Author: John Hargrove (with Howard Chua-Eoan)
As an animal lover, and thus a SeaWorld hater, I’d been both anticipating and feeling somewhat apprehensive about reading ‘Beneath the Surface’ for quite some time. The book is an exposé on SeaWorld written by former senior orca trainer, and now orca advocate, John Hargrove to highlight the mistreatment of orcas within the corporation. Given the unnerving subject matter, I’m not entirely sure one can say they enjoyed this book, but it is definitely one of those books that feels like a necessary read.
Before I review ‘Beneath the Surface’, I feel as though I ought to make a few things clear. Firstly, I am an animal lover who is neither vegetarian nor vegan- I simply love animals and hate to see them being abused or suffering. Similarly, I wouldn’t consider myself to have particularly extreme views on animal rights. I have seen the anti-SeaWorld documentary ‘Blackfish’, but hated the idea of SeaWorld, and indeed any zoo, long before that. Like many children, I was taken to the theme park aged seven and thought the whales and their tricks were the most amazing things I’d ever seen. I even left wanting to become a trainer myself. I only realised how barbaric the concept of placing a huge animal in a tank, which must surely seem like a bathtub to it, for its entire life and forcing it to perform degrading tricks was when I looked at the situation through older, less-mesmerised eyes.
With regards to the book, Hargrove gives an honest, well-written account of his time as a trainer. He has been truly brave by daring to defy such an influential company in order to broadcast the truths people planning to visit SeaWorld really should know. Readers will be able to comprehend the idea of harboring a childhood dream when Hargrove describes how he always wanted to work with whales. He perfectly conveys the childish innocence I have previously discussed as he describes visiting the park as a child who does not think about the ethics of such a place.
‘Beneath the Surface’ is a book with a rare ability; it really makes its readers think. It shows how idiotic and arrogant human beings have been to ever think we could train an animal as intelligent and large as an orca, and reinforces my opinion that we are never fully in control of an animal. Tragically, SeaWorld proved this when Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando, killed a senior trainer in 2010. He has been involved in the deaths of two other people, and a trainer was also killed by an orca at a SeaWorld-affiliated marine park in the Canary Islands. Trainers have been injured or had ‘near-misses’ with whales over the years too. No matter how much we think we are helping an animal, e.g. by keeping a whale fed and ‘safe’ at SeaWorld, I firmly believe that this isn’t always the case. Animals simply aren’t meant to be used in entertainment. Those who would recoil at a dancing bear in the street or a circus where animals are abused but spend their weekends at SeaWorld need to consider that the animals in marine parks are the same type of animal- one that has been forced to perform unnaturally by humans.
Some of you may be wondering how I can have read this book and not harbour a hatred for Hargrove due to the part he has played in popularising SeaWorld, however I genuinely feel he worked there for the right reasons. He loved the animals rather than the cruel variety of capitalism and consumerism SeaWorld represents. Furthermore, his account of the events he witnessed there is truthful, and one gets the impression it hasn’t been sensationalised just to sell the novel. Hargrove is very educated on both the whales themselves and how captivity has affected them. Actual scientific facts are used to reinforce the notion that captivity really isn’t beneficial for the orcas at SeaWorld. The fact animals have had their welfare compromised to aid the rise of a corporation is, quite frankly, sickening; as is the way the deaths and injuries of trainers have been played off as being their own fault, and not the actions of aggressive whales tired of being stuck in tanks. A tank, no matter how large SeaWorld claims it is, can never compete with a whole ocean.
‘Beneath the Surface’ is an incredibly easy read with real meaning and feeling behind it. Regardless of whether or not you dislike SeaWorld or have seen ‘Blackfish’, this is a must-read. If someone as dedicated to whales as Hargrove can be turned away from SeaWorld, then you can be too. This is a book by someone who takes the right approach to animal rights- he isn’t too radical, but is prepared to campaign for changes to be made, and suggests ways in which these changes can be enforced. The fact SeaWorld has accused Hargrove of being borderline delusional just proves one of the many points he is trying to make: SeaWorld knows what it is doing to its orcas is unnatural (particularly the artificial insemination that has produced inbred calves) but will do anything to try and stop people from realising. Much to the corporation’s dismay, however, people are beginning to question whether we really do have the right to can such majestic creatures. I challenge anyone who supports SeaWorld to read this book and not have their opinion at least slightly changed.
Rating: ***** (5/5)
‘Captivity is captivity, no matter how gentle the jailer’.