Death at SeaWorld

I have just turned the last page in “Death at SeaWorld” by David Kirby. Unfortunately, there is still no sight of the last page of the controversial practice of keeping orcas and other cetaceans in captivity. Kirby makes a solid argument that we should be turning that page as soon as possible.

For those who don’t know me, I am a marine biologist and totally fascinated and enthralled by cetaceans. My field of expertise is environmental education and as SeaWorld constantly claims they are educating the public by keeping orcas in captivity, they fall slap-bang in the middle of my interests. I will also be honest. I have been to SeaWorld. My family visited California when I was 11 and naturally we went. I don’t remember much about it, truth be told. I do remember the look on the tour guides face when, on our behind the scenes tour, I asked if all their dolphins were captive bred. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that they might still have animals that had been taken from the wild. Looking back at it now, they almost certainly did, despite the fact I was told they weren’t. The point is, knowing what I know now, there is no way I would ever step over the threshold of a SeaWorld while they still have cetaceans on display. I have felt that way for years and the film Blackfish has finally catapulted the discussion firmly into mainstream culture.

Death at SeaWorld is an open and honest account of the long and sordid history of the SeaWorld orcas. It is also balanced. Kirby takes pains to point out the things that SeaWorld did right, as well as the things they did wrong. He also emphasises that he did try to get interviews with industry defenders but most of them declined to be interviewed. Perhaps they thought Kirby would twist their words, (I don’t believe he would have done) or perhaps they didn’t want a written record of being on the wrong side of history. Regardless, it has left a gap in the narrative that Kirby tried to fill himself, something I feel he wasn’t obligated to do.

The story of Tilikum and the other captive orcas is told in parallel with that of Dr. Naomi Rose, from her research days to her current employment at the Humane Society of the United States, and her continual battle to protect both the wild and captive counterparts of the animals she loves to much. Although this book reads like an emotional rollercoaster, it is based firmly in facts and science. Kirby makes no wild sweeping emotional claims, doesn’t generalise, and never makes things up because they sound good. The background of Dr. Rose does much to help you come to terms with the fact that although SeaWorld might be saying they are giving their animals a superior life, wild orcas clearly have a better one.

Death at SeaWorld is page turner like no other factual book I have ever read. From the first barbaric captures of wild orca, to the (arguably successful) release of Keiko (the orca from Free Willy), and finally the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau, you feel as if you are being swept along by the real life events recorded in the book. Even if you have no interest in the captivity debate currently dominating the news, this is a book worth your time. You’ll never see Shamu in the same way again.

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