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.
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. After knowing so many trainers and their stories, I've become an advocate for them. 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.
I am very much an open book about all parts of the project. If you have questions or concerns about what I'm doing, you can always ask me, and I'll give you the best answer I can.
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.
I am writing a creative nonfiction book. This means that everything you read will be based from archival content and oral interviews. But it also means that you will find creative elements that are typically not found in history books, like funny dolphin training stories and the quirks of running an amusement park. I will also tell my own story through this narrative. It's gonna be fun!
I'm a senior producer for the Stanford Storytelling Project and minoring in creative writing. Thanks to a wonderful collection of mentors, I've been trained on the craft of interviewing and story creation. But most importantly, I am willing to listen, and to empathize.
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.
If you are here because you have academic interests in the subject and are a student / scholar, you can contact me to get partial access to my database even before my book publication. If you have a general academic interest, you can view a preliminary reading list here.
Below are some thoughts on current events, shout-outs to field-relevant literature, and other thoughts that come up as I continue my research. These are often incredibly brief but they help me reflect as I work in the archives. It also helps me find my voice as a narrator. Only the most recent five thoughts are posted here. For a running archive, click here.
In late November, a documentary came out on Netflix that features Jose Barbero, the dolphin trainer who committed suicide after a video of alleged animal abuse became viral. I haven't watched it, so I don't know what lens the film takes. But I will say that this is one example of times when online harassment can lead to tragic results. This should not have happened.
This Thanksgiving break, I went up to Seattle with some friends. I spent one day driving on Whidbey Island, home to Penn Cove (the largest capture of orcas) and Deception Pass (the bridge where people gathered to watch the first captive whale Namu pass on his way to Seattle). Penn Cove is a really beautiful place. The beaches are covered with mussel shells and large driftwood. The water is quiet and cold. Some of the houses around Munroe Landing have orca mailboxes.
In much older times, SeaWorld San Diego had two softball teams in the local San Diego leagues: the blue team and the black team. The blue team was more competitive and the black team was just out for fun. The black team had more animal trainers. This information was taken from a recent interview with a former assistant curator at SeaWorld San Diego.
There's this strip club parody in Bojack Horseman that's a funny little stab at SeaWorld and the captivity industry. Distortions of facts are fine for comedy, and in some ways, a whale stripper raises an interesting observation. Any sort of performance, human or animal, creates a degree of nakedness. How do we make sure that this exposure is transmitted ethically? Productively?
A short story titled "Rocket Ride" in Craig Davidson's book Rust and Bone was adapted into a motion picture under the same name in 2012. It features a killer whale trainer and a freak accident that results in leg amputation. This is a rough, punches-thrown sort of story. The animal plays a bigger role in the written version, but in both, it helps reflect our human existence.