Four years of Awareness since Dawn’s Death

Today marks the 4th anniversary of Dawn Brancheau’s death and the four year journey of heightened awareness of orcas in captivity. Sadly, that awareness came too late for Dawn.  One has to wonder how she would feel if she were still here today, especially knowing that she was blamed for her own death.  There is no denying that her story opened the eyes of millions of people to the issues surrounding captivity.

I still remember that day clearly, the local news in Orlando constantly showing Tilikum alone inside his tiny tank as if being punished.  I didn’t know what to think.  Up to this point, I had never considered captivity being wrong.  I had visited the park on many occasions and had undoubtedly seen Dawn perform in several shows through the years. She was a local hero and a senior trainer at the park. I was dumbfounded.  Who’s fault was it? What would happen to Tilikum?

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Photo from WFTV gallery

Many others also began questioning what went wrong.  First was Tim Zimmermann who wrote the comprehensive Killer in the Pool, an inside look into the subject of orcas in captivity.  He writes about Dawn:

IF ANYONE WAS GOING to take care around Tilikum, it was Dawn Brancheau. She was one of SeaWorld’s best and completely dedicated to the animals and her job. (She even met her husband, Scott, in the SeaWorld cafeteria.) She had worked at SeaWorld Orlando since 1994, spending two years working with otters and sea lions before graduating to work with the killer whales. She was fun and selfless, volunteering at a local animal shelter and often keeping everything from stray ducks and chickens to rabbits and small birds at her home.

Next, David Kirby writes Death at SeaWorld, giving detailed information of not only Dawn’s death, but also those victims before her. Kirby also outlines many other prior incidents previously hidden from the public.  Coupled with the studies of wild orca populations by Dr. Naomi Rose, the book exposes the dark side of orcas in captivity.

Following the release of the book, HSUS released The Real SeaWorld, a powerful 4 minute video featuring David Kirby, Dr. Naomi Rose, Jeff Ventre, Sam Berg and Carol Ray.

Probably the most powerful change has been the release of Blackfish.  Blackfish director Gabriella Cowperthwaite tells David Kirby that she made the film to answer the questions: Why was a senior trainer killed by such a highly intelligent animal, an animal with whom she presumably had a relationship?  Why would such a highly emotional, intelligent animal bite the hand that feeds it?

Blackfish opened at Sundance Film Festival last January and premiered on CNN October 24, 2013 as #1 in cable news averaging 472k in the key-demo adults 25-54 rating. Millions of people have seen the film and the views of the public are rapidly changing against captivity.

Dawn was the fourth victim taken by killer whales in captivity, but it was her death that brought the captivity issue into the forefront of public awareness.  There is no doubt that she had a love for the animals she cared for. I only hope that her story changes the way we view these animals and that our love for them is translated into doing the right thing.

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2013 Year in Review

I had just finished reading David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld at the beginning of 2013, and I was highly anticipating the release of Blackfish.  Reading reviews after it’s premiere at Sundance, I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.

When I heard Blackfish was premiering in Florida at Miami Film Festival, I had to go.

March 3, 2013


Most of the stories in Blackfish were also told in detail in Death at SeaWorld, but seeing them on screen and hearing the former trainers talk about them was very powerful.  I was also in shock at hearing John Crowe recall the captures of wild baby orcas to supply SeaWorld’s collection.

After seeing the film, I wanted everyone to see it.  Blackfish was the opening film a month later on April 5 at Sarasota Film Festival, so I took my dad.  My dad had taken me to SeaWorld several times as a child, thinking it was educational (as many of us believed).  He was shocked by what he saw in the film!

April 25 I attended another round of OSHA vs. SeaWorld to decide if the Petition for Modification of Abatement Date should be extended.

Soon after, as I got more involved in the anti-captivity community, I became a board member for Fins and Fluke.  It is such an honor for me to work with such a great group of people who are passionate about our oceans.

My first event was attending the annual Hands Across the Sand event in Vero Beach on May 18 with fellow board member, Amanda Fagan.

Death at SeaWorld was released on paperback July 2.  It sold out at Amazon UK in just 16 days and was listed #1 in Animals at Amazon Canada on July 9 and at Amazon US on July 20.  Death at SeaWorld has now undergone several reprints.  Have you read it yet?

DASW PB

July 27 was the first annual Empty the Tanks, and my first protest.

Fins and Fluke put out a petition to SeaWorld asking them to stop their captive breeding program at the end of July.  This is imperative to phasing out the horrible practice of keeping orcas captive.  If you haven’t signed yet, please sign and share.

Blackfish premiered at the Enzian near Orlando on August 9 with all major news channels reporting, including Mike DeForest of Click Orlando.

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During a brief hiatus from Fins and Fluke, I launched a fundraising campaign to help fund the release of Roxanne the Risso’s dolphin from Riverhead Foundation.  Roxanne was released August 28.  You can track her progress here.  Riverhead continues to need support in rehabilitating other dolphins, seals and sea turtles that regularly need their help.

On September 1, I also hosted an event for Japan Dolphins Day, the beginning of the dolphin drives in Taiji, in Daytona.  It was great to meet so many other fellow advocates, including Andrea Bosiger who later became a board member with Fins and Fluke.

Andrew Schwartz's photo.

On October 10, I had the great privilege of representing Fins and Fluke at a protest at Miami Seaquarium filmed for SBS Dateline and meeting Ric O’Barry.  I was so overwhelmed by everyone who attended the event giving their support to Lolita.

Blackfish awareness exploded after several screenings on CNN, premiering on October 24.

Andrea and I became Sea Shepherd on-shore volunteers this year as well.  I had the opportunity to volunteer at Veg Fest and DEMA later this year.

 Veg Fest Oct. 26, 2013

 DEMA Nov. 7, 2013

November 9 was the next SeaWorld protest bringing awareness to the 30-year anniversary of Tilikum’s capture.

On December 5, Fins and Fluke partnered with Oceana and Surfrider at the Seismic Airgun Testing forum.  We are looking forward to continuing this partnership in the future to bring awareness against seismic airgun testing.

December 22, Andrea and I joined the protest at SeaWorld Orlando to celebrate Cash’s birthday and the eight bands who have dropped out of SeaWorld’s Bands, Brew and BBQ event.  The momentum has been unstoppable and we are hoping it continues well into the new year and beyond.  With 100 protesters, the word is spreading!

So what’s next in 2014?  Keep spreading the word!  Get involved!

Do you need some ideas?

You can follow Ocean Advocate on Facebook or Twitter and follow Fins and Fluke on Facebook and Twitter, or visit our website.

Read Death at SeaWorld and follow David’s blog series at the Death at SeaWorld page at TakePart.

Read David’s article “Six Ways You Can Help Captive Killer Whales Right Now” for more ideas.

Follow the trainers featured in Death at SeaWorld and Blackfish at their blog and on Twitter.

Let’s make 2014 even bigger!!!

Going to SeaWorld? Get your blinders ready

Whether you’re an avid fan, an activist, or indifferent SeaWorld has likely gotten your attention in recent weeks.

Beginning with the premiere of Blackfish on CNN October 24th, the hype has not let up.  CNN had major publicity for a week leading up to the premiere.  The film was the highest ranking film on CNN this year and was the second most mentioned cable news show on Twitter.  #BlackfishonCNN trended for a good portion of the opening weekend.  Blackfish also had a big younger viewer turnout. SeaWorld San Diego facebook page was forced to disable comments following a ridiculous debate including SeaWorld, and captivity, advocate Jack Hanna. Word was, and still is, spreading quickly!

Friday, Animal Rights Florida staged an “Orca in a Crate” demo in downtown Orlando.  The event was a huge success.  It was followed by a protest outside the park on Saturday morning to commemorate Tilikum’s capture 30 years ago.  Protesters were met by Orange County Sheriff’s department after an apparent threat to the park Friday.  Officers circled protesters on bikes and left the cars parked through out the day.

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The law enforcement was also present inside the park.  As a guest, I’m not sure if this would make someone feel more secure or make them question why.

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(Orange Co. Sheriff’s Dept. in green)

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Tuesday SeaWorld was in the stoplight again as they entered the US Court of Appeals for the ongoing OSHA saga.  SeaWorld, with the assistance of Eugene Scalia (son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), is appealing OSHA’s use of the General Duty Clause when issuing it’s original citation in 2010.  Comparisons were made to football and hockey players and NASCAR drivers. The difference, however, is that there have been feasible safety changes and improvements in these sports.  Scalia also repeatedly dismissed expert testimony by OSHA witness David Duffus, stating that he lacks knowledge to captive orcas.  It is important to note, however, that Duffus was involved in reviewing the coroners report for Keltie Byrnes (Tilikum’s first victim 20 years ago) and stated at the time that her injuries were consistent with the predatory behaviors he witnessed in wild orcas.  Scalia also repeatedly stated that SeaWorld’s “product” is the close contact between trainers and the killer whales.  What about education???

You can listen to the entire audio of Tuesday’s hearing here.  

While we await the decision, today SeaWorld released their highly anticipated 3rd quarter earnings report which states:

Attendance for the first nine months of 2013 declined by 4.7% compared to the same period in 2012 from 19.9 million to 18.9 million guests. Attendance was impacted by new pricing and yield management strategies implemented at the beginning of 2013 that increased revenue but reduced low yielding and free attendance, adverse weather conditions in the Company’s second quarter and in July, and the negative impact of an early Easter in 2013.

According to their press release:

Attendance trends improved in the third quarter compared to the second quarter reversing a negative trend earlier in the year, with a 3.6% decline versus a 9.5% decline in the second quarter.  Attendance trends also improved steadily within the quarter with July attendance down 5.7% due to adverse weather and August/September attendance down 1.8% as weather conditions improved.  Preliminary attendance in October showed continued improvement with attendance comparable to prior year levels. In addition to adverse weather, the attendance decline in the third quarter was an expected result of planned strategies that increased revenue but reduced low yielding and free attendance.  These strategies were implemented at the beginning of 2013 to increase revenues and operating margins through higher quality attendance which the Company achieved in the third quarter. – See more at: http://seaworldinvestors.com/news-releases/news-release-details/2013/SeaWorld-Entertainment-Inc-Reports-Record-Third-Quarter-2013-Results/default.aspx#sthash.pnWoig83.dpuf

Is the saying true that all publicity is good publicity?  Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish director, has repeatedly said in interviews, making Blackfish was peeling back the layers of an onion.  The onion has been peeled and the crying has begun.  For anyone planning to visit SeaWorld in the future, get your blinders ready.  There is too much to look past to visit without them for anyone with a conscience.  I don’t think it’s the weather keeping people away either!

Blackfish gives SeaWorld an Opportunity to Step Up to the Plate

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As the World Series rages on, Blackfish has been shown several times on CNN over the past few days.  The ratings have shot through the roof as the film ranked #1 in cable news during the debut screening with a total of 1.36 million viewers. The film ranked #1 in page views on CNN films as well.

CNN covered the film with major publicity throughout the week.  They repeatedly invited SeaWorld to be part of the conversation, yet they were repeatedly denied.  This is the same scenario that Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish director, faced as she put the film together.  David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld, experienced the same unwillingness to contribute while researching for his book.

Instead, CNN aired several debates with other spokespeople speaking out in defense of SeaWorld and captivity in general. These debates included input from Jack Hanna, Bill Hurley of Georgia Aquarium (who incidentally has also appealed NOAA’s decision to deny the recent beluga whale import permit) and Grey Stafford.  Those who were speaking out for captivity clearly did not bring a strong enough case to justify the practice now that we know better.  Hopefully SeaWorld will take note.

CNN conducted a poll, and public opinion has shown an overwhelming 90% now against captivity.  This gives SeaWorld the amazing opportunity to be a leader in the industry and do the right thing. Dr. Naomi Rose explains it best as the opportunity to be a win-win situation for trainer safety and orca welfare by creating sanctuaries where captive orcas to be rehabilitated and retired.

It is not realistic to demand that all captive orcas be released since  many have been bred in captivity and are not good candidates.  However there is no reason why they can’t invite the public to visit these sanctuaries from a safe distance and use current trainers to help these animals adjust to being wild animals again. No shows.

So what’s it going to be SeaWorld?  It’s time for you to step up to the plate.

The Curious Case of Daniel Dukes

Tili stamped

Today’s post by Voice of the Orcas includes horrifying testimony from former animal care handler Cynthia Payne.  The post is tragic enough in itself as Cynthia talks about heartbreaking stories surrounding Gudrun, Nyar and Gwen.  If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s a must-read.

What stirred things even further was a comment posted by another former employee, KJ.  KJ describes more details about the night that Daniel Dukes, Tilikum’s second victim, was found dead on Tilikum’s back.  According to his comment, KJ says that there was a calf at the park during that time.  When there is a calf, there should be a minimum of FOUR night-watch trainers.

According to Sam Berg, another former trainer, the night watch trainers job is to take respirations on every animal twice an hour for 5 minutes.  Where were they?  How could they have missed a dead body in the pool all night?

People have questioned the circumstances of Duke’s death for a long time, but this only brings up the point even more.  Not one, but four, people in the area and NOBODY saw or heard anything?  It seems rather suspicious.

Those who were present at the time of Dawn’s death in 2010 stated that they could hear and see commotion from A pool, the opposite side of Shamu Stadium.  I find it hard to believe that anyone in the area could have missed what happened, much less all four.  Where were they?  SeaWorld has also maintained that there is no video surveillance that showed what happened. What about the Sky Tower camera?  Where was the security guard?  The guard is known to stop by the area every few hours to check on things.

Many have wondered how Dukes got into the pool.  Did he jump?  Was he pulled in?  SeaWorld report states that Dukes drowned, but there are so many questions left unanswered.  His body was dismembered, genitals removed.  Did that happen before or after his death?

It has been easy for SeaWorld to once again blame the victim here, especially since he is not here to defend himself.

We might never have the answers, but it does make you wonder.

The SeaWorld hole gets deeper

SeaWorld keeps digging themselves deeper and deeper in the hole.

Last month they came out with eight assertions regarding the documentary Blackfish. Those were soon proven wrong by David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld, and the Blackfish film itself.  The controversy spawned a media flurry, only drawing more attention to the film and the absurdity of the assertions.

This week, Orlando Sentinel’s Jason Garcia reported that SeaWorld’s 2nd quarter earnings have tanked.  SeaWorld lost $15.9 million in their second quarter.  Total revenue slipped 3 percent.  Total attendance dropped 9% during the quarter.

In true SeaWorld style, they listed several excuses for the loss, mainly the unusual rain in Florida.  Really???  Neither Disney nor Universal cited weather as a factor in their earnings.  Poor weather in Virginia and an early Easter holiday were other excuses listed.

SeaWorld also said that part of the loss was intentional due to their recently raised ticket prices.  Costs associated with the recent stock offering also contributed to the loss.

SeaWorld believes that the new Antactica: Empire of the Penguin is going to make up for the loss in upcoming months, but the attraction has gotten mixed reviews and Blackfish continues to gain momentum, passing the $1 million at the box office last weekend.

The New York Times has reported that Blackfish has also caused Pixar to review and change the ending to the upcoming sequel of “Finding Nemo”, which initially had an ending involving a marine park.  Pixar has decided to rewrite that part of the story so that fish and mammals have the option to leave.  Although it is still confusing as to WHY an animal would CHOOSE to live in a marine park, but the change is still a positive one, none the less.

This could get very interesting as Pixar is included in Walt Disney Studios.  Disney’s Epcot theme park houses dolphins in it’s Living Seas exhibit.  Perhaps this will cause them to reflect on the inappropriate nature of having these dolphins on display.

A Bad Week for SeaWorld

Last week was a rough week for SeaWorld, and this is just the beginning.

On Monday, iTunes released a new trailer for the movie Blackfish.  The new trailer is amazing, encapturing the theme of the movie within a little over 2 minutes.  If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out here: http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/magnolia/blackfish/ or on YouTube here:  

Also on Monday, a petition was released to ask SeaWorld to end their orca breeding program.  Within the first 2 hours, the petition had over 200 signatures and in a week has grown to over 3,220 signatures!  If you haven’t signed or shared the petition yet, you can find it here:  Anti-breeding petition

Monday night Samantha Berg interviewed John Hargrove, both former whale trainers at SeaWorld on Radio Free Palmer.  You can find the link to that interview here:

http://radiofreepalmer.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/BTE6.3.13.mp3

Part 2 will air tonight live at 11pm EDT at radiofreepalmer.org 

Wednesday, David Kirby wrote an amazing article titled:  Six Ways You Can Help Captive Killer Whales.  This is a tool that can be, and will be, used for years to come by advocates to work towards ending captivity in marine parks.  His piece, also published on TakePart, was named the “Pick of the Week” by TakePart at the end of the week.

David is the author of the amazing book “Death at SeaWorld”, due out in paperback on July 2.  You can pre-order your copy today at:  DASW Pre-order or for an autographed sticker, join the event at Fins and Fluke here:  http://www.facebook.com/events/420429341398500/ DASW-PB-Cover1

Death at SeaWorld has continued to gain momentum throughout the week and as of last night had the #1 ranking in several categories in Canada.

DASW Canada

To close out the week, SeaWorld announced that they were going to raise their single-day ticket price yet again on Friday.  This is the third time in the past year for a total of a 12% increase since July 2012.  Tickets last July were $81.99 and have now been raised to $92.  Throughout all of these rate hikes, not a single improvement has been made to the tiny concrete tanks that the whale and dolphins live in, or to the habitats of the sea lions and seals.

The clencher of the week occurred Friday morning when SeaWorld Orlando was issued another citation by OSHA.  This was a REPEAT violation of the previous citation stating that “The employer did not furnish employment or a place of employment which was free from recognized hazards…”

“At Shamu Stadium pools, animal trainers working with whales other than Tilikum were exposed to struck-by or drowning hazards in that they were allowed to engage in dry work performances with the killer whales without adequate protection.”  This resulted in another fine of $38,500.

Is that what the raised ticket price will be paying?

Last night, a news story broke of an escaped sea lion at SeaWorld Orlando.  The news station was “waiting for an explanation from SeaWorld”.  If history repeats itself, they could be waiting for a long time.  Here’s the story…

Sea lion escapes enclosure at SeaWorld Orlando

Barely two weeks ago, a penguin escaped the new enclosure at SW’s new Antarctica exhibit.  What will be next???

A couple other fun things to check out from last week are:

and