Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a two-part column. The first installment appeared last week.
We approached the SeaWorld ticket booth, my knees weak with anxiety over the cost of admission for all of us. My brother, a Navy SEAL, passed his service card across the countertop with a perfunctory push. The SeaWorld employee studied it, and then studied him, any doubts of his authenticity allayed by the mosaic of the smoking World Trade Center towers tattooed across his forearms. She moved her gaze over to me and my two children.
“Your military discount applies to your wife and kids, as well,” she said at last.
I stepped closer to my brother and slid my arm around his waist to pull him a little closer. I gave him a conspiratorial smile.
“Thank you, honey!” I squeaked through tense lips.
There was no better method to assuage my Post Traumatic Blackfish Disorder than to convince myself that I wasn’t actually supporting the marine enterprise if I wasn’t contributing financially to it.
We joined the throng that was filtering — as if pulled by some centripetal force — toward the killer whale pen. We nudged and elbowed along, everyone jockeying to be admitted first to the arena as though Shamu herself was ripping the tickets. The sidewalk narrowed and took a serpentine shape. The edge of it was lined with trees which stood like sentinels, blocking the backstage view of the tank. It was between those trees that I saw it. The jagged black dorsal fin jutting out of the water. Between the wind, the trees and the still removed vantage point, it felt a little like happening upon a killer whale in the wild. Then someone hit me in the back of the head with a churro.
We took our seats on the fringe of the Soak Zone, a judiciously chosen position to ensure high participation and low precipitation. No matter where you sit in that arena, however, you are primely positioned for every vendor hawking a whale-shaped memento. Every child — and some adult tourists — in the arena is so intent on owning a 450-ounce plastic whale cup that they completely miss the majestic entrance the real things make into the tank.
It takes awhile for a human brain, at least one like mine, to understand what it’s taking in when you first come face-to-face with something so exalted by lore and mystery. It was like the time I wound up in the same elevator with Robert DeNiro. The context was far too mundane, too every day, to have him within it. So much so, in fact, that I completely forgot all the mechanics of an elevator and just stood there until I arrived at a floor I didn’t need to go to.
I stared at the black and white figures, immense beyond imagination, undulating and barrel rolling through the water. There was something so otherworldly about them at close range, but there was also something so familiar about watching them, like observing children playing a well-known game. They went through their repertoire of jumping, breaching, splashing and waving. The crowds cheered and laughed every time the whales — three of them in total — pushed water over the brim of the tank with a mighty whip of their tales. The children, mine included, inched forward on their seats until they were standing, and then moving trance-like down the stairs to get closer and closer to the plexiglass that divided them from the dream world.
As I watched their heads track with the movements of the whales, I wondered is this so bad? I turned my gaze toward the crowd, packing the seats of the orca show. Despite the iPhones held on high, recording every moment, there was something Romanesque about the whole thing. It felt a little like watching a gladiatorial match in the Colosseum. People clapping, pointing, staring wide-eyed at wild beasts emasculated of their wit and vim. I wondered if secretly we all wanted to see a whale go nuts and pull a trainer in the water, a reminder that man can’t tame nature.
It was then that one of the whales — the calf — must have missed its cue. I only noticed because I spent all of my childhood bungling choral songs and stepping out of rhythm on dance routines. The trainer most familiar with her, moved over to the far side of the aquarium. She lay down on her belly upon the deck. Water sloshed in her face as the calf loped over. The trainer put her hands upon his nose. She brought her face right against his. She stroked his rubbery skin and whispered something in his ear. She did this again and again, not once pausing this maternal massage, until he nodded at her. Then he went on to do a triple salchow, or whatever the equivalent is in the SeaWorld lexicon, and promptly returned for a kiss — not even a fish — from his coach.
That’s when I realized that these whales are not living badly. They’re not just really living at all. The arc of their life is stunted within the clear walls of their cage. They wave — instead of kill — for food. They swim in a circle instead of charting nautical miles. They coexist with humans dedicated to nachos instead of a pod dedicated to their legacy. Despite those shortcomings, they are loved, both by the professionals that work with them to keep them fed and stimulated and by the people who travel across the world to see them. In the most quizzical part of their nature, the whales appear to love in return.
At the show’s conclusion, my kids wanted to see more of the killer whales. We walked to the backside of the tank where they are kept to rest and feed without the thrum of clapping and chanting. I looked on as my kids pressed their palms against the glass, hoping they might be the one that Shamu turns an eye to as she twists by. I put my own hands on the glass, understanding that I would likely never again see one of these creatures outside of the television.
My son broke my reverie when he said aloud, “I just want to know what they’re thinking.”
Maybe he will one day. Or maybe he won’t. Maybe the flame he holds for killer whales will only sizzle for a short while such as the ones he held for Buzz Lightyear and Batman. Blackfish and other shows about the impulses and needs of killer whales are important to see. We have asked whales to understand how to exist in our world while we know so little about theirs. And while I started on my high horse, I ended on my low whale because I do believe that SeaWorld — at least for my kid — blew a little more air into that flame he has to understand whales. I can’t offer him a fjord right now, but I can provide a ticket to a marine park.
Plus I didn’t pay for it.