Former SeaWorld trainers Samantha Berg and Carol Ray provide riveting accounts of their park experiences in writer/director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s new documentary, Blackfish, which explores the dark side of killer whales in captivity. They are among a handful of former SeaWorld trainers who appear in the film and share their initial attraction to working with the whales at the parks and their decision to speak out after veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. Opening July 19th, the film brings to light the details of the Brancheau tragedy and reveals other harrowing trainer-whale encounters through shocking, never-before-seen footage.
At the film’s recent press day, Berg and Ray talked about how they became involved in the documentary, why they wanted to work at SeaWorld and interact with the whales but sensed early on that something was amiss, how SeaWorld controlled the PR machine and kept the trainers in the dark, why they decided to speak out after the Brancheau tragedy, what living in captivity does to large mammals, how SeaWorld uses questionable tactics to acquire wild animals for their parks, and what they would like to see change for the future.
Samantha Berg: The way we got involved was right after Dawn’s death in February 2010. Jeffrey Ventre, who we used to work with and who you saw in the movie, he’s Dr. Ventre now, was contacted by CNN. He was on CNN within 24 hours of her death. And then, Tim Zimmerman who’s a writer for Outside Magazine wanted to do a story about Tilikum killing Dawn. He contacted Jeff Ventre, who then contacted John Jett, who I also worked with back in the 90s, and he ended up writing an article called The Killer in the Pool. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director, had taken her kids to SeaWorld prior to Dawn’s death, and she then read Tim’s article and decided she wanted to do a documentary based on it. At that point, Jeff and John contacted other former trainers that they knew and invited us to be part of this group that Tim was putting together called Orca Aware where he was gathering information from former trainers, activists, scientists and journalists about killer whales. We both ended up in this group. It was a discussion group that went on for probably about a year, and then we all ended up going to the San Juan Islands in the summer of 2011. Gabriela took her film crew out there and we were interviewed at that point. That’s how it all came about. It was a lot of different connections. Some of us had kept in contact loosely over 15 to 20 years, but we didn’t talk about this stuff.
Carol Ray: We had all moved on, had other careers, and spent a couple of decades developing new lives. It wasn’t until Dawn was killed that all of us were sparked and felt compelled to speak out, especially after knowing and seeing that she was being blamed for something that she should not have been blamed for. Of course, you see in the movie how it unfolds that the two issues are so intricately woven – the issue of the conditions the whales are forced to live in and then how that plays out in terms of the safety of the people that are working with them. It definitely was Dawn’s death in 2010. We were not animal rights activists or involved in anything like that in the 20 years prior.
Berg: I own an acupuncture center in Palmer, Alaska, and Carol runs three speech therapy centers in Seattle. We were onto other things.
Did you ever have a sense while you were working at SeaWorld that something was amiss?
Did you always have that instinct?
Berg: We all did and we all were also taken in by the PR machine of SeaWorld. As you saw in the movie, we all went in starry-eyed wanting to have the connection with the animals, dreaming about swimming with dolphins or whales. But at the same time, in the midst of this intensity of having this amazing experience, you start to see things the longer you’re there. I saw animals die. I heard stories. I asked some questions but didn’t get answers that made sense. What happens is this sort of cognitive dissonance. For me, I really wanted to be there. I wanted to do the job, and I wanted to not see anything wrong with what the company was telling me. There wasn’t any one thing that they said. There wasn’t any one incident. It was a collection of lots of things over time that we all saw. Some of these things I didn’t even come to terms with until after Dawn died. I compartmentalized it and didn’t think about it. Some people would clearly complain. Carol voiced her opinion about Kalina being moved from her mom, Katina, and she basically took abuse for it. The structure at the park was set up such that if you questioned management’s decisions too much you would basically get reprimanded for it.
Ray: Punishment there is essentially being removed either from the water or just from an animal interaction. The whole reason that I ended up spending the night doing night watch the night the baby Shamu was moved from her mom was because I had voiced my opinion. Instead of being down there working with an animal that I had been working closely with for a couple of years, I was told to go up and watch it from up above. I had no interaction during that. It was simply observations. That’s a common tactic there if you’re one to speak out. You hit the nail on the head there with seeing things along the way, but it wasn’t one specific incident. For me, it put me over the edge the issue with moving the babies from their moms for sure.
Berg: The culture there was such that I didn’t even know Carol’s story about Kalina and Katina until years later. I knew something had happened and I knew that she was upset about it, but I didn’t understand or know the whole scope and breadth of it. I knew when I worked at the whale and dolphin stadium that there were four false killer whales there that had come from the dry fishery, which if you’ve seen The Cove, you know about the dry fishery. All I knew was that some of them were very sick. When I asked about the animals, they were whispering, “Oh, they came from Japan.” And then, people were quiet. I didn’t even know what that meant. Now 20 years later, [I know that] those animals were from the dry fishery in Japan and they were put in awful facilities. You can see how they were captured. All the other animals around them were slaughtered. But [back then] all I knew was, “Oh those animals are from Japan.”
Ray: We didn’t know until a few years ago that a couple of the Beluga whales that we worked very closely with at the Whale and Dolphin Stadium had been live captured just a couple of months earlier. It was actually in the same year that we started working with them. I had no idea that they were still collecting wild animals like that. I was even asked during my initial interview, “What do you say about animal rights people? There are some people that don’t think we should be doing this.” And I thought these animals are here. I love them. You just persuade yourself that you’re the best person to be there because those animals are going to be there regardless. You don’t think about where did they come from and do they want to be there. It’s an easy job to slip into and a hard job to leave because of those relationships that you form with the animals.
With this culture of keeping you in the dark, who was the person you would go to when the whales had problems? Was there a marine biologist veterinarian on staff?
Berg: There were two veterinarians at the time that we were there. I’m sure there are many more now, but at that time, there was an entire animal care staff, and they were very separate from the animal training department. The animal trainers were performers, and the animal care staff was veterinary assistants and they did a lot of the grunt work in terms of moving the animals around, and then there were two veterinarians. I did a lot of night watches at Shamu Stadium when I first started there because I was the low person on the totem pole. Basically, I would stay up all night, and I would count how many times that whales breathe over the course of five minutes every half hour, and I would write down that data. We were instructed that if we thought anything was wrong with the animals to call the vets. If it was 3 o’clock in the morning, it didn’t matter because these animals are worth millions of dollars. So yes, there was something in place to deal with accidents and injuries. The problem is the limits of what you could do for these animals in the environment that they’re at. Of course, they would get care, but a lot of the accidents or injuries were happening as an artifact of captivity, like killer whales breaking their teeth. I’m sure Jeff told you about killer whales breaking their teeth on the bars between the gates, and then, their teeth are flushed three times a day and SeaWorld calls it superior dental care. But the reason they’re flushing their teeth in the first place is because of captivity, because they’re breaking their teeth. Otherwise, it wouldn’t need to happen. Most of the kinds of things that the vets were getting called for were due to this. In Loro Parque (in Tenerife), animals were eating the Metflex material that was layered on the pools, and they ended up having to do the endoscope that you see in the movie.
Ray: As far as health issues go, there were veterinarians there that you would contact anytime you saw anything going on. But for issues that you saw behaviorally with the animals, or things that you didn’t agree with that were happening, you had no choice but to go to your manager in our department, and that’s where you were basically beaten down.
Berg: You were told, “That’s not your decision and you don’t need to know.”
Ray: You’re just the person working with the animal.
Were their veterinarians considered whale specialists or cetacean experts?
Berg: They were marine mammal veterinarians, but even back then it was still frontier medicine. Those two vets that were there were Terry Kimball and Mike Walsh. Mike Walsh is now still training veterinarians who are interested in doing exotic animal medicine. They were the most experienced people in the business, and there were some people that were there before them that had been with the company forever. But it was sort of “learn as you go.” They didn’t go to a training program like you can now to learn about working with marine mammals.
What causes the collapsed dorsal fins we see in whales that are held in captivity?
Berg: There’s a lot of speculation and there’s nothing definitive, but the one thing to note on the collapsed dorsal fin is, if you see an animal in the wild with a collapsed dorsal fin, generally that animal is very sick or near death.
Ray: You see it just as an indication of poor health.
Berg: It’s not normal.
Ray: Regardless of why it happens, that tends to be the bottom line.
Berg: With most of the animals, if it’s not in poor health, then it was a propeller injury, some sort of injury that happened, and that’s why that dorsal fin is collapsed. The dorsal fin itself is made of collagen material. It’s not cartilage like your ears. One of the theories is that killer whales in the wild swim 80 to 100 miles a day and they’ve got the pressure of the water on either side holding the fin up, and also they’re not subjected to gravity the way they are at SeaWorld. You saw Tilikum in the movie just sitting and not moving in his holding pen doing that logging behavior for three hours. And then, the other thing is nutrition-wise. With collagen, we know that not having enough hydration and not having the proper vitamins and minerals is going to affect the health of that tissue as well. The animals are getting fed what SeaWorld calls restaurant quality fish, but it’s frozen fish that once it’s thawed loses fifty percent of its moisture and we have to stuff it with vitamins. And so, we know that the animals weren’t getting nutritionally what they would get in the wild. There are a lot of different factors that play into it. To us, it indicates that these animals are not in good health.
During the time that you were working there, was there any incident that you saw personally or heard about that gave you pause and made you wonder if it was safe for you to be in the water with these animals?
Ray: No, I never felt unsafe there, even though when I was there — you saw in the movie the scene with John Sillick being crushed on that whale — I was working in the park in a different department when that happened. I started in the animal training department maybe four weeks later. When I was working in the other department, I understood why I wasn’t given any information. Why would I need to know? I’m giving tours in the back area. I didn’t know anything about it, but then I was hired in the animal training department. I thought for sure I’ll get an understanding of why this happened, but no, it was very quickly said, “It’s trainer error. That’s all you need to know.” And that was it. I never had any reason to feel like I was unsafe with the exception of one of the animals we had that was particularly aggressive, but he was not a whale you got in the water with. He would lunge out at trainers. He was sort of the equivalent to Tilikum back in those times. His name was Kanduke. He was very aggressive and self-injurious, and you couldn’t get too close to him most of the time. There were periods of time watching him lunge out at trainers or hurting himself on the sides of the pools and that sort of thing that was difficult to watch. And then, it’s a common occurrence for the animals that we were working with to break from control. I mean, that happened all the time. It wasn’t necessarily about an aggressive incident or anything like that. That was at least several times a week where it was common for them to break from control and be doing their own thing.
Berg: If something is more interesting than we are in their environment. It could happen all the time where there was something going on with their social structure. That was just normal.
Ray: That just underscored how little control you really had.
I can’t imagine getting in the water with a giant killer whale.
Berg: It’s so funny because I was never afraid. I couldn’t wait to get into the water with the killer whales.
Ray: That’s everybody’s goal.
Berg: That’s why you’re there. It never occurred to me that it was dangerous. I mean, even during night watch, I had read some of the descriptions of the accidents that had happened at the San Diego Park because they had a string of accidents happen there. I read about it and I thought, “Oh, well it’s not our whales. Our whales are fine.” I mean, I really had myself convinced that even after reading about some of these horrible things that had happened, I was like, “Oh, it’s not a problem.” Plus, we’re so indoctrinated in the idea that it was a trainer error. So, if you did everything right, you would be fine. And again, I hadn’t personally witnessed anything at Shamu Stadium. But even when I did hear stories about the kind of stuff that happened, everybody would joke about them in a way. It was like, “Here. Take a look at Mike Boos’ side and look at that big bite mark from Kotar.” And everybody was like, “Ha, ha. I remember when you got that!” “Oh yeah, they’ll take you down to the bottom just as long as they can because they know exactly how long it takes for you to run out of air, and then they’ll bring you back up. Ha, ha!”
Ray: It’s just part of the culture.
Berg: There was a little bit of a machismo thing going on for sure. And again, because there’s always someone else who wants to do it, if you didn’t want to do it, the next person in line would do it. So basically, you just suck up and do it, even if you were a little bit nervous about it.
In light of all this, do you think that SeaWorld should still operate?
Berg: As a changed institution with a new business model. They’re $2.2 billion a year in ticket sales. That’s not going away any time soon, but there are a lot of things they could do to be better. We talked about how the Monterey Bay Aquarium has over a million visitors a year and their business model is not large cetaceans in captivity. They’re an educational facility. They’re teaching people about the oceans. They could do that. And honestly, a lot of people do go to SeaWorld to be entertained, but they don’t need to be entertained in the same way by the animals. One of the things I’d like to imagine in the Shamu Stadium of the future is a big IMAX screen showing 24/7 video from the wild of killer whales. And then, at the same time, if you’re not using that pool in the front for rehab, you could have an animatronic whale and people could pay for rides. I mean, it’s possible. You could have jet ski rides at Shamu Stadium while you’re watching this IMAX film. There are so many things that they could do.
Ray: They could be showing a release of animals that they have rescued. They rescue manatees, sea turtles, whatever it is, but instead of keeping them there and making them learn to do tricks and be in shows, they could put them back and show everybody that.
Berg: And the hydrophone is another thing. I personally love listening to the whale sounds. One of my favorite things on night watch was when everything was quiet and we had hydrophones in the water. We could hear the whales talking to each other – all the click and whistles. I could see where you could go with that. One of their exhibits could be they’ve got a hydrophone out in an area where whales are going past. All over the world, they could have “Okay, the hydrophone in Australia is active right now,” and you could listen to that. Or, “The hydrophone for the Pacific Northwest is active,” and you could be picking up whale sounds from all over the world. That could be an exhibit. How cool is that? There are so many creative things you could do. This is not for lack of money. It’s lack of creativity, because the business model has been going this way for 40 years, and so it’s what has worked and now it doesn’t.
Ray: There’s no doubt that there are animals that are there that need to live out their lives there. I mean, that’s just a given. An animal like Tilikum is probably not a good candidate for release. But no money is being spent on upgrading the facilities that they are kept in. Money is going to set design. Money is going to restaurants. Money is going to rides. But the animals are living in the same pools that they’ve been in for so many years. And so, some environmental enrichment, increasing the size of the space that they need to live out their lives in, and phasing out the breeding program so that we no longer have these animals in this situation.
Berg: One of my other ideas is if you’ve ever been in one of those water parks where they have the lazy river, and they have the lazy river all the way around the park, I’m like, “Give them access to the lazy river. Build a little canal so the whales can go into the lazy river and put some laps in and swim miles.”
Is there a lot of wild capturing still going on or has the breeding program changed that?
Ray: It happens. There are orca whales in Japan that were captured from the dry fisheries in 2005 and 2006. There are four or five of them. A couple of them died. I think they took six and maybe four are still living. I can’t remember, but they’re spread throughout Japan. And then you have things that happen like there’s a whale over in Loro Parque that is now currently owned by SeaWorld but originally was taken in as a rescue. It was abandoned by her pod and malnourished and was taken in by the Dolphinarium in Harderwijk which is in Amsterdam, and it was only approved on the condition of release after rehabilitation. Well, they got her in the door, the wheels started spinning, and lo and behold she’s at Loro Parque and is a SeaWorld animal. We don’t have captures happening in our waters right now, but we have the intention of them happening in Russia for aquaria that want to open around the world. So there’s one animal, I think it’s Narnia, that’s in Russia that they want to get a mate for or a partner for that whale. It sounds like there’s talk of potential live captures in Russian waters.
Berg: The fact that they’re not doing captures here is basically because they’ve been embarrassed into not doing it here because there’s been so much negative publicity. Right now we’re waiting to hear on approval of a permit from the Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld that are trying to import 18 wild Beluga whales from Russia. I actually went to the NOA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) hearing and spoke against that because there’s a lot of good data that that capture does not meet the conditions of the permit in terms of how the animals are captured and how they’re going to be moved. But I would say there’s a high likelihood that that permit will go through and they will bring 18 wild captured Beluga whales into the U.S.
Ray: That will then go to SeaWorld on loan technically from the Georgia Aquarium.
Berg: It’s kind of like whale laundering that happens even if they’re not captured. We both worked with the whale named Gudrun who you saw if you watch the movie Fall From Freedom, and also Frontline did a story way back in ’91. Gudrun was captured by a boat called the Gudrun in Iceland with SeaWorld staff on board the boat. She was taken to the Dolphinarium in Harderwijk and lived there for a while, and then she was brought into the U.S. on a breeding loan. She was traded for three false killer whales from SeaWorld Kamogawa in Japan. And so, somehow SeaWorld traded three false killer whales that they didn’t own for a whale that they actually caught themselves and brought that animal in on a breeding loan, and so we worked with her. Again, that was something that was referred to while I was there, about Gudrun and how she was from Amsterdam on a breeding loan. There was all this stuff, but I didn’t know what it meant. And now, looking back, I’m like, “Oh okay, this makes sense.” It’s a paper trail nightmare to try and figure out who and what, but once the animal is in captivity, then SeaWorld can say, “Oh, well, we’re rescuing the animal from a substandard facility. Wouldn’t you want her to be at a nicer facility?”
Berg: Brad Andrews (Chief Zoological Officer for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment) made one of my favorite comments about Tilikum when they were trying to get him out of Sea Lion of the Pacific. It was, “He needs to be in a better facility with a nice breeding program.”
Ray: Where he came from.
Are they allowed to breed and to inseminate themselves?
Ray: They do. The artificial insemination program only started in 2000. Kalina, the first baby Shamu, was Winston and Katina. So there was natural breeding. In fact, part of the reason they built the three Shamu Stadiums in the three parks is because apparently the facilities were not big enough to allow the babies to nurse and they did have some calves born that didn’t survive. They figured out how to get the calves to survive by making the facilities big enough for that. So that’s one of the reasons why they built them. And then, there have been some instances which would never happen in killer whale society because it’s as taboo as it is in our society, where there’s a male calf that actually bred with its mom and she had a baby from that, so basically incest. It does happen. Right now they control the breeding program so closely. They take urine samples from the females at least every day if not more, and they know exactly when the females are going into estrous, so they’re controlling the breeding cycle. They’ve got the semen on ice, and they’re just waiting for the next estrous cycle, and they’re training the animals for the AI procedures. As soon as the females are ready, they’re ready to inseminate them.
What would you like an audience to take from this film?
Ray: One of the great things about the film is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with an agenda. To me, it’s a very educational film. It does not buy somebody who has a lifelong animal activism agenda, and we also never had that. It’s just a very honest representation for people of what is happening behind the curtain, so that they don’t only have SeaWorld’s side of the propaganda PR machine to show them what is going on there. It allows you to take what you learn and make your own decisions. I’m sure there will be people that watch it and decide to still go there. That’s their choice, but I feel like at least now there’s something out there that’s actually telling people what’s happening. I think that’s huge. I’m just starting dialogues, too. Millions of people hopefully will see it and start dialogues.
Berg: Jeff probably told you about the website, Voice of the Orcas. We have a Blackfish landing page on that site where people can go who have seen the movie and want to know what they can do. There’s a list of ten action steps that you can take once you’ve seen the movie, the first one being obviously don’t buy a ticket. Unfortunately, it had to happen after somebody died, and two people died really (referring to Sealand of the Pacific trainer Keltie Byrne), but Dawn’s death which was basically an employee safety case has brought this out into the open and it’s not going back. Only more and more and more information is going to come out. I would like to see it sooner, but I think in the next 20 years, having these large animals in captivity is going to be phased out in this country at least. And then, we have to talk about what happens in places like China and Russia unfortuntely and around the world.
For more info on the film: http://blackfishmovie.com,