Beneath the Surface

John Hargrove / Palgrave Macmillan Trade / 272 pages

John Hargrove was the first of several former orca trainers to appear in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish. A 14-year veteran of SeaWorld, he was a top trainer there until August 2012. Hargrove was working at the company's San Antonio park when Dawn Brancheau was killed in February 2010 in Orlando by Tilikum, Seaworld’s 12,000-pound male orca. He was a first-hand witness to the behind-the-scenes reactions to this tragedy and the corporate response.

In Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, co-authored by Howard Chua-Eoan, Hargrove recounts what he witnessed—after Brancheau’s death and in the preceding decade and half as a trainer at SeaWorld and (briefly) at Marineland Antibes in France. Even after David Kirby’s 2012 book, Death at SeaWorld (in which AWI’s Dr. Naomi Rose is featured), and 2013’s Blackfish, there are still new revelations to be made regarding the serious problems related to trying to turn orcas, the ocean’s top predator, into reliable performers in tiny tanks. SeaWorld tries to portray this process as benign, but Hargrove makes it clear that underneath the slick veneer lurks a darker truth. Hargrove’s insider view of this process is at times heartbreaking, at times terrifying, and always compelling.

Hargrove stayed at SeaWorld as long as he did—long after he started questioning SeaWorld’s motives and methods—because he kept worrying about who would take care of the whales. But eventually he realized, as he said in Blackfish, that “they aren’t [the trainers’] whales”—they belong to the corporation. He knew he couldn’t truly help them, and it was time to go.

Beneath the Surface is John Hargrove’s testimony; it is his atonement, and it is hopefully another step forward in the salvation of captive orcas.