I was 9-years old and unstoppably curious when my family visited SeaWorld, Orlando in the middle of spring break. We were enchanted by the park's extravagant commercials, by cheering crowds, laughing children, and computer-generated orcas leaping above the clouds. Like many at the time, before "Blackfish" or even "The Cove" exposed the horrors of orca and dolphin captivity, I was unaware of the appalling differences between life in the ocean and life in a tank. Thankfully, it would be the last time I didn't know.
I walked out of the main stadium with a heavy heart. I didn't know his individual name at the time - only that the biggest orca at any of SeaWorld's individual locations is called Shamu in public - but I had just watched a performance by Tilikum, the largest captive whale in the world, ripped away from his pod off of Iceland in 1983. During the show, I saw a misery in his eyes, a silent despair that echoed within the stadium louder than any pop song blasted through the speakers to deafen him. Images swept across my mind like a shore of angry lighthouses: the way Tilikum splashed his weary tail against the water's surface, water that smelled of concentrated chlorine instead of salt; the way his fins peeled into themselves when they'd have to be stiff and sleek to navigate the sea; the way he heaved his six-ton body onto the platform at the front of the pool, cracking his mouth open without so much as a healthy squeak. Through my dread, I knew this whale was broken.
So when I saw the trainer leaning on the entrance to the stadium, silver whistle and orca-patterned wetsuit in all, I felt relieved. If I am going to get reliable information about these orcas from anyone, I am going to get it from someone who works side by side with them every day, I thought.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
"Excuse me," I said. "Do you know how long orcas live in the ocean?"
The girl's eyes clouded over as her smile, as bright and forced as the noontime sun, vanished. She tilted her head away from my gaze and placed her hands on her hips. After mulling over her response, she answered me as though she were the one asking.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe ten, twenty years or so?"
Her smile revived.
"Yeah, as long as our whales live right here in Orlando!"
The trainer's "I don't know" was enough to tell me that she was lying. I hoped for at least one of two things: that she knew the answer to my second question, and that she still somehow told me the truth.
"Why does the largest whale have floppy fins?"
"He was born that way! In fact, about 20 percent of orcas in the wild have collapsed fins."
Again with the twenty. I suppressed the hunger to ask the trainer if that was her go-to number for hushing curious customers. Saying goodbye and hurrying away to my parents, I left the park with more dread than I had leaving the show. Probably twenty more pounds of it.
The road trip back remains the worst of my life. I'd thrown up eight times in and out of the van. Maybe it was stomach flu from too much Chinese take-out, maybe it was the weight of knowing that my family had just taken part in animal cruelty. Writing this, I have to think it was both; six hours later, as I looked at the makeshift research I'd done in the home office, my nausea worsened.
"Males can live to be 50 to 60 years old, females up to 100," I read.
Wild male orcas, or bulls, live for 30 years on average. That's twenty bitter years away from the Orlando trainer's initial "ten", and the difference between the lifespans of male and female orcas is so great that the trainer's illiteracy on the subject was ludicrous. But do Tilikum's fins droop because he "was born that way"? Orders of magnitude unlikely. Less than 1 percent of all wild orcas have collapsed fins, and the few populations that exhibit the trait endure intense bull-to-bull fighting. The waters of New Zealand, where 23 percent of local males exhibit cuts, bruises, and collapsed dorsal fins from such fights, are thousands of miles away from the northerly ranges of the captured orcas from which today's performers descend. Tilikum, Keto, and other orcas in marine parks are literally 100 times more likely to be stressed, ill, and highly aggressive because of captivity than not.
All of this means one simple thing: by spending money to watch orcas at SeaWorld, you are spending money to be betrayed. SeaWorld claims that its orcas are "ambassadors" for their relatives in the wild. But if the appearance, longevity, and welfare of those relatives are distorted in order to conceal the suffering of their ambassadors, this claim is unjustified. Buying tickets to a marine park advocates not only the exploitation of unhousable animals, but also the deception of the public.
Do not let SeaWorld and other marine parks continue to lie at your expense. View marine animals in their natural homes and familial groups through responsible whale-watching. Cent by cent, we will come closer to the rehabilitation, release, and redemption of the broken whales behind the glass.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Tilikum was captured off of Puget Sound.