On a family trip to Orlando in 1980, John Hargrove saw a killer whale show at SeaWorld and immediately knew his vocation. He wanted to be a trainer and ride the orcas into the air. To get his wish, he focused on learning everything about the whales and convinced his family to take vacations that included the Florida theme park. He asked trainers questions at the park and wrote letters to them from home. Finally in 1993, his dream came true when he was hired as apprentice trainer at SeaWorld in San Antonio.
In Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, he recounts how after many years as a dedicated SeaWorld employee he slowly realized how his love for being with the killer whales had blinded him to the ethics of using them in popular entertainment. He saw they were stressed by the demands of performing unnatural behaviors up to seven times a day and then bored in the confinement in small pools when not in training or performing. He was also appalled by the discomfort and danger to whales required for artificial insemination and by SeaWorld's policy of separating mothers and offspring, who would be together for life in the ocean. He began to sense the truth in the animal rights movement criticism of trained animal entertainment.
Changing sides was still difficult because it meant leaving his employment, closest friends, and the whales he loved. Agreeing to speak out in the documentary Blackfish was his declaration of his new conscience.
While at first glance Beneath the Surface might seem a book that would appeal to a narrow audience, for Hargrove is hardly a national celebrity or killer whales a frequent front page news story (except when a trainer is accidentally killed), but his situation is universal. Many of us have matters of conscience that trouble us upon which we do not act because we would sacrifice so much. Combine that with subjects of animal rights, wildlife conservation, government regulation, and corporate responsibility and the title deserves a wider audience. Nonfiction book discussion groups should consider Beneath the Surface.
Hargrove, John. Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 272p. ISBN 9781137280107.