How did a group of former SeaWorld of Florida marine mammal trainers begin a tradition in Washington State?
The first official “Superpod” event occurred in July of 2011, but its origin can be traced to 17 November 1987 with the arrival of the orca, Gudrun, at SeaWorld of Florida (SWF), from the Dolfinarium Harderwijk, in the Netherlands. Now infamous for capturing and laundering the orca Morgan, the Dolfinarium has a long history of questionable cetacean deals with the SeaWorld Entertainment Corporation, and more recently with Loro Parque. Just weeks after Gudrun arrived in Orlando, it brought together a Dutch scientist from Erasmus University & who also worked at the Center for Whale Research; Dr. Astrid van Ginneken MD, PhD, and a young trainer at Shamu Stadium, Jeffrey Ventre (JV). The two became friends.
When Gudrun was dropped into the SWF tanks, she famously made such loud distress-vocalizations that the noise was heard park-wide for months, with guests frequently asking about it. Watch VOTO’s Carol Ray describe that, HERE.
For historical reference, the 1987 SWF man-made social group consisted of Katina & her calf Kalina, the first “Baby Shamu,” an Icelandic-Southern Resident hybrid born on 9-26-85, a transient-bull named Kanduke, a young Icelandic male named Kotar & an Iceland female, Gudrun. Kanduke would breed with Katina, producing the first Icelandic-Transient hybrid, Katerina, on 11-1-1988, and with Gudrun, producing the second Icelandic-Transient hybrid, Taima, on 7-11-1989. It’s no wonder Gudrun was emitting distress-vocals; she was alone & scared.
Though terribly tragic, like Tilikum, her life & transport from Harderwijk to SeaWorld began a cascade of events that would connect SeaWorld killer whale trainers with scientists at the Center for Whale Research, lead to Superpod gatherings, and set the stage for Tilikum and The Blackfish Effect. Without Gudrun & Dr. Astrid van Ginneken, simply put, the connection of ex SWF killer whale trainers with the scientific community, Howard Garrett & the Orca Network, & the Southern Resident killer whales would not have occurred.
In addition to her job at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Astrid spent the summers researching the Southern Resident Killer whales, and free time visiting Gudrun & other captives around the world. At the Orlando visits, Astrid & JV spent time discussing killer whales, including her observations of wild whales and also regarding the personalities and behaviors of captive ones. She visited SWF 17 times from 1988 through 1995, each visit “spending 4 days to a week at Shamu Stadium.” At first, these whale conversations occurred in the bleachers of Shamu Stadium. But later, because the presence of an orca scientist made the SeaWorld management uncomfortable, conversations occurred at other locations, usually within the park. Based on her experiences, Astrid wrote an acclaimed killer whale book entitled: Togetherness is Our Home: An Orca’s Journey through Life – published on April 4, 2007. In the prologue, she states, “Though Tuschka [a killer whale] is fictional, her story is based on real events in the life of an Orca, named Gudrun, and from the everyday lives of Orcas in the wild. This story was born from my desire to share 20 years of observing Orcas, both in their natural habitat and in captivity.”
The conversations between scientist & trainer were noteworthy as they potentially led to something not previously accomplished, a bridge between SeaWorld, scientists, & the Center for Whale Research. SeaWorld’s poor rapport with the scientific community was created & maintained by the company’s dismissal of scientists, a trait that continues today. There was also an apparent lack of desire by staff killer whale trainers to learn the natural history of Orcinus orca, the species they claimed to be experts on. It was easier to remember show scripts and corporate talking points rather than studying genealogies, ecotypes, oceanic behaviors, and natural diet.
In the summer of 1995, Astrid invited JV to join her at the Center for Whale Research (CFWR) with the staff, and an Earthwatch group. The experience included sleeping and living at the CFWR in June of 1996, and photo-documenting the J, K, and L pods near San Juan Island from a 37 ft. trimaran named “High Spirits.” For a curious Sr. SeaWorld Killer Whale Trainer in 1995, this was exciting and possibly groundbreaking. Aside from the corporate VP & Curator of Animal Training at SWF, no staff-level trainer had ever seen a wild killer whale. Fortunately, the SeaWorld management was not keen on the idea. Approximately three months after accepting the invitation to participate in Orca Survey, JV was cited for a safety violation and terminated in mid-December of 1995. Astrid wrote a moving & supportive letter to the park president Bill Davis, on JV’s behalf; the job was over but the trip was still “on.”
After spending a last night in Orlando with friend and fellow ex orca trainer, John Jett, in June of 1996, and being dropped off at the Anacortes, Washington State Ferry by another fellow ex orca trainer, Carol Ray, now a Seattle resident, JV observed his first wild Southern Resident killer whales, swimming in the Haro Strait. This 1996 video with Astrid, HERE, was uploaded in 2008, and shows some of the experience. The trip produced a trove of memories, 8mm videos & hundreds of photographs. A year later, in 1997, the former trainer moved to the Pacific Northwest to begin professional school in Portland, OR, & have access to wild killer whales.
That trip & many more, between 1998 & 2008, along with Carol’s independent experiences with the whales, formed a template that became #Superpod1, in 2011. The ex-trainers knew how to get onto the island, where to stay, when the Southern Resident’s were around, and had friends at the CFWR. Contrary to how SeaWorld portrayed scientists as activists & enemies, the ex-trainers were, and always have been, welcomed at the Center for Whale Research. That tradition continues to this day, with many ex-trainers spending time at The Center, most recently John Hargrove, in 2015.
2010: Tilikum Kills His Third Victim
On 24 February 2010, there was an information vacuum created by the tragic killing of an experienced trainer at SWF, and SeaWorld didn’t want to talk about it.
What they did say was shocking, like HERE. People wanted to know the truth surrounding Dawn Brancheau’s death and also about killer whale captivity. Industry insiders & SeaWorld employees were placed on lock down, generally. Only selected high level company spokespeople were allowed to address the media. Contrastingly, SeaWorld was both praising Dawn Brancheau, while also blaming her, her pony-tail & claiming that Tilikum was not an aggressive animal. See video below & read SeaWorld’s expert testimony HERE.
It was these shocking fabrications & contradictions, combined with a desire to counter the industry misinformation campaign, that galvanized the four ex trainers of VOTO to become a voice, not just for the whales like Tilikum, but also for the trainer victims, like Dawn. In the various books, movies & articles, Dawn & her life are always honored. This differs from how SeaWorld would try to throw her under the bus in Federal Court vs OSHA. One factor that helped insulate VOTO was professional school & new careers, ones not related to animal exploitation. We were relatively safe from black-balling, bullying or smear campaigns that could threaten other ex employees that still worked in zoological settings; although there was always the threat of a SLAPP lawsuit. Professional degrees also made for credible testifiers; not just for media, but for the Federal Government. OSHA wanted answers and served Drs John Jett & Jeffrey Ventre with subpoenas, HERE.
Enough with texting & emails!
A Face to Face Gathering with Wild Whales is Planned
Superpod1 was set up as a way to see wild killer whales, as a group, and as a retreat on a stunning island in one of the most beautiful places on earth. After discussing the problems associated with killer whale captivity, including morbidity and mortality to trainers and whales, daily for 17 straight months, the logical contrast to that was the beautiful San Juan Islands, with Southern Resident killer whales, and scientists like Dr Astrid van Ginneken & Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research. In short, it was time to come home to a place that offered sanctuary, grounding, and also put faces with names. Of the several dozens attending, including ex trainers, journalists, scientists, naturalists, movie crew, and whale lovers… until that time, many were just email addresses or phone numbers.
Attendees included journalists Tim Zimmermann and David Kirby, along with movie maker Gabriela Cowperthwaite and her crew. Also joining was neuroscientist Dr Lori Marino with Michael Mountain, Candace Calloway Whiting, Howard & Susan Garrett, and other friends & experts. Astrid and Ken were already there, conducting their annual research, and we toured the CFWR. It began the tradition of science-based slide shows, interviews, social events, and whale watching trips. It also laid the groundwork for other ex SeaWorld trainers, such as John Hargrove, to see wild whales, HERE, at #Superpod4. In 2014, SeaWorld became so curious that it sent a MOLE to the event to observe & record the presentations, as seen HERE. And as written about HERE in The Guardian.
We remember orca Gudrun, whose life was shortened by Harderwijk & SeaWorld & who passed in 1996, in a tiny medical pool in Orlando, surrounded by concrete walls & humans yanking on her calf. She did not die in vain. Her life & the stories of it in articles and books have inspired Astrid, David Kirby, Tim Zimmermann, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, her former trainers, and many others to imagine a better life for killer whales everywhere. This history is how Voice of the Orcas came to host Superpod, now in its eighth incarnation. Jeff Friedman, a co-host, Candace Calloway Whiting, Howard Garrett, Deborah Giles, & others have been important contributors to the event over the years.
Get inspired. Join us on San Juan Island for the real sea world.