Former SeaWorld Trainer Reveals Mistreatment of Killer Whales

John Hargrove’s new tell-all book characterizes the company as cultish and determined to put a happy face on the suffering of orcas.

Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove. (Photo: Melissa Hargrove)

Mar 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

SeaWorld’s reputation is about to sustain another blow with the publication on Tuesday of a scathing new book that alleges that the company is little more than a cultish, soulless, money-hungry corporation.

The author of Beneath the Surface, John Hargrove, writes from a position of authority. He was an orca trainer for 14 years at SeaWorld parks in California and Texas, and at Marineland in Antibes, France.

Hargrove—along with coauthor Howard Chua-Eoan—recounts in vivid detail the physical and emotional torment endured not only by captive killer whales but also some of the trainers who cared for the animals.

The narrative follows Hargrove through his career from starry-eyed young apprentice, to top-level orca trainer, to disillusioned critic who quit the company and became a prominent figure in the anti-SeaWorld documentary Blackfish.

Hargrove’s accounts are depressing: orca calves ripped from their mothers’ sides, food deprivation to ensure desired behaviors, broken teeth drilled hollow and hosed with water, whales that fight each other—sometimes to the death.

As a trainer, Hargrove, whose eyes were routinely burned by chlorinated water, was injured a number of times, leading to a painkiller addiction that was difficult to kick and permanent damage to his knees, neck, and back.

“SeaWorld has no soul,” Hargrove said in an interview. “They don’t give a damn about those animals; they’re a commodity worth lots of money, and they have to protect their investment.”

So why did he stay so long?

“I was a 100 percent loyalist,” he said. “I would’ve done anything for that company. For many years, I took what they said as gospel, and I stayed because I loved those whales and wanted a better life for them.”

“I truly feel like I was in a cult,” Hargrove added. “Everything that was said to us, and the fear combined with the guilt of leaving, keeps you longer than you would normally stay. And then the vicious attacks you come under when you do speak out—it’s all similar to a cult.”

SeaWorld did not respond to a request for comment.

Hargrove says he was indoctrinated into a corporate culture determined to present a happy face. Trainers were instructed to call the tanks “pools” and captivity “human care.” They told park visitors that 23 percent of wild orcas have collapsed dorsal fins, though the actual figure is about 1 percent, compared with 100 percent of captive adult males.

Hargrove was especially shaken by the deaths of two orca trainers: Alexis Martinez, who was killed by an orca in the Canary Islands in December 2009, and his friend Dawn Brancheau, who was killed two months later in Orlando.

Gradually, Hargrove realized he had to go.

“There came a time when I knew all was not right, and I started thinking I can change the worst parts of these things,” he said. “But then I came to terms that, no matter at what level you are, how vocal you are, or how much pull you have, you can’t change it.”

Hargrove quit in August 2012.

SeaWorld threatened to sue him and to seek an injunction against his publisher, Palgrave MacMillan, but backed off, Hargrove said. Trainers send him hate mail, and one threatened to fistfight him at the California capitol building last April, when Hargrove testified in favor of a bill to ban orca captivity in that state.

But some trainers quietly support Hargrove.

“SeaWorld would love to control everyone’s mind, which again is very cultish, but several trainers secretly cheer me on,” he said. “They have to keep it secret. People are afraid to whisper my name because of the retribution.” Many trainers read his book, he added, and went to see Blackfish “in disguise.”

Hargrove, meanwhile, has a message for young people contemplating an orca-trainer career.

“I understand why they want to do that; that was me,” he said. “But I would just say please look at the resources out there—at Death at SeaWorld, Blackfish, and my book—and understand the price these animals pay for being in captivity. If you really love them, you’re not going to want them to suffer.”

This summer, Hargrove plans to visit Washington state to see wild orcas for the first time. Friends say it will thrill him, but the ex-trainer is not sure.

“I think I’m going to be heartbroken that I lived with these whales I loved, and this was taken from them for greed and exploitation,” he said. “I think I’m going to be pretty torn up about that.”