Book of the Month Club: Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

Kasatka never got over the separation from her first offspring. Three years after they were separated, trainers recorded Takara’s vocalisations in Florida and played them back in California for Kasatka. The sound of Takara, however, caused immediate consternation in the older whale, who became extremely agitated, swimming rapidly around the pool and emitting vocalizations that were tight and fast, with rapid breaths.

…Whales do remember. Are they able to forgive?

From childhood, John Hargrove’s one dream was to become a SeaWorld employee. When he got his big break when he was twenty, he began training the smaller SeaWorld animals before he became a killer whale trainer. Through his training in behavioural psychology and biology, Hargrove became one of the many people who learned to train and interact with the whales at SeaWorld, performing with them and entertaining hundreds of thousands of people. Yet, as the scandal of a trainer’s death in 2010 proved, there really is something going on “beneath the surface” of the glitz and glamour of the art of the whale shows.

Hargrove tells his story about rising in the ranks of SeaWorld, he mentions small things that start making cracks in the perfect picture that the institution that continues to thrive on its whale shows. Years of captivity takes their toll on the animals that are in captivity: early arthritis in sea lions, the boredom and aggression in the orcas. Trained early and well, Hargrove clearly knows his stuff about orcas: how they sleep, how they interact, how they suffer. He introduces us to the many whales he worked with over the years, unique in every way. While not as known as the many whales known as “Shamu” or Tilikum, one such whale we meet is Splash, who had epilepsy (a condition unknown to whales in the wild) and who was plagued by digestion problems. Hargrove relates how one of Splash’s companions would help him breathe and protect him from injuries whenever Splash would have a seizure. Splash eventually succumbed to complications due to periodontis, which the author believes was caused by his ingesting toxic filtration sand being released into his stomach due to an ulcer.

As his story progresses, he begins detailing the whale’s treatment in more detail, almost as if he is able to see it more clearly now that he is a full-fledged trainer. Some of the stories he tells are horrific: for instance, female whales are not impregnated naturally; they have to lie on their backs, with their blowhole (what they use to breathe) submerged in water for almost 10 minutes for them to be impregnated artificially, causing her discomfort. Although the trainers meant well and help the female whales to feel okay, Hargrove says that he sees now that the treatment—all for a corporation—is barbaric now to his eyes. Once babies are born, they are sometimes shipped to different parks; in the epigraph, Kasatka, who was separated from her calf, never seemed to recover from her loss.

But what is the most interesting of the book, apart from the whale facts, is that Hargrove relates SeaWorld’s party line, how he bought into it (almost from childhood), and, eventually, how he broke free from the ideology, which is a good read in itself. Physically exhausted and broken from aggressions from the whales and overwhelmed by the deaths of Dawn Brancheau and Alex Martinez and SeaWorld’s dealing with the affairs, Hargrove took a hard look and, reluctantly, reassessed the position he’d held. His conflicted feelings still resonate in his writing, but what rings clear is his grief over the whales that he thought flourished under his wing. Recommended reading for animal lovers and the general public alike.