It's been 15 years since the documentary was first released in November 1997, but it is still considered one of the most telling exposures of the captive marine mammal industry.
Distributed through the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Frontline is an award-winning public affairs television program that produces and broadcasts in-depth documentaries. One of those documentaries: A Whale of a Business, has for the first time been released for public viewing on YouTube.
Despite being more than a decade old, the documentary remains both significant and current primarily because it ties one of the largest marine mammal entertainment parks to the sordid history of marine mammals captured from the wild.
It also firmly links SeaWorld Parks to the brutal dolphin drives in Japan, and to the type of cloak-and-dagger operations that the facility continues to employ today.
The information delivered to interviewer Neil Docherty by Brad Andrews, the chief zoological officer for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Jim McBain -- Vice President of Veterinary Services, and former SeaWorld vet Lanny Cornell, is at times cringe worthy given the evidence produced.
The video, uploaded by 4theOrcas, can be seen below or watched directly on YouTube. It remains a must-see video for anyone who has visited or is planning to visit SeaWorld in the future.
The Keiko case. Free Willy
Part of the documentary focuses on the capture and release of the orca named Keiko. Keiko was captured near Iceland in 1979 and sold to the Icelandic aquarium in Hafnarfjörður. He went on to star in the hit movie Free Willy which in turn led to the formation of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation. The foundation would rehabilitate and release the killer whale back into the wild.
Keiko's release has been debated back and forth for years with anti-captivity groups hailing his release a success and pro-captivity organizations blaming activists for the whale's death. The criticism reached fever pitch after the whale embarked on an epic 1,200-mile journey from Iceland to Norway in 2003 where he died several months later. His death sparked errant claims that persist to this day.
One of these claims appeared in an episode of ABC's television show 20/20, and suggested that Keiko could not catch his own fish. The ridiculous assumption was refuted by former SeaWorld and Keiko's vet -- Dr. Lanny Cornell.
Cornell's report, which can be viewed here, described Keiko upon his arrival in Norway as "robust and active with no apparent signs of weight loss."
Cornell explained that if the whale was unable to feed on his own:
I would have expected to see significant, easily observable, and potentially catastrophic weight loss.
But based on his "professional opinion" Cornell concluded, "there is overwhelming and conclusive evidence that Keiko foraged successfully and was able to sustain himself in the wild during the summer of 2002."
Why 'A Whale of a Business' will stand the test of time
Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, former SeaWorld trainer and co-founder of the group Voice of the Orcas or VOTO, found the PBS report compelling:
The most interesting part to me was the discussion of Lanny Cornell's (Keiko's vet) involvement with both the construction of the temp holding facility (blueprints, costs) in Iceland, and also in Keiko's "release." And when the interviewer completely caught Andrews off guard when he reported back that SeaWorld asked to have the Corporate lettering removed from the Icelandic fishing boats [those capturing orcas], to save company face.
Gudrun. January 29, 2011
Image courtesy SMSea
Ventre explained that the documentary's details on the trade for killer whale 'Gudrun' between SeaWorld and Dolfinarium Harderwijk in Amsterdam, tied SeaWorld to three false killer whales (pseudorcas) acquired in the Japanese drive hunts.
In 1987 PBS said, Amsterdam's Dolfinarium of Harderwijk, wrote to Lanny Cornell at Sea World to request an exchange of animals. The aquarium pledged their sole female orca 'Gudrun' to SeaWorld on a 'breeding loan', with both facilities sharing any offspring between them.
Gudrun was the Dolfinarium's main attraction and the Harderwijk facility was worried that her absence would force a loss of interest and profit for their business, so they asked SeaWorld to provide replacement animals for their shows in the form of two false killer whales.
SeaWorld eventually delivered three pseudorcas garnered via Kamogawa Sea World in Japan, to the Dolfinarium in Nov. 1987. Brad Andrews, Lanny Cornell and Jim McBain personally traveled to Japan, collected the marine mammals (captured in the drive hunts), and delivered them to Amsterdam personally.
Yet when Frontline's Docherty specifically asked Andrews about the transaction and queried "How Sea World USA could trade animals which belonged to a Japanese marine park for the loan of the killer whale from Amsterdam?", both Andrews and McBain denied any direct knowledge of the transaction.
The vehement denials proved hollow once PBS produced airline tickets showing that the trio flew to Tokyo and from there, traveled directly to Amsterdam, Docherty pushed the issue further by asking whether it was possible that the Tokyo facility was simply storing the False Killer Whales on behalf of SeaWorld USA for a rainy day?
Andrews immediately protested Docherty's implication, but when he was asked how Cornell could possibly manage to broker a deal for animals that SeaWorld allegedly didn't own, Andrews immediately passed the buck onto Cornell, who proceeded to toss it right back again.
Gudrun was sent to SeaWorld on a "breeding loan" for three pseudorcas from Japan captured in the drives. Gudrun was one of the only adult orcas in the SeaWorld collection to have a straight dorsal fin.
SeaWorld's false killer whales
For Voice of the Orca members Jeff Ventre, John Jett, Carol Ray and Samantha Berg, the PBS documentary really hit home. As former trainers for SeaWorld, they had worked directly with the park's resident False Killer Whales specifically Hana, Yaki, Zori, Teri and Suki.
According to online marine mammal inventory Ceta-Base.com, all of SeaWorld's pseudorcas had been captured at either Iki or Taiji, Japan. And today in Taiji, the dolphin drives continue unabated.
The quota for dolphins in the 2012/13 season is over 2,000 animals across several species, including false killer whales. Once caught, dolphins are either sold to marine mammal parks for public entertainment purposes or slaughtered for consumption.
Jeff Ventre with pseudorca Yaki doing a stand-on, circa 1990.
Through its purchase of cetaceans from Japan, SeaWorld has been accused of creating a demand for the dolphin drive industry. Ironically, almost like some sordid practical joke, three of SeaWorld's whales were named after Japanese foods -- Suki-yaki, Teri-yaki and in the case of another whale, Yaki-tori.
VOTO's Sam Berg also told Digital Journal:
It's pretty clear that when you combine the information in the documentary A Fall From Freedom, with the information in the Frontline show, that "the Gudrun transaction" is a case of whale laundering.
The information about the false killer whales (also known as "Pseudorcas") at SeaWorld, still weighs heavily on Berg's heart:
When I worked at the Whale and Dolphin stadium in 1990 and 1991 at SeaWorld of Florida, some of the trainers knew a little bit about the Pseudorcas. I heard that they came from Japan and I also heard that they had been in a sub-standard holding facility which is why many of them came to us sick with ulcers, infections, impaired immune systems etc., but I knew nothing about the drive fishery back then.
Berg recalled that when she asked a Senior Trainer about why Zori - one of the false killer whales - was sick all the time, she received a response that went something like this:
SeaWorld Senior Trainer: Zori and the other Pseudorcas came from Japan [Berg added that the trainer rolled her eyes when she said "Japan" like the trainer was trying to imply something negative about Japan, but Berg didn't know what that meant]. The whales were packed in small holding tanks with lots of other whales and many of them got sick. They are much better off here at SeaWorld.
"So," Berg explained, "apparently some of the Senior training staff did know the history of the false killer whales -- or at least they knew they came from Japan - but either they didn't want to say anything to me (as a new hire), or they didn't actually know the specifics about the drive fishery."
Berg said, "it makes me sick to think that the false killer whales came from the drive fishery and that they were torn from their families and the life they knew only to become show performers -- and yet the SeaWorld "party line" was that the company was doing the whales a favor by saving them from a sub-standard facility in Japan."
Berg also noted that in the documentary, Brad Andrews similarly makes the argument that Seaworld is "saving whales" from drive fishery, vs. Dr. Naomi Rose's observation that SeaWorld is in fact funding the drive hunt by buying whales.
The trainer told Digital Journal, that the worst thing she ever witnessed was when she "watched Zori die a horrible death."
Zori's death from a rampant parasitic infection was extremely violent, Berg explained. In an interview given to Blue Freedom.org, Berg described how Zori:
Beat her head on the sides of the pool multiple times and thrashed around trying to get a breath of air. I will never forget her last moments -- she vomited a massive amount of blood and guts and slowly sank to the bottom of the pool. One of the veterinarian’s who’d been watching the whole ordeal remarked to the other veterinarian, "Damn, I thought we were out of the woods with that animal."
Berg said that later that day, Zori was moved to a freezer while awaiting a necropsy. After that, Berg never heard anything else about why Zori died or where her body ended up.
Is today's SeaWorld any different?
Yes and no. SeaWorld has moved on since 'A Whale of a Business' first aired more than a decade and a half ago. It no longer takes part in active captures but is still involved with those who do. Cornell is no longer with the facility, although Andrews and McBain remain at the helm, and their business practices still court controversy.
Recently, the park attracted criticism over their intention to receive several wild-caught beluga whales from Russia via a permit application tendered by Georgia Aquarium. And their association with Harderwijk Dolfinarium was reinforced once more, with the capture and transfer of yet another wild orca named Morgan.
In 2010, the marine park was cited by OSHA in the death of Dawn Brancheau who was killed by the orca Tilikum. OSHA issued three citations to SeaWorld which the facility in turn appealed.
The appeal was heard by Judge Ken S. Welsch who sided with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration; he signed a firm order delivered with a scathing ruling regarding the safety measures or lack thereof, at SeaWorld Florida.
The ruling changed how the park interacted with its orca but also set the stage for a battle that continues to this day. Welsch reached his ruling after viewing a video of another attack on SeaWorld trainer Ken Peters by orca, Kasatka. The video, submitted as evidence in the case against SeaWorld, was described by Welsch as "chilling".
Peters is shown frequently performing with the killer whales during the PBS documentary (at 6:04, 6:13 and again at 26:10). Kasatka's attack on the trainer wasn't the first by the orca, but the third. Given the significance of this ahead of the Brancheau case, some have questioned why safety measures were not implemented long before Tilikum could attack and kill Dawn.
As the park continues to generate its own controversy, the message in the Frontline documentary becomes even more pertinent and serves as a crucial and vital historical record of the park's practices. Award-winning author David Kirby, told Digital Journal:
The PBS program, and especially its accompanying website, was an enormous resource for me while researching and writing Death At SeaWorld. Not only did I quote extensively from the show, I also quoted from the published transcripts of interviews with SeaWorld officials, which did not actually make it on the air.
Kirby's Death at SeaWorld delved far more deeply into the marine park's business model and ethics than the PBS special could allow time for, but for the author, the 60 minute show proved invaluable. "The site remains one of the best online resources in the world" Kirby said, "for studying the long and painful history of captive orcas".
Cetacean lover J. Waltz described the PBS report as timeless:
I've always felt this documentary, no matter how old it is, gives a damning glimpse of the industry and shows who are, or were, the people that are running it. Take Andrews: he presents a nice friendly face and authoritative figure at the beginning, showing Docherty the recovering JJ the Grey Whale.
But the more they begin to question him, respectfully and politely, with documented evidence in hand (plane tickets, letters, memos), the facade begins to vanish and he turns out less of a director of zoological operations, and more of a hostile mouthpiece.
This was the first program to take everything that was out there - the quotes from figures on both sides, the documents, the statistics, the laundering, the dolphin drives -- and make complete connections of what was going on in this industry.
Former trainer Jeff Ventre agreed. With the program now available to the public, PBS' A Whale of a Business said Ventre, now "joins the pantheon of great documentaries including The Cove, and A Fall From Freedom".
A Whale of a Business (1998) was produced by Neil Docherty and Renata Simone.
Other Creators: Docherty, Neil. MacIntyre, Linden. Simone, Neil. SBS-TV.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com