By Lori Saldaña
I was born in San Diego, and my family began attending Sea World back in the 60s when it had a Japanese Garden and pearl divers (I still have a pearl ring, a birthday gift one year).
Then, it was a very different place than it is today: quieter, smaller scale, and more about Pacific Rim culture than theme park shows. We went often, and not just as casual visitors. Since my father was a journalist, and Sea World knew the value of cultivating relationships with the media, we would often attend special events throughout the year, including a lavish annual kick-off party that marked the start of their summer season, complete with a preview of the newest Shamu show.
I enjoyed going early, before the dinners and presentations, and wandering around the park after the daytime visitors departed. I especially enjoyed being able to enter the exhibits and watch the animals without the usual crowds around.
One year, about 35 years ago, the Sea World PR department decided to include a video before the outdoor entertainment began, showing some of their “behind the scenes” training, including orca interactions in the wild. The audience- reporters, PR professionals and their families and dates- dutifully filled the auditorium, after having consumed an incredible meal complete with plenty of free alcohol.
My father was a reporter for the Evening Tribune (now conjoined with the San Diego Union as the “Union Tribune”) and he was part of this crowd that night. What happened next opened my eyes not only to the power of the press, but what was then, and likely still is, wrong with Sea World.
A few minutes into the presentation the video froze: technical difficulties. One of the researchers had introduced the video, and as people scrambled to fix the problem, the lights came up and he gamely offered to answer questions.
The questions started out easily enough (“How old is Shamu? Which Shamu is this? How many Shamus have performed at Sea World?”), but these were professional journalists, not tourists content to simply be “behind the scenes.” They wanted to go a little deeper into this production.
My father asked a question: “How many of these animals have you captured and brought to the park?”
I don’t recall the exact reply, but the way the researcher answered suggested that not all the orcas Sea World had captured had survived the ordeal. “How many were injured?” my father asked, suddenly turning the social event into a hard news conference, then added a follow up: “And how many died?”
Wow. This was NOT what the Sea World PR machine was expecting, and the mood in the room shifted from a festive party atmosphere to an awkward silence.
Looking back, more than 30 years after this event, I still remember thinking: why can’t my dad turn off his reporter mode? This is a party! This persistent questioning is not part of the script! Thankfully for the man he was putting on the spot, the technicians fixed the video and the presentation continued. I don’t remember how, or if, the man answered my dad’s question about orca mortalities. I do remember wondering why he seemed so uncomfortable.
I was in my early 20s at the time. At first I was a bit embarrassed that my father was putting this poor Sea World employee on the spot…but then I began to consider just what was going on to provide us with this entertainment. I had recently taken a “Conservation of Wildlife” class at San Diego State, and was becoming uncomfortably aware of how many different species were disappearing from the planet, and how many marine mammals were being killed from hunting, collisions with ships at sea and other hazards.
Instead of watching the premiere of the new Shamu show that year, I went back to one of the tanks where a beluga whale was “housed.” This time, I watched it from a different perspective: this was a large, intelligent mammal stuck in an incredibly small tank. As I watched it, I realized it was doing the exact same behavior, over and over and over: swimming in a constant, steady loop of mindless captivity.
I stared for several minutes, and its swimming pattern never wavered as it did a perfect figure eight- the shape of infinity- from one side of the tank to the other, always taking a breath at the same spot, always lightly bouncing off the walls at the same points, always spinning, spinning, spinning throughout this pattern…
It was hypnotic, yet horrible. Disturbed by what I interpreted as psychotic behavior, I left the viewing area next to the small tank…and never went back to Sea World. Instead, I decided that I wanted to see animals in the wild, not in tanks.
The following January a friend and I drove an old VW van 450 miles into Baja California Sur. A few years before, rumors had begun circulating that gray whales were approaching people in fishing boats on the lagoons down south, and were actually interacting with them: nudging and rubbing against their boats, and bringing calves alongside to do the same.
It was an El Niño year: windy, stormy and rough on the water. My friend and I drove for 2 days, travelled a long, rough road to a remote campsite, and spent a chilly night on the edge of Ojo de Liebre lagoon near Guerrero Negro.
We didn’t buy an admission ticket; in fact, there was no one at the lagoon to tell us what to expect, or what we could or couldn’t do. We awoke to a windy day with light rain, but not far offshore we could see the dark backs of whales! Excited, we launched the Grumman canoe and paddled into the lagoon (something that is no longer allowed), and went looking for a “friendly” gray whale.
We knew the meeting would be on the whale’s terms, but we didn’t really know what that meant. What would encourage a whale to approach us? Should we make noise, or stay quiet? Paddle after them, or let them come to us?
(I have since learned that these whales are more accustomed to fishing pangas with noisy outboard engines that are easier for them to detect, and we were fortunate they didn’t tip us over! )
After some vigorous paddling, it was clear they were too fast for us to pursue. The wind was picking up and the tide was coming in. We decided to turn around and return to the beach near the van… and suddenly, a massive whale rose out of the depths, and came alongside our aluminum canoe. It rolled onto its side, and looked us in the eye with undeniable intelligence and curiosity.
My friend and I were speechless. Nothing had prepared us for the size or proximity of this whale. The canoe was being rocked by the storm chop, the whale paused briefly, gave us another look…then continued swimming and disappeared- and I was hooked. I have continued to return to the lagoons almost every year since. This past January I drove 1200 miles to visit gray whales in two lagoons, returned again in February, and again in late March. After all, driving a few hundred miles is nothing compared to their annual migration of over 10,000 miles roundtrip.
I continue to be fascinated with their intelligence and friendly behavior, especially after whalers nearly hunted them into extinction in the 1800s and early 1900s. What made them decide to trust humans after such a slaughter? Why do they approach the boats, and lift up their calves for a closer look?
We may never understand this behavior, but every time I make the trip, and make eye contact with a protective mother whale, or even kiss a young gray whale calf (yes, it can happen!), I remember that captive beluga whale, swimming in an mindless, endless loop in a tiny tank.
I wonder how long it will take before more people see that behavior as abnormal. And I wish more of them would visit the whales in Baja, and stop giving parks like Sea World money so they can continue driving large, intelligent, charismatic animals insane.