Lori Saldaña: “The Night I Decided to Stop Going to Sea World.”

by on April 9, 2014 · 21 comments

in Culture, Environment, History, Life Events, Ocean Beach, San Diego, Sports

Seaworld-Orlando-Shamu-1514By 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.

Wrong move.

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.

Lori Saldaña was on the founding Board of Directors for San Diego Earth Day and organized the first “Earth Fair” in Balboa Park in 1990. She served in California State Assembly from the 76th Assembly district from 2004 to 2010.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Marc S April 9, 2014 at 11:15 am

Great article. Seeing a whale should be an experience that inspires respect and awe not sadness. Sea World will be forced to change eventually.

I liked the part about her father asking Sea World reps hard questions at the PR dinner. Reminds me of how I felt protesting the SeaWorld float in the OB Christmas Parade in 2000.

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avatar Mike April 9, 2014 at 1:12 pm

I would vote to end the capture, display, and exploitation of all animals. Sea World and the Zoo both maintain animals in environments designed for public display and not for the animals good physical and mental well-being.

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avatar gristmiller April 10, 2014 at 5:17 am

Agreed!

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avatar Karen Heumann April 9, 2014 at 1:21 pm

Just a thoughtful, introspective, well-written article. Thank you for your personal insight. So sad. Simply so sad. I appreciate the larger tale of how people can experience these wonders in the wild, really with minimal effort or cost. Very touching- thank you.

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avatar LindieO April 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm

This article is full of such sincerity and truth, it brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much Lori Saldaña for lifting the veil that has shrouded the endless, mindless monotony of captive cetaceans in parks around the world. Because people like you have been nudged to look a little deeper, the public is coming to a greater understanding of how horrible it must be on the other side of the aquarium’s glass. If it’s education and/or conservation we care about, the only way to go is wild!

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avatar Amy S. April 9, 2014 at 4:11 pm

I 100% agree with your views on Seaworld, but I do hold slight issue with the Grey Whale interactions. Without a permit, touching (or as stated, kissing) a wild marine mammal is a federal offense under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
I am more than ready to see the end of cetaceans in captivity. But I keep hearing the argument of “why pay to interact with them at Seaworld when you can do it right of the coast for free?” I honestly feel most people would do this with the upmost respect towards the animal, but many people will not and many people already do not (the Florida panhandle is a perfect example). If animal advocates keep using this as a selling point, the general public will HAVE to be eduacated on the federal laws involving wild marine mammals. If not, it will lead to human-habituated animals, strandings, nonreleasable cetaceans, etc…. And then we are right back where we started with these animals having to live in a tank.

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avatar Marc S April 10, 2014 at 6:16 am

Treating animals with respect comes from natural law not federal law.

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avatar Amy S. April 10, 2014 at 7:34 am

Marc,
Lucky for the animals- we have them federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Unfortunately, the courts cannot prosecute someone for the harassment of a marine mammal under natural law. But they can prosecute under the federal law.

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avatar Marc S April 11, 2014 at 4:02 am

Federal prosecution doesn’t teach respect.

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avatar Delphinadae April 9, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Great story however we can’t just open the gates people. I am a lifelong cetacean and environmental advocate who is on the executive committee of the San Diego Chapter of the American Cetacean Society who has supported Lori Saldana for many years.

I have to speak up and let you know that the Orca Welfare Act is far from Orca welfare. I advocate for ending breeding programs and for bringing the Orca’s from around the world back together in their family units however I DO NOT ADVOCATE RELEASE OF CAPTIVE ORCAS.

Keiko was a failure; he died and is NOT a success story. We as human beings need to take responsibility for the other humans that captured and bread all cetaceans in captivity and commit to care for the captive cetaceans for the rest of their lives, 50-100 years. We cannot just open the gates and let them be free because that is a death sentence.

Sea World is the best of the best of the Aquariums and does more rescues and release of marine mammals and the only ICU unit in Southern California and we need to work WITH THEM to deal with this issue. Who will feed and care for these marine mammals? Who will pay for the cost of the “sea pens”? These are the issues we need to have a conversation about. As far as the sea pen, why not work on non-point source pollution going into Mission Bay and allow the Orcas to have half of Mission Bay for their larger enclosure? That is legislation I could support, not the current bill.

The underlying truth is that people who support AB2140 have fallen prey to the power play that is going on between Blackstone and CNN and that has nothing to do with Orca welfare and everything to do with taking the price of the stocks of Sea World down. It is all about the money and the director of Blackfish is a pawn in the money game between Blackstone and CNN. Follow the money, do some more research and you will find that this is not about the Orcas it is about money and jealousy.

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avatar Amy S. April 9, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Delphinadea,
I love what you said about bringing the family groups back together!! I do have one question regarding sea pens. I have experience in the world of small cetaceans, but zero in the world of the killer whale. So this question comes from a curiosity standpoint, not a combative one. With your background, you may be able to answer this question that keeps floating around in my brain- why couldn’t Seaworld create a setup like was DRC (Dolphin Research Center) has in the Florida Keys? But obviously on a much larger scale! Same trainers, same crew, same support staff. No loss of jobs. Almost like moving to a satellite facility. Just curious. Thanks for any input you may have my question.
Additional thought…. And then way later down the road, those same sea pens could be used as “half way houses” for releasable stranded dolphins….. a place to acclimate before releases kind of the way Springer’s sea pen was used for. Again- thanks!

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avatar Amy S. April 9, 2014 at 11:07 pm

I should add- not for the killer whales to released the way Keiko and Springer were, but to live out their lives the way the DRC dolphins do.

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avatar Barbara L April 10, 2014 at 8:58 am

Keiko was actually a HUGE success as the first and only attempt to release a captive orca into the wild. Watch the documentary “Keiko: The Untold Story” for the complete story behind the successful release of Keiko.

As for the Dolphin Research Center, they are no better than $eaworld in holding dolphins captive against their will. They have a nice little spin on their story of “research”, but the dolphins at DRC are never released, and they perform for and swim with humans every day for profit. They are some of the saddest looking dolphins I’ve ever seen. If you want to see dolphins in the Keys, take a dolphin watching tour out of Key West. Captain Sherry at Wild About Dolphins really knows about the problems dolphins face in the wild and is the most respectful dolphin watching boat I’ve ever been on.

Thanks, Lori Saldana, for writing a thoughtful personal story that should resonate with everyone who cares about the planet and its ocean inhabitants!

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avatar OB Wood April 9, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Great story. Really makes you think. And what an experience to see the whales close enough to make eye contact!

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avatar Susie April 9, 2014 at 5:48 pm

Luved, Luved, Luved your article. So heart felt. Unlike the “pros” @ SeaWorld , ugh.
Who in their right mind would want to capture/ harm these beautiful beings?
It’s mind blowing that people are so heartless all for the almighty dollar.
Surrounded by Idiots.
We all need to work harder now that people are trying to do better.

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avatar Barb Dunsmore April 9, 2014 at 6:24 pm

Beautifully written! Thank you Lori. And thank you OB Rag for allowing the people’s voice to be heard. I’m sure these young kids would agree with you Lori and certain they will remember this recent Orca encounter more than any Shamu show they may have seen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usdl144TsyU&feature=share … scroll to 0:53 and 3:25 into video.

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avatar Josephine April 9, 2014 at 7:02 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope Sea World does the right thing soon.

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avatar Barb Dunsmore April 9, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Here is a comprehensive review of AB 2140 hearing yesterday (4-8-14) and what lays ahead for the Orca Welfare and Safety Act:

http://tinyurl.com/njzv8af

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avatar gristmiller April 10, 2014 at 5:21 am

Does anyone know the story of the dolphin pens and dolphins recently installed south of the SD River bridge on Harbor Drive?

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avatar Barb Dunsmore April 10, 2014 at 10:30 am

If you are referring to the ‘Navy’s’ dolphins, I know they just built or are in the process of building a new dolphin pen along Scott St, might be south of Harbor.

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avatar Lori Saldaña April 10, 2014 at 6:39 pm

regarding touching whales in baja: not all whales engage in this behavior and not all people are comfortable doing it.

There are many protection laws in place for these lagoons but to date, in Mexico, nothing has banned these physical contacts. In fact The whales initiated the practice in the 1970s.

They are in complete control of the interactions. When they don’t want to engage with people in the boats they simply avoid us in the large lagoons.

There is no coercion and many of them respond positively to being touched and surface for additional contacts.

Many times the mothers will not only surface near the boats, they will lift the young Calves up out of the water to be close enough to touch. As the calves develop and have better motor control they return for additional interactions.

This is one of the mysteries and attractions of whale watching in Baja. There is currently no way for us to understand why they started this behavior 40 years ago. So far, they do not engage in this behavior during the rest of the migration.

There is a research facility san Ignacio Lagoon That attracts investigators and students from throughout the world. They study vocalizations, social behavior, migration etc. however, to date, no one has figured out a way to interview whales about why they like to approach humans and boats in the lagoons.

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