Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish

Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish

by John Hargrove, Howard Chua-Eoan


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Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove, Howard Chua-Eoan

*Now a New York Times Best Seller*

Over the course of two decades, John Hargrove worked with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld's U.S. facilities. For Hargrove, becoming an orca trainer fulfilled a childhood dream. However, as his experience with the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. When two fellow trainers were killed by orcas in marine parks, Hargrove decided that SeaWorld's wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers.

After leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove became one of the stars of the controversial documentary Blackfish. The outcry over the treatment of SeaWorld's orca has now expanded beyond the outlines sketched by the award-winning documentary, with Hargrove contributing his expertise to an advocacy movement that is convincing both federal and state governments to act.

In Beneath the Surface, Hargrove paints a compelling portrait of these highly intelligent and social creatures, including his favorite whales Takara and her mother Kasatka, two of the most dominant orcas in SeaWorld. And he includes vibrant descriptions of the lives of orcas in the wild, contrasting their freedom in the ocean with their lives in SeaWorld.

Hargrove's journey is one that humanity has just begun to take-toward the realization that the relationship between the human and animal worlds must be radically rethought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250081407
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/19/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 207,450
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JOHN HARGROVE has 14 years' experience as a killer whale trainer. His experience spans both SeaWorld of California and SeaWorld of Texas where he was promoted to the highest ranking Senior Trainer. John also has an international reputation, having been a Supervisor with MarineLand in the south of France. He resigned his position with SeaWorld in August 2012 and currently resides in New York City.

HOWARD CHUA-EOAN was News Director of TIME magazine from 2000 to 2013; he is now a Deputy Managing Editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.

Read an Excerpt

Beneath the Surface

Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish

By John Hargrove, Howard Chua-Eoan

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2015 John Hargrove
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7881-5



What happens when a six-year-old boy sees his first orca?

It was my first trip to SeaWorld Orlando with my parents and I was immediately captivated by the killer whale's compelling combination of beauty and danger. The orcas were enormous and they were killers, swift and sleek and toothed. And yet they were gentle and friendly to the trainers in the water with them. Those men and women were not ordinary people. Even though they were puny in size compared to the orcas, the trainers were contoured like gods. There was something almost supernatural in the way they performed in harmony with the killer whales. I wanted that power too. I not only wanted to have a killer whale. I wanted to be one of the people who trained them.

I could not have been the only one so inspired that summer day in 1980. There were at least 5,000 other people in the audience in SeaWorld cheering and applauding as the orcas performed with the trainers. The spectacle at Shamu Stadium was a magical combination of water and muscle—both human and cetacean—as the whales and their trainers sped through the pools and leapt into the air with acrobatic poise. I had never seen anything like it before.

I was a few weeks shy of seven but I knew from the moment I saw trainers and whales appear together that I wanted to be part of that world, to become a member of that small troupe of wonderworkers who could talk to the whales, who could understand the orcas' responses, who were not afraid of the enormous jaws, fins, flippers and flukes that came crashing down, splashing water out of the show pools. I wanted to be one of the select few who were an intimate part of the whales' lives.

I began to dream that day. There must have been others in the audience who fantasized about it as well. But I was certain that I was going to make my dream come true.

Summer vacation for me always meant a road trip with my parents. And in 1980, my mother and my stepfather decided we'd all go to Orlando. We couldn't afford to fly so we drove the nearly 900 miles from our home among the bayous of east Texas to the theme park capital of America. The contrast was dramatic: Orange, Texas was a monotonous, flat swampland while Orlando was punctuated with architectural extravagance, from Cinderella's castle in Walt Disney World to the adamantine giant golf ball of EPCOT Center. And then there was SeaWorld.

At first, it was the dolphins that had my attention. My parents couldn't drag me away from their petting pool. It had taken long enough to wait my turn to touch the animals and I can still remember how profound the experience was. But I would soon shift my fascination from the dolphins to much bigger things.

We joined the crowds headed into Shamu Stadium. The coliseum for killer whales was already the largest animal performance space in the marine park, far bigger than the theaters built for the dolphins or the sea lions and otters. Seated in the middle of an audience that was a third the size of the entire population of Orange, Texas, I was visually and emotionally overwhelmed as we watched the spectacle unfold. I was mesmerized by how the whales followed signals as ephemeral as a magician's hocus-pocus gestures. The creatures would come and go to the slapping of water by their human co-performers—a miracle that was almost biblical to me.

I began my campaign to join SeaWorld soon after that first show, when my parents took me to meet the trainers and ask them questions. Each year from then on, I would insist that we return to SeaWorld—if not in Orlando, then in San Antonio, after a branch opened there in 1988. At every visit, after each show, I would hound the trainers, asking them what they did to get their jobs and what I had to do to become one of them.

After SeaWorld opened in San Antonio, I was at the marine park ever more often. I always brought detailed technical questions for the trainers about animal behavior. But I also knew then (and know now) how awkward some of the questions from well-meaning visitors can be. I've been asked things like, "How'd you get those sharks to do that?" or "How do they get their vegetables in the water?" My questions may not have been that unknowing but I must have annoyed the trainers with the sheer volume of my queries.

When I was 12, I started a two-year letter-writing campaign, sending off missive after missive to ask for counsel and guidance from the trainers and from SeaWorld executives and managers. I wanted nothing else. I just had to make this dream come true.

I guess that even as a child I was looking for a way out of Orange, Texas. And what greater fantasy could there be than to escape to a life swimming with the world's most magnificent marine predator?

There was nothing awful about Orange itself. You'd go to church on Sunday, taking your pick from a bunch of Southern Baptist congregations. For fun, you'd take a three-wheeler or four-wheeler into the woods. You'd go mudding. Whatever your choice, it usually involved the woods.

The one real thing that always got people excited was the football rivalry between the two local high schools: Little Cypress Mauriceville versus West Orange Stark. My cousin Tracy remembers my trailing along to all her pep rallies. The underlying ugliness was that Little Cypress was the white school and West Orange was the predominantly black one. In my town, in the 1980s, the races still lived apart, coming together only to clash via football—with all the combined awfulness of sports fanaticism and bigotry. Orange, however, had nothing on the notoriety of the city of Vidor, just about 20 miles away. The Ku Klux Klan marched there well into the 1980s; and when black families moved into public housing in Vidor during that decade, they were greeted with burning crosses.

The whales—as dangerous as they might be—were much more attractive than some humans.

The moment we returned from that first trip to SeaWorld in Orlando, I got my hands on everything I could read about killer whales. We had a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica at home, and I studied every article it had about orcas, whales and dolphins. There really wasn't much. It only contained two pages about dolphins. Technically, killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family (which is part of the cetacean group to which whales belong) but trainers and even most scientists refer to orcas as whales. In any case, the encyclopedia simply wasn't enough to satisfy me. Nevertheless, I read those articles again and again; eventually the pages were so worn out they practically fell out of the volume.

A few years before, in 1977, the movie Orca had come out in the theaters. It's the story of a male killer whale who goes on a rampage after humans kill his mate and her calf. I found it on VHS after one of our family's summer trips to SeaWorld and watched it repeatedly. I always rooted for the whale. But Orca seemed strangely unappealing to me—and I am certain it was because the humans and the whale were set against each other.

I loved movies. My mother's sister, Aunt Darlene Tindel, recalls how excited I was when she got her first VCR—the first member of my extended clan to get one of the new machines. I couldn't wait to stay over for a weekend, and when I finally did, we went out and rented ten movies.

The film that spoke to me most eloquently was The Big Blue, Luc Besson's 1988 film about the relationship between dolphins and a free diver—a specialized swimmer who can descend to immense depths in the ocean on a single breath without scuba gear. I wanted to be the star, Jean-Marc Barr, whose character, Jacques Mayol, assumed many qualities of dolphins because of his love for those marine mammals and the sea. At the end, after a series of diving competitions, he realizes he is dying as a consequence of a contest with his best friend and closest rival—a tragic incident that ended in his friend's death. A distraught Mayol chooses to return to the waters to perish in the depths as well, giving up the human love of his life, played by the actress Rosanna Arquette. As he drifts toward oblivion deep down in the sea, a dolphin appears to take his spirit to its proper home. I watched the film so often the tape of my VHS copy of the movie snapped.

Both movies were prophetic about my life in specific but small ways. One of the "stunt" whales that appeared in Orca was Corky, who would become the first killer whale I would ever swim with when my career as a trainer in SeaWorld took off. As for The Big Blue, a lot of the movie takes place in Marineland in Antibes, France where I moved in 2001 when I accepted a supervisor position of its killer whale training program.

I slowly absorbed what was out there about killer whales—fact and fiction and legend. The scientific name of the species, Orcinus orca, echoes with allusions to classical and modern monsters—from Orcus, a Roman spirit of the underworld, to the Orcs, the huge goblins from the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ancient writers saw the voraciousness of killer whales—epitomized in the relentless waves with which they attacked larger cetaceans—as a metaphor for the insatiability of death. In North America, the orca was seen as a kind of werewolf, the whale being the wolf spirit transformed in winter to guide the indigenous peoples toward the seals that would sustain them in cold weather—just as the wolf guided them to deer in warmer months. On both hemispheres, the myths of the killer whale satisfied the meaning of the word "monster" at its origin—from the Italian mostrare, to show or to demonstrate, that is, in effect, to teach. Because of its power and its intelligence, the orca was expected to teach cosmic lessons of life and death to a human race that, by the twentieth century, had become estranged from nature.

Books and popular culture provided fun facts about orcas. But I believed that the real answers to my questions could come only from one place: SeaWorld. I continued to write letters to several people in the company, asking for the requirements I had to meet to become a trainer. All that pestering was in addition to the annual trips to SeaWorld in Orlando and years later San Antonio, where I'd line up to see the trainers after their performances and then pepper them with the same questions.

One day in 1985, I got the detailed answers I had been asking for. It was both bracing and terrifying. Dan Blasko, the director of animal training at SeaWorld in Orlando, was kind enough to reply. I was floored that someone so high up in the organization would take the time to write back to me. But I was also devastated by the response. He was very polite but not particularly encouraging. He said that since there were few positions available and so many applicants for them it would be best for me to have back-up plans for careers in other fields. He was courteous but quite firm when he said that there was an extremely high likelihood that I was never going to get my dream job. He was being realistic—and kind—but it punctured my fantasy that simply wanting something hard enough would make it happen.

Blasko, however, also mapped out everything that he believed a good applicant for the job of SeaWorld trainer had to have on his or her resume. I needed a degree in either psychology or marine biology, scuba certification, public speaking experience and volunteer work with animal welfare organizations. Most importantly, I needed to pass a grueling swim test that seemed to require lungs as powerful as a cinematic free diver. My hopes could well have been dashed by Blasko's frankness, but I was determined to learn the basic requirements he outlined—or surpass them—so that when the time came and a position opened up at SeaWorld, I would get the job.

Ever since I was child, water has always been a part of my world—and it provides a powerful dichotomy in my life. Even at a young age, I knew that water can give, and water can also take away.

Water almost killed my mother. I was just four when the accident that nearly took her life occurred. But the impression it left on me was so powerful that even before I became obsessed with whales, I was determined that I would become a good swimmer, so strong and comfortable in the water that it would feel like home.

My stepdad liked to go out in boats and would convince my mother, who was never comfortable in them, to accompany him. On one weekend trip on the Sabine River, not far from Orange and right on the Louisiana border, they tooled around in one of those small aluminum boats with a motor. Suddenly, a bigger and more powerful boat sped by and the wake capsized my parents' craft, tossing my mother and stepfather into the water. There was no kill switch for the motor, so the now-unmanned boat began to circle in the water. My mother, who was wearing an orange life jacket, was about to surface when the propellers of the boat's motor slammed into her chest. The life jacket was both a blessing and a curse. If not for the preserver, her chest and breast area would have been ripped to shreds. The thickness of the jacket prevented that. However, it had now become massively entangled in the propellers themselves. Unable to remove herself from the jacket, she was now caught underwater and was beginning to drown.

In the meantime, the boat whose wake had knocked my parents into the water returned to the scene and its crew was helping my stepfather in his frantic search for my mother. She told me years later that she could hear them screaming her name. She was submerged for what eyewitnesses said was easily close to two minutes or more. In the end, she managed to free herself. Fortunately, the vest and its straps had so clogged up the motor that the blades had stopped spinning. She went to the hospital with bruising and tissue trauma at chest level. When I finally saw her, I was not allowed to hug her.

I was very young but I was still aware of the severity of the event. Even before the accident, I was obsessed with water and would even practice holding my breath in a full bathtub. I was already taking swimming lessons and now had even better reason to work hard at them.

Years later, when I was already well under way in my SeaWorld trainer career and a success in the water, the other side of the dichotomy would strike at my family again. I used to admire my cousin John Carroll, who was ten years older than I, seeing him often at reunions at my maternal grandparents' home in Big Thicket, Texas. The family always called him John Carroll; it's a Southern thing.

He and a friend were on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico when they got lost in the middle of a storm, thrown into the water by the tempest. The two men, wearing life vests, tied two coolers together so that they could hold on to them as they floated in the sea. After hours adrift overnight, hypothermia quickly set in and both men struggled to remain conscious. When they floated to within sight of an oil rig, John Carroll's friend said he would try to swim there for help, telling my cousin to hold on. But the man realized that he was too weak to make it to the oil rig and swam back to the coolers. When he returned, however, John Carroll was no longer there. The authorities presume he lost consciousness and slipped out of his life vest into the deep. His friend was rescued by the Coast Guard, which had been searching for the men.

I continued my annual trips to SeaWorld with my family. I knew who all the trainers were, and by the time I was 14, I had two definite idols among them—people whose talents and temperaments I wanted to emulate.

Anita Lenihan always gave me a lot of time. She came out of the SeaWorld San Diego facility, the premier park in the empire. She was honest about herself and what a career at SeaWorld would demand. She'd always talk to me while I waited to speak to the orca trainers after the performances—and I'd listen even though she worked with sea lions and not with the whales. After all, as a senior SeaWorld trainer, she was a valuable source of information. She never sugarcoated anything. She'd tell me how she'd never be able to pass the swim test if she had to try out for SeaWorld anew. She was happy to work with the sea lions, despite knowing that all the prestige came from being in Shamu Stadium. She had a great touch with the animals both up close and on stage during the shows. Years after I first began harassing her as a child, I would work with Anita as an apprentice trainer in San Antonio. My opinion of her has never changed, only grown stronger.


Excerpted from Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove, Howard Chua-Eoan. Copyright © 2015 John Hargrove. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Knowledge of the Military Art - 1754
Chapter 2 Blows Must Decide - 1774
Chapter 3 The Predicament We Are In - 1775
Chapter 4 Learning to be Soldiers - 1775
Chapter 5 Precious Convoy - 1776
Chapter 6 Sudden and Violent - 1776
Chapter 7 Valcour Island - 1776
Chapter 8 An Indecisive Mind - 1776
Chapter 9 Your Country is at Stake - 1776
Chapter 10 A Continual Clap of Thunder - 1777
Chapter 11 Fight As Well As Brag - 1777
Chapter 12 Something More at Stake - 1777
Chapter 13 The Discipline of the Leggs - 1778
Chapter 14 The Boldest Conduct - 1779
Chapter 15 The Fate of Battle - 1780
Chapter 16 Downright Fighting - 1780
Chapter 17 War is an Intricate Business - 1781
Chapter 18 America is Ours - 1781
Chapter 19 Our Troops - 1782
Chapter 20 The Large Hearts of Heroes - 1824

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Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
MichelleBB More than 1 year ago
This book is so emotional heartwarming and tragic all at once. Breaks my heart the world has been so blind. Time to empty the tanks and leave the wild free to live their lives. Not living in concrete prisons. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was excellent as it was equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not sure what to expect, the book was very good, well written and lots of behind the scenes information.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book! Very touching. Makes me see things very differently. John Hargrove is a wonderful man!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a great illustration of someone who did support seaworld and how he came to realize all of the horrible things they are doing. Great book!
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antuga More than 1 year ago
Interesting and relatable! I remember my own years of doing the same thing as child - wanting this dream, working hard to follow the same path to get there. Lucky for me, my path was diverted, and now years later I'm grateful this path didn't come to pass for me. Orcas are amazing, powerful, awe-inspiring family groups. We have so much to learn from them, but no amount of chlorine tanks, starvation, unnatural exposure and trained dog tricks will ever get people to appreciate them for what they are. Empty the tanks! And a big thanks to John Hargrove for fighting the riptide of negativity to bring this truth out into the light. #orcahero
HuntersMom More than 1 year ago
Would give this 10 stars if possible! John gives a heartfelt and factual account of the tragedy of whales in captivity. He sheds light on what SeaWorld does not want the public to know. SeaWorld is all about the money, not conservation. They breed females through AI before they are ready to be mothers and then traumatize them more by separating them from their calves. John compares whales in captivity with whales in the wild in an informative, interesting way. I highly recommend this book and the movie "Blackfish" as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book gives even more depth to how captivity is wrong. A good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put it down
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a hunter. And I know what you're all thinking: "He's a hunter!! He hates animals!! Grrr!! Boo!! Hiss!!" Well, first and foremost I love animals. To me it doesn't matter if I hunt them 'cause they're gonna wind up in Heaven anyway (and yes Heaven and God both exist). I also bird, so I'm not a viscous meanie. Anyway, back to the matter at hand. I believe the orcas in SeaWorld should be released if possible and the ones who can't should be brought to a quiet place for them to live out their days (I'm thinking Lake Superior for them. They wouldn't harm the fishing too much and would provide excellent tourism). Anyway, here are some things you shouldn't do: 1: Don't go to SeaWorld for obvious reasons. 2: Don't donate to the Humane Society of America, PITA, or the Sierra Club. This may come as a shock, but they couldn't care less about homeless dogs or cats and they certainly don't csre about whales. They only want your money in order to stop wildlife management (which is responsible for the Endangered Species Act and CITES) and stop hunting entirely (by the way, hunters are responsible for setting aside protected areas, lobbying to protect endangered animals like lynx and wolverine and setting right the wrongs caused by market hunting. Not so bad now huh?). Here are some things you can do: 1: Tell people the truth about SeaWorld. 2: Join protesters around SeaWorld. If enough voices are raised, we can do something. 3: Befriend a hunter or farmer. We have a strict code of ethics and completely agree with treating animals with respect. 4: If you can try to make a petition to SeaWorld and get most of your town to sign it (I understand this may be difficult in big cities. Just try to get as many signatures as possible). That is all and I hope that you see you hav allies in hunters and farmers, we like the wild and the creatures in it as much as you do!! One last note: both PITA and the Humane Society of America try to discredit hunters by telling lies about our sport and trying to claim it is cruel and not needed. So please talk to a hunter to find out if the lies are true and draw your own conclusion. That's all!!
TexasLizzieLou More than 1 year ago
You can feel that John tells his story from the heart. You can feel the love and the passion he shared with these beautiful Orcas. BUT you can also feel his pain as these beautiful Orcas are trapped in a world only expected to perform for us and to be rewarded by living in very undesirable captivity conditions. I recommend this book to everyone who has and will be attending a Sea World or other such aquatic parks, this will change your mind and heart.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book very interesting. It was hard to put down
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is so heart warming and tragic at the same time and it is expensive.I
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The man is a racist phony and a hypocrite! Read Killing Keiko instead of this fiction!