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By Hillel

Whale of a good time!

In late December, my family and I headed down to Disney World for Winter break to get away from the weather here in the DC metro area. Though much of our time was spent at the Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Epcot, we did make our way out to Seaworld. I’ve been to Florida’s Seaworld on many occasions, but this was my first time here looking through the eye of a Nikon D700 and a the 70-300VR lens. As we entered the park, we headed right over to the killer whale show called “Believe” which was just then starting. When I was younger, I was in awe of the grace and power of these creatures. Indeed, I was able to capture this on camera, while I observed my kids relive my previous visits.

I wasted no time, and began setting up for various shots – knowing pretty much where the whales were going to appear and what they were going to do by watching the hand cues of their trainers. Unlike in previous visits, however, I was experiencing the show in a new way. The whales always look huge at these shows. But, by seeing the trainers up close in the glass, I realized just how critical and yet dangerous their jobs are. I also realized just how much fun they were having. Soon I was taking nearly as many shots of the trainers as I was of the whales.

It was hard to get a sense if the whales were having fun, or if they were just happy having the reward to look forward to. But, the trainers were clearly having fun. A while back I remember reading the book “Blink”, which talks about peoples expressions, and clues that reveal a persons true feelings. A section of the book describes the face muscles that are required for genuine smiles, and how these muscles cannot be forced. When smiles are forced, the correct muscles are not used, and people who know faces well can tell this. I’m no face expert, but I can tell a genuine smile when I see one. While working complex tricks with killer whales, it’s pretty obvious that these trainers are exhilarated each time their training or interaction with these majestic but deadly creatures is successful. I went home with many pictures of this amazing show, as well as the dolphin show which we saw at the very end of the day.

Many months later, reading through CNN headlines, I stumbled on a news breaking story about Dawn Brancheau.  It was heartbreaking news. I wasn’t surprised that this kind of thing could happen, but I was indeed surprised by the reactions of many readers. I view these trainers in the same way I view those who surf the beaches I frequent.  Surfers who frequently ride waves know the risks they are taking.  It is harder to find a worse place to stand up then on an sliding and cascading wave.  So many things can go wrong, it’s hard to know where to begin. Even if one ignores the water temperature, other surfers, the hard bottom, or the hungry sharks nearby, there is still the tons of water to contend with. And yet, people surf. In fact, they are surfing every day of the year. Not only that, but we watch in awe, and are often to distracted by the adrenaline rush we are experiencing to remark about the risks these riders are taking. The reason they ride though is simple. They enjoy it. Even better yet, they can’t stay away from these waves.  They are called to them in the same way my cat suddenly appears in the kitchen each time a tuna can is opened, even if it happens infrequently.

Whaling around!

The question of the whales and their captivity also comes up. People are very concerned with the well being of these animals. True, the tank is much smaller than the ocean. But then again, a house is terribly small when compared to a forest. This doesn’t stop cat and dog owners from confining their pets to a single home. In fact, no one complains when this is the case. And yet, cats and dogs often look to the world outside with longing faces. I know this because my cats do this on occasion, especially when the window is opened, and a breeze comes drifting in. They do not look outside with rapt attention because they know what they are missing. Instead they are curious about what it is they do not know. That doesn’t mean I would release my cats into the wild. They keep me company, and I given them food and shelter. We live in a symbiotic relationship, each comforting the other. Hopefully, this is beneficial to us both. The cats don’t have to worry about the wild and unpredictable world out there, and I don’t have to worry about my cats each time a car whizzes by.

The whales at sea world have a similar relationship with their trainers and their environment. The added benefit here is that the trainers and whales have a relationship that goes beyond comfort. At Seaworld, both the trainers and whales are learning from each other. The knowledge gained by the trainers can provide valuable research to others interested in these creatures and their world. This research may one day reveal clues about their friends in the wild, and give us a chance to protect them from harm that may be otherwise unknown. The knowledge gained is not limited to just the trainers. The whales diets, sounds, medical procedures, and behaviors are continually being monitored and recorded. This valuable research is being passed on to others via systems such as EARS (Electronic Animal Records System).

Most importantly, the visitors of Seaworld are also learning about these animals in ways a hundreds of books cannot teach. My kids will never forget their powerful tails with their splashes half way up the bleachers. They will not forget their size because they know just how small the trainers looked by their sides. Their strength will forever be obvious because of how they toss the trainers in the air in the same way players toss basketballs across the court. And yes, they will forever be clear on why these whales are called killers with their large razor sharp teeth which the trainer points out during the show. This permanent message can be conveyed to each Seaworld visitor in under 30 minutes. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think their research and message are worth it. Feel free to decide for yourself. Seaworld is easy to find, and open year-round. Visit them and see if you can talk with the trainers between shows. Given the frequency of these shows and their track record, they clearly hold the safety of the trainers in the highest regard. Do they make mistakes. Sure. But they are exceptionally rare, and lessons learned are continuously passed on to the next generation of trainers in the same way surfers learn sage advice from their mentors. Space shuttle procedures are also refined in this same way to avoid repeating disasters. I do not need to remind the surfer of their danger any more than an astronaut needs to consider what a million pounds of thrust in the wrong direction can do to them. Life is about learning and making a difference – doing what it is that moves you. For me it’s photography. For others, it’s being tossed twenty feet high into the air by a killer whale. Enough said.

Lift Off!

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