ has posted a persuasive rebuttal. SeaWorld as much as self-indicts its orca practices as indefensible.” — Chicago Sun Times


"Death at SeaWorld dismantles the carefully crafted industry myth of animals who are content to live in small tanks and perform tricks for spectators" —All Animals Magazine

David Kirby, whose recent book ‘Death at SeaWorld’ traces the history of killer whales in captivity, found that Tilikum was captured off Iceland in the early 1980s when just two years old. He was kept in a tiny covered pool for two years before being sold to a marine park in Canada which closed after he drowned a trainer. Kirby says Tilikum is a very disturbed and dangerous animal. – Sunday Times (UK)

Recent publications like David Kirby’s ‘Death at Sea World’ are increasing recognition of the great wrong being done to the mind in the waters by continuing live captures and captive breeding of orcas. Some orcas in captivity do attack and kill or injure their captors. Tilikum, once captive at the former Sealand in Oak Bay, has killed three people.” – Victoria (BC) Times Colonist

"’Death at SeaWorld’ by David Kirby was just released in paperback. (It) tells a story of intelligent animals that, while often friendly to humans, nevertheless carry with them what some argue is inevitable psychological damage due to captivity.” – Nature World News


“Detailed and thorough…Kirby writes objectively, and with a clear vision when discussing the history of killer whales in captivity. He also shows how SeaWorld is a microcosm where smiles are required.” Metro Montreal


“Death at SeaWorld, a 2012 exposé by David Kirby, is a comprehensive account starting from when the first orca was captured up until 2012, when OSHA hit SeaWorld with safety violations. It has helped change and educate the public about orcas in captivity.” The Manitoban

“Kirby shows that the reality (of orca captivity) is more akin to a circus, in which any benefits are outweighed by the cost to the whale – and sometimes to the keepers.” —Financial Times

“Thorough and disturbing… One of the great books of the summer” Columbus Dispatch

“SeaWorld got a firm slap in the form of journalist David Kirby's fascinating and deeply disturbing book.” —Christian Science Monitor

“An outstanding book… very-well written, extremely well documented, and timely.”—Psychology Today

#1 Readers Poll Choice for Summer Books Wall Street Journal Online

“An informed narrative that strongly suggests that despite their name, only when captured do the mammals become dangerous to humans. Free Willy, indeed.”—New York Daily News

“Kirby has done his homework and does an excellent job of educating the public about orcas in the wild, as well as highlighting the dangers inherent in keeping these highly evolved, intelligent animals in captivity.” —

“A masterful work.”—Seattle Post Intelligencer

“Eye-opening poolside reading… Death isn't supposed to pop up in environments carefully choreographed for family fun.”—San Francisco Bay Guardian

“A real-life scientific thriller.”—Barnes and Noble

 “One of the summer’s most anticipated new releases”— Apple I-Bookstore

"Well written, well studied so as not to come across as a misinformed or ill-informed journalism (as if we had any doubt), two sided, and done with a lot of emotion to help draw the reader in as if you were reading a murder mystery. Done like a true novelist... Definitely a five star review and a two thumbs up." —Artists On Demand

“A new book examining the dark side of keeping killer whales in captivity has slammed SeaWorld for its treatment of the enormous beasts and for massive safety failings which still haunt the world famous marine parks.”Daily Mail (UK)

“Fascinating, shocking, even infuriating, but ultimately rewarding… Discover the majesty of killer whales, the inherent cruelty of their captivity and the passion of those who fight for their freedom.”Shelf Aware, Online Book Reviews

“A page-turning book… a disturbing account that will be hard for SeaWorld to transcend… Kirby makes it horrifyingly clear how serious (captivity) can be for human safety and orca well-being.”—Wayne’s Blog, Wayne Pacelle, CEO of The Humane Society of the United States

 “Even if you're not an animal nut like me, David Kirby's Death at Sea World is a fascinating book.”—Sam Simon, Co-Creator of The Simpsons and leading animal-rights activist

“An exhilarating journalistic achievement—the reporting is singularly deep and wide, the research enormously meticulous, the storytelling as gripping as in a great novel.”—Talking Animals with Duncan Strauss, WMNF-FM, Tampa

“I was sent a pre-release copy and can’t put it down… Get a copy of this book. It’s about time it was written.”—Fayetteville Observer

 “Kirby's knockout format is articulate and mind-blowing. This riveting read is not one that will easily be dismissed.”—Digital Journal

 “Lives are at stake here, and Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigative work.”  —Library Journal

 “Journalist Kirby offers another passionate industry exposé … the narrative goes into high gear with its concluding confrontation.” —Publishers Weekly

 “Simply superb… David Kirby has left no stone unturned. He has successfully refuted the arguments put forth by the pro-captivity advocates” –Philosophy Book Review

“Get insight into this excellent story by David Kirby about the human-amusement park's treatment of these animals via his book, Death at SeaWorld” – Sacramento News Review

“Captivity disrupts (orca) behavior in practically every manner.  Contrary to marine mammal exhibition industry claims, orca lifespans are significantly shortened in captivity.”— Animal People Magazine

 “I particularly enjoyed this book. It reads very much like a novel to the point when you are staying up later than you should to finish it.”—San Juan Island Update

 “The bottom line of these findings is that keeping these magnificent beings in confinement is not a good thing.”—Wild Time Radio TCR-FM (UK)

Library Journal
SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau's death in 2010 after being attacked by a killer whale made headlines, but the story goes deeper. Marine biologist and animal advocate Naomi Rose had already spent two decades challenging SeaWorld's captivity of killer whales as dangerous to both whales and humans. Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigate work for Evidence of Harm.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250002020
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 7/17/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 14.70 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

David Kirby

DAVID KIRBY is the author of Evidence of Harm, which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors award for best booke, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and Animal Factory, an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

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Read an Excerpt


Marine Biologist



Naomi Rose fell in love with dolphins at the age of thirteen. It happened in 1975 while she was watching An Evening with John Denver, a major television special that aired that year.

To Naomi, nobody was better than the Rocky Mountain songster with the boyish grin and dirty-blond mop. John Denver was the reason why she had purchased a cheap, used acoustic guitar and started strumming simple sounds from a chord chart. She had every John Denver album there was and soon taught herself to play many of his songs, belting them out with gusto.

Denver’s 1973 smash hit, “Rocky Mountain High,” had made Naomi a fan, but it also sparked her desire to work around wildlife, move to Colorado, and become a park ranger.

Another John Denver song, “Calypso” (1975), made her want to become a marine biologist. Calypso was the name of the retired minesweeper that Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a longtime friend of Denver’s, converted into a floating marine research lab. John Denver wrote the song—one of his signature hits—in celebration of Cousteau, his crew, and the beloved white vessel they made world-famous.

Naomi had tuned in to see her pop-country idol extol the wonders of the mountains and free-roaming wildlife. She wasn’t expecting a special appearance by the old marine biologist with the white hair, red cap, and cool French accent. But there he was on-screen with Denver, during a moving tribute to Cousteau’s work—the two of them sailing together on the Calypso as a cluster of dolphins surfed in the bow wave.

Naomi was transfixed. She watched the music video, primitive as it was, her eyes pegged to the screen.

As Denver’s song “Calypso” played over the images, Naomi stood and clapped along, bedazzled by the dolphins leaping through the white foam from the boat. She listened in amazement to the tune that changed her life:

Like the dolphin who guides you, you bring us beside you

To light up the darkness and show us the way.

The scene had a profound, lifelong effect on the young girl. Thanks to Denver and that seafaring Frenchman, Naomi was hooked on dolphins at a young age. (“John Denver was the gateway drug,” she would joke years later. “Jacques Cousteau was the addiction.”)

Naomi went into the living room to deliver the announcement to her folks. “I am going to study dolphins,” the thirteen-year-old declared with a calm smile. Her parents smiled back. They told Naomi that they trusted her judgment, and they gave her a lot of credit for knowing what she wanted to do, even though she was only a teenager. Naomi realized they didn’t believe her. After all, what thirteen-year-old kid knows what she wants to be?

But Naomi knew. She had never been so certain of anything in her life. There was something about those dolphins on the Denver special, just the sight of them playing at the bow of the boat. Naomi had watched Flipper as a kid, but that didn’t make her want to work with dolphins. It was just another fictional wildlife show. Naomi also watched Daktari, but that didn’t make her want to move to Africa and work with lions.

Someday, she promised herself, she would work on a boat and swim in the open sea, observing the dolphins, just like Capitaine Cousteau.

Naomi Anne Rose was born in Hastings, Michigan, a typical small town far from the ocean. But her family soon moved to the tidy suburbs of Milwaukee, where she spent her formative years. Her father was a chemist by training and worked as a medical technologist, testing blood, urine, and other samples in commercial labs. Her mother, who did not finish her college degree until she was fifty-three, worked with her husband in the medical-testing field. The couple moved frequently to take new jobs.

Naomi’s mother, Reiko Kim, was born in Tokyo and lived there through the Pacific war. Her family moved to Okinawa soon after the fighting ended. There, Reiko learned to speak English and received her primary education at the local US Air Force base. Her Korean father was a translator for the US government, and all of her friends were American military brats.

The Kim family emigrated to Hawaii when Reiko was eighteen, and a few years later that’s where she met Naomi’s father, Raymond Rose, who was stationed there during his stint in the army. The two were married in 1958, and Naomi’s oldest brother, Greg, was born in the territory of Hawaii, in 1959. Her other brother, Lawrence, was born in the state, in 1960.

Naomi’s mother is, as Naomi has put it, “very Asian—inscrutable, quite reserved.” But Reiko was a good mother, if not the warm, June Cleaver kind. She was a good cook and knew how to make terrific Halloween costumes and kept her sons busy with judo lessons and her daughter enrolled in dance class. Naomi’s father, Raymond, never really understood Naomi, though he made it abundantly clear that he was proud of her. To a young Naomi, he was a distant dad, often away on business trips. Raymond moved his family around a lot because his ambitions sometimes got the better of him. It made for an unstable childhood.

Then there were the arguments between husband and wife. They weren’t violent, but the conflict and bickering often made life at home uncomfortable. When Naomi was eleven, the precocious girl flatly suggested that her parents seek a divorce.

Naomi’s brothers were fond of their kid sister, but often gave her a hard time. The bullying was typical sibling rivalry, but Naomi had no intention of putting up with it. The boys might win the physical fights, but Naomi got them back by finding ways to get them in trouble with their mom. Did that make her a tattletale? Perhaps, but it also kept Naomi from growing up as their personal doormat. Within a few years, they had worked out a suitable détente.

Naomi was always the good girl, and quite a little square: gifted in school, well behaved if a bit too opinionated for someone that young. Naomi had always been more confident than most people, even as a young girl telling her older friends what to do.

The Rose family moved several times as Naomi was growing up, living in Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. When she was fifteen, they moved to Southern California. Though she was wary of yet another relocation, at least her new home offered access to two major marine entertainment parks. She could not wait to visit them: San Diego’s SeaWorld, home of the original Shamu, and Marineland of the Pacific, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula south of Los Angeles. Marineland had two famous killer whales: Orky II, the male, and Corky II, the female. Naomi loved seeing all the shows at both places. Now that she knew she wanted to become a marine biologist, she wanted to experience cetaceans up close. At this young age, Naomi saw only the excitement and spectacle of Corky, Orky, and Shamu leaping from the water, without giving any thought to what might be going on behind the scenes of the marvelous display. Not until years later, when she saw orcas in the wild, did she begin to think about what life must be like for them in captivity.

That summer before her junior year, the short, scrappy Asian-American teenager with wavy, dark hair, brown eyes, and steely self-confidence went on a scientific field trip up the coast of California. It was part of a summer school course she took on intertidal organisms and marine biology offered by the LA County Unified School District. After a few weeks in a classroom learning to identify tide-pool species, Naomi and several other students chaperoned by two adults drove a large RV up to Big Sur for a few days of seaside study. To her, it was the ultimate in student field trips.

The students were divided into small groups and assigned a tide pool to observe over time. They took measurements of salinity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and pH. They created graphs and tables and did field drawings showing where all the organisms were located in each pool. They sketched individual organisms and conducted censuses by species. They did sediment analyses, took weather readings, and compiled other scientific measurements with an impressive arsenal of equipment. All the while, just offshore, Pacific sea otters played and foraged in the kelp, carefree as monkeys. Naomi loved every minute of it.

But Naomi wasn’t like the other, wilder LA kids. They liked to procure illicit bottles of Boone’s Farm white zinfandel and get rather buzzed and giggly while writing their field reports. Not so Miss Rose. When offered some wine from one of the boys, she politely declined. The boy thought that was pretty cool. “You can say no without being a buzz kill,” he marveled.

At sixteen, Naomi asked if she could go away to study at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School—mostly because she wanted to stay in one place for the rest of high school. That the boarding school was near Aspen, John Denver’s home, was an added benefit. Naomi was so square that she still liked the singer and admired his environmental work. She didn’t think she’d run into the star, and she never did. But the secret hope remained.

School was easy for Naomi and she excelled in all her classes, earning straight A’s without much effort. She loved science most, especially animal behavior and ecology. Mostly Naomi just liked knowing things. She possessed an extraordinary memory to store them in: a brimming internal database of assorted factoids, both weighty and trivial, that she could retrieve at will with unnerving alacrity.

In selecting a college, Naomi made a counterintuitive choice, given her desire to study marine creatures. She planned to attend school away from the coast and wanted to get a good, solid biology degree before she specialized, she explained to her friends.

She selected Mount Holyoke, the Massachusetts liberal arts college for women, and fled her warring California household. During spring break of her first year, she traveled to the outer elbow of Cape Cod to Woods Hole, the largest nonprofit oceanographic institution in the world and a mecca for aspiring marine biologists. She wanted to check the upcoming cruise schedule for student opportunities on research ships.

That summer, Woods Hole was going to run a ship from Cape Cod to Spain and then on to the Canary Islands before returning to Massachusetts. Naomi contacted the scientists about coming along. “Sure, just show up,” she was surprised to hear from the chief scientist on the first leg of the cruise. “We can keep you busy. There are always tasks for a college student to do.”

On departure day, in early June, Naomi appeared on the dock, army-surplus duffel bag and guitar in hand. The team members hadn’t expected her to show. “Well, you’re here,” one of them said. “C’mon, I’ll show you your bunk.” It was way down in the bilge, cramped, hot, and noisy.

Naomi ended up spending more time with the burly merchant marines than the scientists because she stayed on board for the whole three months, while the research team turned over at the end of each one-month leg. The ship was to study the physical oceanography (water temperature, salinity, etc.) and the biological oceanography (plant and animal specimens, travel patterns, etc.) along certain points of the route to profile a slice of the Atlantic Ocean. Naomi was assigned menial tasks—pulling filters out of the seawater, keeping track of depth recordings, washing flasks.

It was hard to say that she “liked” the cruise, though she would never forget the experience: A young female college student at sea with a crew of beer-swilling merchant marines, many of whom had signed up to escape their questionable pasts. It was rumored that one guy did time for second-degree murder.

Naomi did not yet drink, but she learned to tolerate people who do, watching her shipmates get blisteringly drunk and then pass out. From them, she learned how to swear, quite literally like a sailor. It didn’t take long for her to win their respect. Impressed by her endurance for the hardships of being at sea, the crew rewarded Naomi with ever more comfortable quarters—from the bilge, to the second deck, and finally the top deck. Naomi also found herself in her first serious romantic relationship on the trip, with the ship’s medic, who lived near Mount Holyoke. She stayed with him for almost two years.

The wayfarer returned to school even more hooked on the ocean and its inhabitants. The first semester of her junior year, Naomi journeyed to Hawaii to attend the University of Hawaii–Manoa (the school where Barack Obama’s parents met in 1959), near downtown Honolulu. She spent the waning days of the summer with her mother’s family before renting a modest apartment with another student from Mount Holyoke and starting classes full-time at the university.

Naomi also did volunteer work at the school’s Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory, a two-acre research facility near Ala Moana Beach Park, walking distance from Waikiki. The lab housed two captive bottlenose dolphins, and its scientists were studying the animals’ language acquisition abilities through hand and audio signals. When Naomi learned that the pair of female dolphins—Phoenix and Akeakemai, or Ake (pronounced ah-KAY) for short—knew some five hundred signals based on American Sign Language, she immediately signed up to work at Kewalo.

Naomi would ride a moped, on loan from her aunt, down to the lab about twice a week after school. Student volunteers were not given a lot of responsibility—or initially much access to the dolphins. It was grunt work mostly: pushing paper, mopping decks, and, most arduous of all, cleaning out the dolphin tank. The water level would be lowered to just a few feet, leaving Phoenix and Ake to skim around in the shallows at the bottom while students scrubbed algae from the sides of the concrete tank.

Not until the last few weeks of her semester was Naomi allowed to interact with the dolphins. She began by giving fish to Ake and also started learning some of the hand signals the researchers used to study the animal’s aptitude for language acquisition. She also worked with Phoenix, who was learning computer-generated sounds instead of hand signals. Each time Phoenix performed as requested by the tones, Naomi would offer her fish or praise.

After weeks of work, the scum-scrubbing volunteers were finally rewarded with time in the water with the dolphins. Naomi was excited, but she only tried it once.

On the appointed day, she showed up clad in a two-piece bathing suit with a diving mask in her hand. She slipped into the warm Oahu seawater that filled the tank. Naomi felt slightly uneasy, but figured the dolphins would be kind to the hand that had fed them. She figured wrong.

Naomi got in the water and started swimming around the pool’s perimeter. The dolphins were alongside her. The students were told not to stop or look at the animals or to appear in any way nervous. Naomi didn’t even make it around one full circuit. She swam a few feet, but must have seemed timid. The dolphins turned on her.

Smash, bang, boom.

One of the 350-pound animals butted Naomi hard across the chest with her snout. The other slapped Naomi in the face with her fluke, sending Naomi’s mask flying.

Naomi was dazed. She lost her bearings, blinded and unable to catch her breath. She felt helpless, but she had no chance to panic, though her ribs felt as if they had been crushed as the air was expelled from her lungs. Research staff rushed to her side and dragged her from the water. The dolphins turned and swam away, slinking around at the other end of the pool. The bridge of Naomi’s nose throbbed and her ribs were seriously bruised.

Naomi looked across at the rogue dolphins. They seemed sheepish, as though they had no idea she would react so poorly to their roughhousing. But she couldn’t be angry with them.

When Naomi got back to Mount Holyoke, she went to see her mentor, Dr. Susan Smith, an animal behavior professor who had been a big influence on Naomi as a biology student. Susan had taught her how to observe animals in the wild and how to take accurate field notes. Naomi was eager to fill the professor in on her trip to Hawaii, and especially her work at Kewalo Basin with the dolphin language acquisition study.

“I think the work going on out there is very cool,” Naomi told her. “I was just amazed by the modified ASL gestures that Ake knew, and how Phoenix learned the computer-generated sound language. Their understanding of syntax alone is so remarkable. I just loved working with these animals!”

Naomi gushed about the project for quite some time, without noticing the skeptical look that had crossed her mentor’s face. “Isn’t it fascinating?” Naomi asked.

“Well,” Susan began slowly, “teaching them an artificial language so we can communicate with them is all very interesting, but I would think it would be even more cool to learn what they are trying to say to us. What about research to try to decipher their language, as opposed to teaching them an artificial one that we created?”

Naomi stopped short at this unexpected perspective. It was an unusual feeling to have someone she admired be so unimpressed by what she was describing. She pondered her mentor’s question. Naomi realized that, even though she had spent time with captive cetaceans, it had never occurred to her that they might have languages of their own, that their thoughts might work very differently from ours. For the first time, Naomi began thinking of what life in captivity must be like from a dolphin’s perspective.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1984, Naomi was accepted into the graduate program in biology at UC Santa Cruz and was bequeathed a modest merit scholarship of $5,000. But Naomi, who was skipping her master’s degree and aiming headlong for a PhD, was undecided on a topic for her dissertation. She decided to take a year off, spending half of it traveling around Europe, following in the footsteps of her brother, who’d been a vagabond around Europe the year before. Though Naomi was able to defer graduate school by a year, she had to forgo the scholarship money.

It was the first time Naomi had ever done something so unstructured: six months without a fixed itinerary, traveling through eleven countries with a Eurail Pass and a youth-hostel card. The adventure taught her how to cope with the unexpected, handle emergencies, live on a shoestring, travel light, deal with cultural differences, and enjoy her own company. Her European tour tested her confidence, competence, and ingenuity to the utmost—all three would be critical for what was coming a bit later.

By the time Naomi returned to the States, in May 1985, she had been granted a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship that would pay for three years of graduate school, with a small stipend for living costs.

Her mother was thrilled. Raymond Rose was also pleased for his daughter. But a heart attack he had suffered cast a dark pall of post-infarction depression upon him. His moroseness was too much for Naomi’s mother, and she finally filed for divorce. For Naomi, it was a rough reentry from her carefree months in Europe. Not only did she have to prepare for a PhD program, she had to comfort a divorcing, depressed father at home.

Naomi left for Santa Cruz, six hours up the coast from LA, in August of 1985—partly because school was starting soon, and partly because, once again, she just needed to get away.


Copyright © 2012 by David Kirby

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Introduction 1

Prologue 9

Part 1 Blackfish

1 Marine Biologist 29

2 Trainer 37

3 Capture 46

4 Santa Cruz 51

5 Johnstone Strait 56

6 Hotdogging 64

7 Residents vs. Transients 69

8 OrcaLab 77

9 Happy Talk 94

10 Mama's Boys 99

11 Breakfast at SeaWorld 105

12 Whale for Sale 116

13 Dissertation 130

Part 2 Dark Side

14 Arrival 139

15 Humane Society 146

16 Backstage Doubts 155

17 Blood in the Water 167

18 The Case Against 178

19 Free Willy 197

20 Protection 209

21 Kiss of Death 217

22 Catch and Release 227

23 Tilly's Willy 235

24 Better Days 238

25 The Salish Sea 245

26 The Strange Case of Daniel Dukes 255

27 Transatlantic Ties 261

28 Abnormal Activities 273

29 Ken and Kasatka 285

30 Tenerife 298

31 Death at SeaWorld 304

Part 3 After Dawn

32 Wake 317

33 Battle Stations 334

34 Oversight 348

35 Citation 370

36 Superpod 389

Epilogue 425

Notes 441

Acknowledgments 453

Index 457

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 39 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 39 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2012

    Should be required reading...

    I've been following The Orca Project blog ever since the attack at SeaWorld in 2010, so nothing in this book was new or astonishing to me. It does, however, provide a rather bleak look into the dark history of killer whale captivity as well as insight into one of the major corporations involved in keeping them in captivity today. Regardless of one's thoughts on the issue, I think everyone ought to read this at least once. This book has revived my interest in getting a graduate degree in marine science and doing some research on some of the less studied populations of killer whales throughout the world.

    13 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 24, 2012

    Required reading for cetacean lovers everywhere.

    I grew up visiting Sea World and the hope that one day I would do cetacean research myself. I have a career in the life sciences that was partly inspired by my experiences at the parks. However, we now know a lot more about these magnificent animals and have a mountain of evidence that captivity is bad for their physical, mental, and social/emotional well being. Even after Dawn Brancheau was attacked and killed, I believed it was an accident. But the more I read on the internet, the more skeptical I was about that conclusion. This book convinced me that Dawn was deliberately killed by the orca known as Tilly. I do not blame him. I blame the system that took him from his mother and set him up to mentally deteriorate over the subsequent years he has been in captivity. David Kirby asked two questions in this book: 1. Is captivity good for orcas? 2. Is captivity good for society? He carefully compiled the evidence, explained the viewpoints of those on both sides, and most importantly, cited his sources. Some of the individuals mentioned in his book declined to be interviewed. I think Mr. Kirby did a very credible job of explaining their views as carefully and accurately as possible. He recognizes that many of those in favor of captivity truly love and respect the whales and want what is best for them. But in the end, the answer to both questions is an emphatic no. Captivity is not good for orcas, it’s not even a neutral, lateral move. It’s harmful to them. And when you start looking at how many trainers have been injured and how few individuals leave the parks genuinely educated about cetaceans or instructed on concrete actions that will benefit wild whales, you have to conclude that the captivity of orcas is not good for society. We know far more about orcas than we did when the first individuals were captured and displayed for a paying public. We are now faced with the choice of loving these whales to death (as we currently do) or truly accepting responsibility for their welfare by cleaning up the oceans they call home.

    11 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2012

    Inspiring read!

    Full of information, facts, points to think about, different views, etc. It was difficult for me to not constantly be reading this book. As a teacher, I think this book should be highly suggested reading for high school/ college students with an interest in animals and the various related subjects of study. As a knowledge seeker, this book inspired me to find out more information about the activist groups and books/ articles mentioned. Orcas have been my favorite animal since I was about 4 years old...and always will be. As part of all living things who share this earth, we should do all we can to help protect - especially those without voices.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2012

    This is a hit piece exclusively for the lobbyist Dr. N. Rose. Th

    This is a hit piece exclusively for the lobbyist Dr. N. Rose. There are
    so many things wrong with this that it would be hard to fit it all in
    this space. David Kirby should be classified as a ghost writer for Dr.
    Rose. This is so one sided that no one could call this an investigation,
    or even persuasive writing by a sophmore in high school English.class.
    Don't waste a cent of your money or a second of your time on this trash.
    Oh and Dr. Rose, I will continue to take my kids and grandkids to Sea
    World and Zoos without even a hint of remorse or feeling my kids are not
    getting an informal education. What a joke!

    3 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2012

    As a season pass holder of Sea World...I had no idea. As a mom.

    As a season pass holder of Sea World...I had no idea.

    As a mom... I just wanted to cry.

    This is an amazing book!!

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2014

    Maybe you should actually think before you write a review.

    Some of these reviews of absolutely horrible. What some of you are not getting out if this book is that animals, no matter how big or small, should not be kept in captivity for human entertainment. Saying that this book is just to get the reader "feeling" is a terrible argument. Yes, the book is supposed to connect to the human side of the reader, its supposed to get the reader feeling. Some of you are missing the point. The deaths are horrible but at the same time you have to expect them. You cannot get into a fish tank with a killer whale and expect to not be in danger. Orcas are far more intelligent than humans. By saying this book sucked and you will be returning to sea world in the summer is not a review. It is simply you being an arrogant jerk.
    The book puts thoughts into the readers minds that they may not have thought about before. It is an excellent book and is worth every cent. Yes, the book will make you feel, but isn't that what's supposed to happen when you read about animal cruelty? This book is absolutly fantasic. It is a must read. The points it makes are in the interest of the animals, not the humans.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 12, 2012

    In my first and last visit to SeaWorld (the one in San Diego), I

    In my first and last visit to SeaWorld (the one in San Diego), I remember feeling perturbed as I watched these whales "perform." I felt it was not right to confine these magnificent creatures in swimming pools - maybe large by human standards but still tiny compared to the oceans they could roam - and demeaning to make them perform tricks for the crowd's entertainment. Mr. Kirby clearly articulates the reasons behind my instinctive unease. Well-researched and incisive, the book tells us why it is wrong to take the whales or any animals out of their natural habitat. Especially when commercial motivations are involved. A must-read for anyone concerned about environmental and/or animal rights issues.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2013

    This book is packed with valuable and underrated information and

    This book is packed with valuable and underrated information and it somehow still reads like a fast-paced novel. It's easily one of the most inspiring books I've ever read. David Kirby's passion for animal rights somehow manages to shine through his objective research and reporting. It's an absolute must-read for anyone who has ever been or wanted to go to SeaWorld.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2012

    Animal Rights Propoganda

    The book doesn't talk much about scientific evidence that hasn't been rfuted by other experts in the field. The whole book appeals to the emotions of the reader, not facts. The criticisms of SeaWorld are from twenty years ago, thinhs habe definitely changed by now. The former employees were also fired, so they jave reason to speak against the company. SeaWorrld does care about its animals-people don't want to see sick or unhealthy animals. The book also fails to discuss all of Sea World's comservation efforts to help save theorca and other species of marine wildlife. This book is merely animal rights propoganda and nothimg more.

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2012

    I couldn't put this book down! This book is full of facts. I'v

    I couldn't put this book down! This book is full of facts. I've never
    been a fan of Zoo's, Animal Parks or Museums, they've always left me
    feeling depressed and heartbroken for the lives these wild animals have
    left behind for our amusement. This book enlightened me about what
    really goes on behind the scenes at Seaworld and it made me sick to my

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 3, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    excellent book!

    excellent book!

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2015


    Wi be back at 1:00 pm. Pacific time

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2014


    Aswome book ever

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 26, 2014

    A must for anyone who seeks the truth!

    David Kirby is a gifted investigative writer.....this was a book it seems he felt compelled to write. If you want the inside story of how heartbreaking captivty is for Orca,please read this well written book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 12, 2014

    very long read and sometimes hard to follow with all the info bu

    very long read and sometimes hard to follow with all the info but really informitive and after watching blackfish and reading this book i will never give up informing my friends and anyone else who will listen how unfair and cruel these places are. Naomi rose is an amazing woman and i hope all her efforts and everyones effort involved are rewarded . LOVE this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 11, 2014

    Well written; great book

    Loved it. Stuck on Orcas for a while now.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2014


    Name: nick but call him grimm age: 20 height: 6 feet wheight: 300 lbs appearence: thin,pale skin(sometimes) green eyes, black hair. Friends: none. Anything else just ask

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2014


    They have a mvie about rhis book and documentaries about shamu. I actually wanted to work with them. They are unique animals.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2013

    Great book to read

    Is a great book to read about the killer whales and etc.... but also have to watch blackfish on cnn and watched the show twice andis so intresting and want to know more about the creaturee and first of all is not the kiler whales false and blame the trainers and the trainers have to work and train with killer whales and other really hard not to get kill or hurt like othet trainers of what happen.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2013

    Eye-Opening! Read this book if you love whales!!

    As a young child, I always wanted to be a "Shamu Trainer." After reading this book, however, I am glad fate had other plans for me! This book opened my eyes to the horrible lives the Orcas at Seaworld lead & made me realize that Seaworld is nothing more than a money-hungry powerhouse that basically sentences these magnificant creatures to a shortened life of horrific slavery. Despite knowing the whales are wild animals, I underestimated the true danger inherent in working with them. I remember my last visit to Seaworld San Antonio (in 2009) & I can't believe the trainers were still picking a child from the audience to touch & kiss Shamu during the shows. Thank God nothing bad happened during those interactions! The book also educated me on the true nature of wild Orcas & I am hoping to be able to see them in their natural habitat one day.
    Overall, the book was well written, although slightly slow moving in some spots. It caused me to search for Naomi Rose on the internet & also search for & watch the recorded attacks that occurred at Seaworld. I recommend this book to all whale lovers & anyone who has ever spent money visiting a might just change your mind about going back!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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