Maximilian Du

Non-Fiction Book: Dreaming of Orcas

Trainer with Whale

In the past decade, marine theme parks have come under heavy fire for keeping killer whales and other cetaceans in captivity. As a Stanford roboticist and a trainer's friend, I write about my experience with this controversy, its obsessive entanglement with my coming of age, and its legacy.

Through extensive archival research and a series of exclusive interviews, I dive deep into a counternarrative held in the hearts of many who work in the zoological field. Gradually, I try to uncover the sensual, intellectual, and misunderstood parts of working with a five-ton marine mammal. Through the lens of psychology, literature, and philosophy, I try to dig myself closer to the mysticism of the human-animal relationship, in a desperate attempt to touch an untouchable part of my childhood.

This is a very long-term project, as it involves consulting thousands of articles, conducting tens of hours of interviews, and perusing thirty-two pounds of books. Publication date not set.


Frequently Asked Questions


Who are you and what do you want?

Woah, that's a little blunt, isn't it?

I'm a computer scientist by day, and a storyteller by night. I think human stories are amazing, and I try to tell them without editorializing or searching for "gotcha" moments. In other words, I am not an investigative reporter. My official title is closer to oral historian.

This work is my deep dive into the counternarrative. Marine parks and marine mammal trainers have been critiqued strongly by popular media, and my preliminary research has shown that this pushback may have been too strong. These trainers have such amazing stories to tell, and so does the industry they represent.

The issue of captivity is more philosphical and separate from my adherence to the counternarrative. I am a trainer's advocate and will push against misinformation and misrepresentation of the industry. However, when it comes to the bigger question of captivity and the human-animal relationship, I am a strict academic. My work will consider, in good faith, all different sides of the story. True narratives are complex and filled with fun nuances, and it would be improper to remove these details in the pursuit of one central idea.

Because of my angle of approach, I am very much an open book about all parts of the project. If you have concerns about what I'm doing, you can always ask me, and I'll give you the best answer I can.

Who have you talked to?

I am acquainted with a generous handful of educators and orca trainers at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego, and I have also been in contact with former trainers, one former executive, and someone who has been involved in a similar counternarrative project. My main character is a very highly-respected orca trainer who has worked at Miami Seaquarium and SeaWorld Orlando. I owe some of these connections to the Dawn Brancheau Foundation and one of Dawn's sisters, who has so kindly supported me throughout this process.

On the academic side, I have been in touch with Jason Colby, a historian who has studied extensively the history of orca captivity in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. I am also consulting various books and media on whale-related philosophy, biology, and social sciences. With animal training, I am relying on a combination of interviews, literature review, and my own experiences working with a theoretical form of "animal training" known as reinforcement learning.

On the opposing side, I have interviewed some marine biologists, animal activists, and social media "armchair activists." I also have the canonical publications that go against this industry. They add the right balance to the narrative I'm trying to tell. Again, nuances are important to feature.

What are you writing?

I am writing a creative nonfiction book. This means that there will be a lot of archival content, stories, and analysis. But it also means that you will find creative elements that are typically not found in history books, like speculative fiction written through the eyes of a whale, or poetry. I will also tell my own story through this narrative. It's gonna be fun!

What are your qualifications?

I have a Stanford education, and specifically, I'm minoring in creative writing. I've taken numerous courses on the craft of writing, and my affiliation with the Stanford Storytelling Project has given me many skills on interviewing and narrative-craft. But most importantly, I am willing to listen, and to empathize.

Why do you care?

This whole project started on a pandemic-driven impulse to do something with my spare time. As a middle-schooler, I was quite involved with both the anti-captivity and pro-captivity communities, often back-to-back. This story was something I had actively tried to suppress during my high school years because it didn't fit my narrative as a budding mad scientist. But pandemic isolation and self-reflection made me realize that I have one hell of a story to discover and tell.