John Hargrove is a man who got religion, then lost it. The spirit moved him when he was six and his parents took him to SeaWorld. Then and there, little John decided he wanted to become an orca trainer when he grew up. And, amazingly, he did. After 14 years, his body broken, his spirit wounded, Hargrove got out of the business of enslaving the creatures he loved. Beneath the Surface is his memoir of that experience and the conflict he suffered, the inner turmoil that comes when the corporate gods don’t answer your reasonable prayers.
One thing we learn from this book is that SeaWorld’s managers are cheap bastards. As a “senior orca trainer,” a physically and mentally demanding job working with huge, dangerous animals, Hargrove earned the rotten salary of $15.34 an hour. He did it, he says, because he loved the whales, and his love for them shows in this book. Hargrove was so familiar with the whales, he was able to tell their emotions just from reading their muscle tension. As an trainer, he bought whole-heartedly into the SeaWorld mythology that captivity is somehow better for whales than being wild in the ocean.
Hargrove’s book is eye-opening, a revelation about the conditions orcas in captivity are forced to endure. Some of the whales break their teeth biting the bars of their cages in sheer frustration; others, bored to tears, literally peel paint off the walls of their tanks, bloodying their snouts in the process. Chlorine and ozone added to purify the chemical soup they swim in burn not only the orcas’ eyes but the trainers’ too. Whales from different regions battle for dominance among themselves.
For Hargrove, a man with a conscience, the break with SeaWorld management seems to have begun when he was asked to artificially inseminate female whales. SeaWorld was using its females to breed more orcas, both for its own use and to supply other parks, and they were inseminating the females too often and too young, Hargrove says, then taking the babies away from their mothers when they were weaned. In the wild, killer whales form family groups that extend over several generations, and a male’s attachment to his mother is so strong that he may wither and die shortly after she does. Hargrove protested, but his protests went nowhere. The whales’ welfare was not the bottom line.
The break grew when two trainers, Alex Martinez at SeaWorld affiliate Loro Parque, and Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando, were killed by whales within a few months of each other. Predictably, SeaWorld promoted the myth that the deaths were somehow the trainers’ faults. No wild orca has ever attacked a human, and Hargrove is quick to rebut his former employer by pointing out how the confined conditions of captivity essentially drive the whales into frustration and aggression against each other and their trainers.
I would recommend this honest, open and affecting book to anybody with an interest in marine mammals’ welfare. Since it was published, SeaWorld has tried to launch a mammoth personal attack on Hargrove by releasing tapes of him using the N-word when he was drunk one night with a duplicitous friend. Hargrove makes his opinions on racism clear early in the book, when he denounces the KKK, which operated near his hometown as he was growing up. Fortunately the attack seems to have failed, and the book is high on the New York Times book list. With good reason; Beneath the Surface is John Hargrove’s confessional.