Book review: "Beneath the Surface" offers look into real world of captive aquatic mammals

If you had asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said what many children at the time said: a SeaWorld Trainer.

I desperately wanted to work with orca whales, but unlike many other children, I actually followed through with almost all the requirements necessary to follow that dream. My dreams, as with those of so many others, are echoed by John Hargrove, former killer whale trainer at SeaWorld, in his book “Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish.”

Emily O’Neal is technical services/collection management librarian and Bud Werner Memorial Library.

This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot and Today

Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781137280107
Availability: Out of Print
Published: St. Martin's Press - March 24th, 2015

This book left me breathless and emotional from its very beginning. This was not only because I personally saw so many parallels in the early chapters between the author’s life and my own, but because his voice on the issue of marine mammal captivity is both heartfelt and heartbreaking. For the same reasons I enjoyed “Beneath the Surface,” I recommend this true-life account to readers of all ages, especially those who had the same childhood aspirations. Hargrove leads us all down the path of those goals and shows readers that, like many dreams, the realities are not always what we would wish.

Hargrove clearly defines the struggles one must go through to become a trainer at SeaWorld. From grueling swim tests to backbreaking and life-threatening routines, Hargrove takes us through his journey to arrive at Shamu Stadium.

In the same light, he also clearly outlines the struggles of the whales being held in captivity, struggles including food deprivation, insufficient stimulation and cramped living and swimming spaces. This nonfiction account examines in depth what it means to be at SeaWorld on a daily basis, both as a human and an animal, and brings truth to the now-controversial and highly publicized issue of marine mammal captivity.

What makes this book stand out from others on the issue of animal captivity is the strong emotion behind Hargrove’s account. He is determined in his conviction of the wrongs he observed while working at the marine park but also very clearly heartbroken about leaving the behind the animals he loves so much.

In many other narratives on this issue, we forget the trainers are the one, nurturing link these animals have. The trainers create strong attachment bonds, much like many of us do with our own pets at home. In growing with the company and learning along the way, Hargrove began to realize that, in continuing with the goals he spent his life to achieve, he was also aiding a company he could no longer support.

How was he to save these animals he loved if he was a part of their mistreatment?

“Beneath the Surface” is an emotional and eye-opening read. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in marine mammals, current events, animal captivity or learning more after having watched the documentary, Blackfish.