Former SeaWorld trainers go on the record in Blackfish

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The film Blackfish makes a devastating case against aquariums and the marine-mammal-captivity industry—a topic that is, naturally, of some interest to Vancouverites.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s heartbreaking documentary is focused on orcas, including Tilikum, who was involved in two human deaths at SeaWorld in Orlando after a fatal incident at Oak Bay’s shabby Sealand of the Pacific. But Samantha Berg also worked with belugas when she was employed as a trainer at SeaWorld.

“If you have one or two beluga whales, you’re not really meeting their needs. You can’t meet their social needs, you can’t meet their dietary needs, you can’t meet their space needs, and the same thing goes for dolphins,” Berg told the Straight, in a call from Palmer, Alaska, adding that her experience with captive belugas “felt odd”.

“They were a little dissociated and I think it was trauma for them,” she said.

Berg is one of the former trainers who speaks out in Blackfish (opening at the Vancity Theatre on Friday [August 2]) along with reps from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (SeaWorld’s nemesis), and—perhaps most profoundly—one of the guilt-wracked hunters involved in herding and capturing orca calves in the wild.

She also takes a sensitive view of old co-workers still involved in the extremely lucrative business. “They know what’s going on behind the scenes,” Berg said. “I think in order to stay in the industry there has to be this cognitive-dissonance thing that happens. You see all this stuff, but you still really love the animals and you still wanna do this job, but you have to kinda pretend not to see it.”

Of one ex-colleague who still works at SeaWorld, and who appears in the film, Berg said: “When she’s spewing the party line, I see pain in her face. I see a soul that’s tortured and I think she’s smart enough to know better… I think she gets it but I think she’s also caught up in that, ‘Well, what else do I do?’”

Berg also acknowledged that ending the practice of kidnapping and confining cetaceans will take a long time, for a host of reasons beyond the profits it generates. “Several of us have talked in the past about how great it would be if they would actually let us in to make some suggestions,” she said. “I think when you’ve been doing it a certain way for 40 years, it’s hard to imagine doing it any way else.”

Among the possibilities? Berg said she has a personal vision of a viable theme park with IMAX films, microphones transmitting whale patter from the wild, and animatronic rides replacing the animal shows. The more pressing concern, meanwhile, is simple.

“My dream was to swim with a killer whale, but the killer whale’s dream was not to swim with me,” she said. “That’s pretty clear.”

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Joan
Well done article. Positive change needs to happen for these magnificent creatures that deserve so much better from us.
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