Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part column. The next installment will be published the week of March 10.
One of the most exciting aspects of watching children grow is the evolution of their interests. They pass through phases that are barely tolerable, such as reading picture books and watching sing-along shows, and graduate into chapter books and movies that feel like entertainment to everyone. When my oldest expressed interest in killer whales, I figured it was time to screen “Free Willy,” the maudlin tale of a wayward boy who is saved, literally and emotionally, by a killer whale that he, in turn, frees from a stunted life in captivity.
At the dramatic conclusion of the film, I stood up from the couch, slapped my pants straight, and said to everyone and to no one at all, “Well, that was amazing! Time for bed!”
I turned to face my son, who was still staring slack-jawed at the screen. I realized this was his first foray into youth dramas, made even more complex by the use of an enormous wild animal as the star vehicle. His focus floated over to me, and I braced for the questions I could see filling his head.
Was that a true story? Was that a real killer whale? Did that boy really fall in the water? Are there really killer whales in tanks? Where does that boy really live? Where does that whale really live? Is his name really Willy? Really? Really? Really?
Like the misguided parents of today, instead of offering answers I just make up, I turned to the always-available lifeline that is the Internet. I searched for the true story of Willy the killer whale, prepared to read back the mundane facts of his aquatic life until the curiosity of a kindergartner was satiated. His biography read less like a National Geographic rap sheet and more like that of an Irish memoir.
To paraphrase, Keiko the whale was fished out of Icelandic waters and sold into a lifetime of performance-driven slavery. When the lesions first spread across his body, his fjording friends sold him to an aquarium in Mexico City, where he watched telenovelas and ate refried beans from an oversized bathtub. For his Quinceanera, his owners allowed him to star in the movie “Free Willy,” which inspired outrage on the part of the public for his drooping dorsal fin and poor living conditions. He was promptly relocated to Oregon, where he was encouraged to do poetry readings and try his hand at sustainable farming. Eventually, enough activist dollars were raised to finance his release into his indigenous waters. He barely knew what to do with himself among killer whales that actually do what their name would suggest until he became stricken with pneumonia and beached himself.
A lump took up residency in my throat. My son and I sat, side by side, in silence, bowled over by the atrocities of his life. I had previously thought the gravest hardship of Keiko’s existence was having to do a synchronized swim routine to a song by Michael Jackson. From that night on, we redirected our killer whale research toward stunningly shot nature shows and the brittle pages of library books. Our hearts could thrill at their cunning assaults on seals without the tug on our conscience every time they bumped the plexi for a scooby snack.
“Blackfish” changed the course. The cause celebre of last year, it demanded to be seen. The documentary about captive Orcas turned heads — and stomachs — the world over with testimony from jilted SeaWorld trainers and never before seen footage of trainer attacks. Heartbreaking scenes of whales being wrested from their native seas and their ironclad pods and slid into artificial pools filled living rooms. All a viewer can do is flinch as trainers recall the last moments of their compatriots before the mammals they’d spent years coaching decided they made a more attractive meal than the tiny chum from a bucket. The maxim of the film was clear and stupid-proof: They’re not pets. I walked away weak-kneed from the film, avowed to never support the caging of killer whales.
Then I took my family to San Diego over school vacation week. What adults don’t realize is that while San Diego suggests to us beaches, temperate weather and a population at least two standard deviations greater in attractiveness than wherever we reside, to a child, San Diego is entirely and utterly synonymous with one thing only: SeaWorld.
“When are we going to SeaWorld?” my son asked with eyes glazed with wonder.
I took his hand and began cautiously.
“Remember that movie we talked about?” He nodded. “How sad it really is to see killer whales in an aquarium?”
“But when are we going to Sea World?”
We were in line at SeaWorld approximately 14 minutes later.