How One Family Went From SeaWorld Fans to Foes in a Single Show

When park staff do nothing to help a beached pilot whale, these people take action.
Jul 24, 2013· 5 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.


(Video: Explicit language warning)

Last Saturday, when Carlo De Leonibus and his wife took their daughter, Cat, to SeaWorld Orlando for her 11th birthday, they expected yet another exciting afternoon of whale and dolphin watching. SeaWorld was a regular destination for the Tampa-area family, and it had inspired young Cat to become a dolphin trainer when she grew up.

But after what they witnessed at Whale and Dolphin Stadium, Cat’s career plans have changed, and her family will not be returning to SeaWorld.

The show was a sort of low-rent version of Cirque du Soleil starring dolphins, short-finned pilot whales (members of the dolphin family), and tropical birds. In the midst of the entertainment, one of the small whales leapt up onto the “slide-out” area, where it became beached and unable to move back into the pool.

It was an ugly sight: The whale rocked and writhed, vainly trying to push itself back to the water. Many in the audience began shouting and even swearing, demanding that someone on staff do something to assist the poor animal that was clearly in distress.

The crowd was extremely furious. People were stomping their feet. Everyone wanted that dolphin to be helped.They waited and waited, but to De Leonibus’ astonishment, no one intervened, he tells TakePart in an exclusive interview. “The crowd was extremely furious. People were stomping their feet. Everyone wanted that dolphin to be helped,” De Leonibus recalls. “One man said he was going to go protest outside the park’s gates.”

De Leonibus had seen enough. The struggling pilot whale had been stuck for at least 10 minutes, he estimates, “though my wife and daughter think it was more like 20 minutes.”

The distraught father went to confront a nearby staffer, who “said everything was just fine, the dolphin was just playing,” he recalls. The worker casually told him, “We teach them to do that, to roll back in the water themselves.” But De Leonibus says, “He wasn’t even looking at the animal.”

De Leonibus was stunned by the ho-hum attitude of the staff. “They were laughing and smirking at our concern,” he says. “They acted like this is what dolphins do all the time.”

That’s when he returned to the stands, picked up his camera, and began recording the pathetic scene. His video (above), complete with the cries of a freaked-out audience, is now on YouTube with 18,413 views and counting.

“The dolphin! He’s stuck!” someone can be heard screaming. As the screaming continued and the whale floundered and flailed, the video shows other pilot whales make futile attempts to liberate their marooned tank-mate.

A thunderstorm was barreling in and the show was postponed. The crowd waited for it to pass. Another 10 minutes or so elapsed before two trainers finally walked over and pushed the whale back in the water, De Leonibus says. According to that account, the animal spent about 20 to 30 minutes in a stranded position.

Meanwhile, young Cat was growing more upset by the moment.

“I went up to where it was and began screaming at a trainer to help the dolphin,” she tells TakePart. “He said they leave them there to learn how to get down, but the dolphin was still stuck after 30 minutes and people were screaming louder and harder. I felt so bad for the dolphin, and kept pointing it out, but he wouldn’t listen. He told my dad, ‘We can’t do anything about it.’ ”

The family did not wait out the storm. They walked out, never to return. It left an indelible impact on the birthday girl. “I wanted to train dolphins and work with them. They are my favorite animals. They’re smart and seem really nice,” she says. But after this incident, “I would not go work for SeaWorld.”

Cetaceans hauling themselves onto slide-outs, unbidden by trainers, is nothing new; there are other online videos of stuck animals. Captive whales and dolphins who beach themselves for more than a few moments, especially pregnant females, can develop health problems. I wrote about this in Death at SeaWorld, and you can witness a pregnant dolphin voluntarily beaching herself here (also notice the difference between this behavior and that of the desperate pilot whale De Leonibus filmed).

“Whales getting stuck was a regular but relatively infrequent occurrence when I worked there,” says ex-trainer Jeff Ventre, an important figure in both Death at SeaWorld and the documentary Blackfish. Slide-outs “are a bit slippery, so the animals don’t damage their ventral surfaces, but this also means they can slide too far up and get stuck, Ventre tells TakePart. “The bottom line is that small cetaceans in captivity face unnatural health risks from various causes, including pool design.”

Courtney Vail, of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), concurs. “It’s clear that SeaWorld teaches slide-out behavior, for a variety of reasons: medical care, performances, public interaction, etcetera, so we cannot say this is natural behavior,” she tells TakePart. “Either they are conditioned to do this as a learned behavior, or they’re showing their own free will in choosing to strand, either for attention, boredom, or perhaps even to escape from aggressive poolmates. Either way, it is byproduct of confinement and certainly has potential implications for their health and welfare.”

When asked about the video over email, SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs responded, “Pilot whales come out on the ledge all the time and always get back into the deeper water without any problem. The younger animals are still inexperienced and sometimes it takes them a bit longer.”

Jacobs wrote that the animal in the video was a young pilot whale that was “saved by our animal rescue team when it beached in South Florida.” He explains, “After it was rescued and rehabilitated, it was deemed unreleasable by the federal government and became a part of our collection.”

A commenter on the YouTube video who seemed to have inside knowledge of SeaWorld wrote, “I never said it was normal behavior, but… It’s just something they seem to like doing and if they didn’t like it they wouldn’t do it so much.” When there’s lightning, the person added, “trainers leave the stage which may be the reason it took so long.”

If the lightning initially kept the trainers from coming to the animal’s rescue, then SeaWorld seems to have a double standard for staff and visitors, because the front of the metal stadium seating is exposed to the elements, including where the De Leonibus family sat.

WDC’s Vail does not want to overstate the situation, but adds: “I’m encouraged that the public is clearly focused on the plight of this one whale. They definitely know and feel something isn’t right. Their distress mirrors the potential distress of this whale, and speaks to our growing disaffection with captivity.”

For Cat and Carlo, “disaffection” is putting it mildly.

“I had no idea about SeaWorld before this incident,” he says. “I thought it was a rescue organization that took care of animals. I honestly thought they sent animals back to the wild.”

After posting his video, De Leonibus was contacted by DigitalJournal environmental writer Elizabeth Batt. “She told me all about captivity, how these creatures in shows are not released,” he says. “I had no idea SeaWorld employees could care so little or show no concern. To work there and show no compassion for an animal that was stranded and panicking is frightening to think about since they rely on SeaWorld employees to take care of them.”

Batt tells TakePart, “SeaWorld is supposedly a family-oriented business. What happened obviously upset Cat tremendously, and they didn’t care. If they preach to kids, then they should answer to kids.”

De Leonibus wishes he could get his hefty entry fees back, “to donate it for a cause to save these animals and help their natural habitat.” Meanwhile, he reaffirms, “my daughter no longer wants to be a dolphin trainer at SeaWorld and wants to work with animals in their own habitat, like a marine biologist would.”

And, he adds, “If there are any suggestions on careers where my daughter could work with dolphins outside of captivity, I’d love to know, because after what we saw, that’s her future goal.”