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Beyond Blackfish – The John Hargrove Story

John Hargrove California Blackfish Bill Testimony

John Hargrove Speaks About His Career as a Killer Whale Trainer at SeaWorld

On Tuesday, April 8th 2014 John Hargrove will testify at a Water, Parks, and Wildlife hearing in support of The Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB 2140) before the California State Assembly.  Samantha Berg and Carol Ray, also former SeaWorld trainers will be at the hearing in support as well.  In a series of interviews Hargrove talked about his career with SeaWorld and what drives his desire to see an end to performing orca in captivity.


From the time he was six years old and saw his first Shamu show at SeaWorld Orlando, John Hargrove knew he would one day be a killer whale trainer.  After years of hanging out every summer near the show pools and talking the ears off of every nearby trainer, Hargrove got his chance.  While in college at the University of Houston a position became available and when management asked their trainers if they knew of any good candidates, they all said “Yeah, that kid that is always hanging around here”.  After beating out 27 candidates for the position, the road to fulfilling that dream began in 1993 at SeaWorld San Antonio.  Of the next 19 years until 2012, 14 years his life revolved around working with orca in and out of the water.  He had  “the career that every aspiring killer whale trainer wanted.” Now, looking back on that span of time with the daily pain caused from multiple back and neck injuries, major cartilage destruction to both knees, broken fingers, toes and ribs, he speaks about the toll multiple shows a day has on trainers and whales in SeaWorld parks.

Over the course of his career, Hargrove worked with 20 different killer whales and swam with 17 of them; even Kasatka the matriarch.  In his estimation there are few trainers in the world that have had as much experience with as many whales, in different parks with so many interactions.  It only makes sense then that Hargrove has become the ambassador for whales in captivity, to tell the behind the scenes stories of birth, life, and death of both whales and sadly, trainers.


It has been said that aggression in captive killer whales may have happened as many as 1000 times over the last 50 years.  I asked Hargrove what he thought of that number, and he said, “That isn’t hard to imagine.” Like many things in the SeaWorld Modus Operandi, an ‘incident’ may be subject to interpretation.  An act of ‘aggression’ could be perceived as play, or simply a whale that is being rebellious.  There are layers upon layers of subtlety both in the identification of the event, the way the event is perceived, and ultimately if and how it is documented.

In the end, hundreds of events go unreported, the ones that are documented may be inaccurate, and ultimately the record will nearly never portray the whale as being at fault.  One egregious example of this is how days after the Dawn Brancheau death, SeaWorld executives continued to state internally that “It was her fault and she put herself into too vulnerable of a position, she was too complacent.”  A formal incident report was never filed.

Subtle Cues and Body Language

Animal trainers are taught to closely observe body language and look for small telling physical cues which indicate the animal’s state of mind.  Certainly most people know that a horse with its ears pinned back, a dog with a stiff tail, or a cat with its back humped is an animal to be wary of.  In killer whales, the trainers also have cues.  They spend hours upon hours in a mixture of activities including Play, Show, Learn, Exercise, and Relationship.  In each of these sessions proximity of the whales exposes the trainer to danger and the subtle cues must be observed to keep the trainer from being injured.  Although SeaWorld and most casual observers would assume that the show itself is the most dangerous of all of the activities, it is during many of the other daily interactions and sessions that trainers are injured by the orca.  Hargrove himself has been taken to the bottom of the pool by a whale.  He has been ‘displaced’ which is SeaWorld lingo for rammed, and he has had his face split open in a behavior gone wrong with a whale.  There are many, many subtle incidents that go unreported or downplayed and in the worst of cases egregiously ‘spun’ to the benefit of SeaWorld.

 Separation of Mother and Calf

Just like a particularly painful scene in the Blackfish movie, John remembers the account of a wailing Kasatka vocalizing in anguish as her daughter Takara is taken from her.  Since then SeaWorld has used promoted Tweets, video from trainers, and appearances on podcasts to downplay the event and convince the public that the scene was sensationalized and that the separation was over-hyped.  In this case, they take issue with a 12 year old orca being called a ‘calf’ and point out that Takara was accompanied to Spain with her own calf, Kohana.  Of course researchers know that in the wild Takara would not have had her first calf until at least 13 years of age, and that when she did she would stay in close proximity to her mother.  For a lifetime the three would have remained a matrilineal unit.  Six years after the separation Hargrove attempted to make a recording of Takara’s vocalizations to play for Kasatka which he knew she enjoyed, however he was told that prior recordings had resulted in Kasatka beginning to swim rapidly around the pool, emitting upset vocalizations and rapid respirations.  Despite the miles and years between them, the bond was not broken.

Hargrove’s Anguish

A part of the deep anguish that Hargrove feels for the lives of the whales in captivity relates to that story of Kohana, the granddaughter of Kasatka.  Kohana was moved to Spain and removed from her mother at the age of 3 and had been impregnated TWICE by the time she was 8.  Of course Kohana had no ability to learn how to be a mother because of the early separation and rejected both of those calves. The second of the calves died as a result.

In 2000 Hargrove was among a team of trainers that performed the first successful artificial insemination of a killer whale.  From that point he went on to train both males and females in the husbandry techniques to obtain sperm and to inseminate the females.  As the years passed and he saw young mother after young mother inseminated and turned into a breeding machine, he began to dread the process.  Calves yanked from their mothers too young only to themselves be bred at an early age.

Conditions at SeaWorld

Much has been said in the PR machine that SeaWorld pushes out into social media and in newspapers about the care of the whales, the safety of the trainers and the pristine conditions of their captivity.  Hargrove tells a different story.

When orca were forced to stay in the 8 foot deep medical pool for hours on end in order to keep them separated, Hargrove had to work his way up the chain of command all the way to the General Manager of the park to attempt to influence change.  In the med pool the whales were often longer than the length of the pool, and barely had room to turn around.  The shallow depth of the pool and the confined conditions forced them to stay at the surface baking in the summer heat.  Despite his efforts, no changes were made.

Both the trainers and the whales were feeling the exhaustion of long hours and multiple shows a day which was resulting in injury to trainers and whales that would go ‘off behavior’.  Hargrove made a plea to management yet nothing was ever changed.

Orca daily needs not being met

The teeth of nearly every captive orca have been damaged so severely that they must be drilled to the bone and irrigated with a catheter several times daily.  Hargrove has seen a killer whale bend steel bars on gates by ramming them, and other trainers have witnessed the whales ‘Jaw Popping’ against the bars in acts of boredom or aggression, and chew on the edges of the tanks to strip and eat the paint off of the enclosures.  Despite every technique known to management, the veterinarians, and the trainers at SeaWorld, there simply was not enough variety in the daily lives of the whales to keep them interested.  Boredom, anxiety, frustration, and hours, days and months of ‘logging’ at the surface were building a ticking time bomb inside an orca.

Trainers lost wages

In the weeks after Dawn Brancheau was killed, trainers were not not in the water. No longer in “danger” SeaWorld cut their pay.  The pay cut represented as much as $5.00 per hour, and severely impacted the trainers’ ability to make their mortgage payments – resulting in some of them losing their homes.  It took 18 months for SeaWorld to reinstate the wage, and although it only raised their salary equal to their previous earnings, was termed a ‘raise’.

 The final straw

It was the reaction of SeaWorld executives to Dawn Brancheau’s death and the sobering reality of the dangers in working with Killer Whales that resulted in the final straw for John Hargrove.  He wonders why it took more than 20 minutes to call 911.  He wonders why the under-water camera feed was cut shortly after the attack started.  The story given by SeaWorld executives changed rapidly in the aftermath.  First Brancheau slipped and fell, and then it was her ponytail, but never that Tilikum had grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the pool.  Each statement made, each reaction by executives, each meeting that was held proved over and over again that at all costs the event would not reflect badly on the whale, or on SeaWorld.

Jeff Andrews in his testimony on behalf of SeaWorld stated “the only thing that led to this fatality was a mistake by Ms. Brancheau” and that “Tilikum is not an aggressive whale,” and they continue to reiterate that, “Tilikum did not attack Dawn”.  Of course Hargrove knew better.  Over a decade of experience training orca and years of working in the same field as Brancheau only led to one conclusion, and that was that Tilikum had viciously attacked, killed and mutilated his friend.  Of the attack Hargrove says “Everything we know about killer whale behavior shows without a doubt this was a highly aggressive incident, which caused her to be horrifically dismembered. The autopsy report says it all.”

 The next chapter

By the time that Hargrove left SeaWorld in 2012 on medical leave he had already been in contact through Tim Zimmerman with the Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite.  The experiences of his tenure at SeaWorld had left him hollow with the indifference of SeaWorld executives scrambling to justify the need for trainers in the water with killer whales on the basis of ‘educating’ the public.  His deep love for the whales was now transposed from the boyhood thrill and awe of being close to them, to the realization that they did not belong there.  His body was ruined, his soul was sold, and his heart broken.

The passion and love in John’s voice when he talks about the whales at SeaWorld is deeply stirring.  The multi-disciplinary experience and knowledge he acquired caring for these animals is nothing short of astounding.  Part marine mammal biologist, part veterinarian, part behavioral psychologist, entertainer and athlete, he did it all.  This knowledge and experience combined with good looks, charisma, and a compelling public speaker make him the obvious choice to speak out against the continued captivity of killer whales.  SeaWorld will be hard pressed to counter his presence in that room on Tuesday at the hearing.  Perhaps he will close with this same statement that he gave to me:

“Fortunately for me I was able to leave and to continue on with my life. Sadly these whales are not afforded this luxury and can never leave the confines of those sterile concrete pools.”

What you can do

It is critical that support for Ab 2140 is heard by the lawmakers in California.  There will be a citizen lobbying effort on Monday, April 7th organized by the bill Co-Sponsor Naomi Rose on behalf of AWI.  you can click here to RSVP and volunteer.  If you are a California resident, and wish to email your representative, we have made it easy to do on this page. A hosted screening of the Blackfish movie will follow at the Crest Theatre by Assembly Member Richard Bloom and AWI.  We have archived blog posts on the bill and what you can do to help here.

You can thank John Hargrove for all that he is doing in support of orca in captivity on twitter.

To keep the momentum going to new audiences that have not yet seen the movie, please share this on your personal page as well as any groups that you belong to or pages that you are a fan of on Facebook.


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