I weighed the pros and cons carefully before deciding to review “The Whale”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. The publicist’s email described it as “Set on the rugged western coast of Vancouver Island and narrated by Ryan Reynolds, THE WHALE describes what happens when Luna, a baby orca, gets separated from his family and unexpectedly starts making contact with people along a scenic fjord called Nootka Sound.”
This sounded an awful lot like the sentimental movies about human-whale (or dolphin) bonding that had little interest for me, starting with “Free Willy”, a movie I confess never having seen. (Just by coincidence, a movie titled “Dolphin Tale” opens today as well, a fiction film based on the true story of a dolphin that after suffering an injury to its tail in a crab net was nursed back to health by a sympathetic marine biologist.)
On the plus side, the film got thumbs up from Ric O’Barry, the star of “The Cove”, a documentary about the Japanese slaughter of dolphins that I considered one of the best of 2009. Beyond that, I was curious to see what the film might have to say about human-animal communication in light of the movies I wrote about recently dealing with the dysfunctional relationships between man and chimp. Just last Monday the New York Times reported on an experiment that sounds just like the one in “Project Nim”:
OFF THE BAHAMAS — In a remote patch of turquoise sea, Denise L. Herzing splashes into the water with a pod of 15 Atlantic spotted dolphins. For the next 45 minutes, she engages the curious creatures in a game of keep-away, using a piece of Sargassum seaweed like a dog’s chew toy.
Dr. Herzing is no tourist cavorting with marine mammals. As the world’s leading authority on the species, she has been studying the dolphins for 25 years as part of the Wild Dolphin Project, the longest-running underwater study of its kind.
“I’m kind of an old-school naturalist,” she said. “I really believe in immersing yourself in the environment of the animal.”
Immerse herself she has. Based in Jupiter, Fla., she has tracked three generations of dolphins in this area. She knows every animal by name, along with individual personalities and life histories. She has captured much of their lives on video, which she is using to build a growing database.
And next year Dr. Herzing plans to begin a new phase of her research, something she says has been a lifetime goal: real-time two-way communication, in which dolphins take the initiative to interact with humans.
Up to now, dolphins have shown themselves to be adept at responding to human prompts, with food as a reward for performing a task. “It’s rare that we ask dolphins to seek something from us,” Dr. Herzing said.
But if she is right, the dolphins will seek to communicate with humans, and the reward will be social interaction itself, with dolphins and humans perhaps developing a crude vocabulary for objects and actions.
Other scientists are excited by the project. “‘Mind-blowing’ doesn’t do justice to the possibilities out there,” said Adam Pack, a cetacean researcher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and an occasional collaborator with Dr. Herzing. “You’ve got crystal-clear warm water, no land in sight and an interest by this community of dolphins of engaging with humans.”
If anything, the scientists in “The Whale” have just the opposite intention of those experimenters. Their goal is to reduce human-orca (also called killer whales) interaction to a minimum since the experience has been that such interaction is always at the expense of the dolphin or whale (they are the same species actually) since they have no idea of the threat a boat propeller poses.
We meet the orca named Luna in “The Whale” when he is only two years old and has been accidentally separated from his family in Nootka Sound on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. This is likened by the film’s creators to a child getting lost in a supermarket in one of the few concessions to anthropomorphism in this engrossing film.
The orca is an intensely social animal and in such instances one that is separated (called a “transient” by marine biologists) is known to seek out companionship from human beings. In Nootka Sound Luna got into the habit of approaching boats and ships and behaving like what can only be described as a puppy. In scene after scene, we see the huge mammal approaching a boat and to be petted or played with. It also played games, like balancing driftwood on his head.
Seeing the risk of such interaction, scientists and government employees working in the sound decided that it would be necessary to steer the public away from Luna even if it left the animal forlorn and bewildered—in other words, in the same emotional state as Nim Chimpsky who was abandoned to a shelter by Columbia University psychologist Herb Terrace. Or, for that matter, Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.
Not everybody was willing to accept this quarantine, especially the Indians who lived on Nootka Sound and regarded Luna as a kindred spirit and very possibly the reincarnation of a recently deceased elder.
Ultimately it is the lack of pat solutions that makes “The Whale” so compelling. Unlike “Free Willy” or “Dolphin Tale”, there is no happy ending tied together with a red ribbon. Despite its sweetness (occasionally veering off into sentimentality), the film is a struggle to come to terms with what now appears insoluble, namely the clash between commercial development and the animal kingdom. Luna’s story is only a subset of the larger story about the looming extinction of whales. This is a particularly intelligent species that has only inhabited the planet for 50 million years. By comparison, we are interlopers.
If you’ve seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, you’ll remember the scene in which Caesar is stunned to see another captive—an orangutan—using sign language from behind the bars of his nearby cage. Where did you learn that, Caesar asks? The orangutan—named Maurice—replies “In the circus”. With Caesar leading the revolt, Caesar and all the other captive simians gain their liberation. No longer would they be held captive in medical laboratories or circuses just for the benefit of homo sapiens.
In reality, the revolt of the orca and the orangutan has been ongoing. In Jason Hribal’s excellent “Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance“, there’s a chapter titled “Monkey’s Gone Wild” that sounds like a scene out of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. We learn of Ken, an orangutan held captive at the San Diego Zoo who when young would unscrew every nut he could find in his nursery and then remove the bolts. After he grew up, he was transferred to the Heart of the Zoo exhibit where he was caught throwing rocks at a television crew that was filming the neighboring gorillas. When he ran out of rocks, he started throwing his own shit!
In the next chapter titled “Slippery When Wet: Sea Mammals Dream of Freedom”, Hribal reports on the rebellions of the apes’ equally intelligent cousins. In a Counterpunch article that predated his book, Hribal reported:
Two weeks ago, an orca named Kasatka intentionally grabbed and pulled her trainer underwater twice-nearly killing him in the process. Kasatka is a performer for Sea World Adventure Park, San Diego. She is one of seven orca entertainers at the Southern California park. With operations in five other US locations, Sea World and Busch Gardens are owned by the Anheuser-Busch corporation. Indeed, as Susan Davis demonstrated in her Spectacular Nature (1997), these flagship zoological parks are corporate enterprises: for-profit businesses.
According to a park official, the Sea World orcas perform as many as 8 times per a day, 365 days a year. The Kasatka attack happened during the final daily show. As for the performances themselves, they are finely choreographed and composed of several acts. Each is highly complex in its routines and challenging in its stunts. These shows require skill, patience, labor, and hours of weekly practice. The orcas are, in every sense, performers and entertainers.
Yet much more is happening at these zoos and aquariums than just production and profit, more than just performers, spectacle, and captive audiences. For Kasatka’s action on that day was not a unique incident. It was the third such public act of violence involving herself. In 1999, she attempted to bite this same trainer during a show. He only escaped with all his limbs fully intact by quickly jumping out of the pool. After this event, Kasatka was sent, as stated by a park spokesman, “back for some additional training and behavior modification”-for in 1993, there was a similar bite-attempt. In fact, two years earlier, her father, a performer at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, killed his trainer during a show. Resistance at zoological institutions occurs far more often than most people know.
Hribal concludes his article with the following observation:
In order to see the world from Kasatka’s perspective, three facts need to be considered. First, there are no recorded incidences of orcas “in the wild” attacking humans unprovoked. This is an institutional problem. Second, Kasatka and other performers have a long history of attacking trainers. Resistance in zoos and aquariums, in truth, is anything but unusual. Third, the zoological institutions themselves have to negotiate with their entertainers to extract labor and profit. Indeed, animal performers have agency, and zoos have always (privately, at least) acknowledged this. Therefore, the next time you hear about an orca attack, don’t dismiss it from above: “Animals will be animals.” But instead, look from below: “These creatures resist work, and can occasionally land a counterpunch or two of their own.”
This is in accord with what I read in an email from the publicists for “The Whale” just two days ago:
Statement by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm,
directors of THE WHALE, about the dangers to humans of orcas in captivity:
(Documentary is narrated by Ryan Reynolds, due in theaters in NY on Sept 23
and LA and additional markets on Sept 30, http://prodigypublicrelations.us2.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=bb410deada8b6b607f204f67f&id=6d92694251&e=82c2bc3c32)
“The OSHA hearings on trainer safety at SeaWorld have sparked a discussion about the effects of captivity on orcas and the dangers they pose to humans in those situations.
Our film, The Whale, shows the gentleness and apparent friendliness of a wild orca toward humans. We think that this kind of non-aggressive behavior toward people can only be expected in non-captive situations. We believe that captive orcas will inevitably show occasional and unpredictable violence toward the humans who maintain their captivity.
Having spent two years directly observing a single wild orca on the coast of British Columbia during the making of The Whale, we believe strongly that captivity must be torture for any orca and will continue to generate unexpected dangerous and occasionally deadly interactions between orcas and humans.
The amount of ocean space used daily by the orca we watched, whom humans nicknamed Luna, was vast. He would often travel 50 nautical miles or more in a single day, and he used an area of several square miles in size as a home base for fishing and daily living. He explored that area extensively every day.
In addition, we listened to him with an underwater microphone frequently, and heard him making almost continuous sounds, from calls and whistles to frequent echolocation clicks and buzzing. In a concrete tank orcas must find those sounds ineffective and bothersome.
Our observations of Luna make it clear that orcas are highly intelligent and adaptable animals, therefore we can imagine that they could learn to cope in some ways with the constraints of captivity, in the same way that humans learn to survive in inhuman conditions such as solitary confinement. However, some humans cope better than others in those conditions and almost none are free from terrible adverse reactions to those situations.
To us it is certain that orcas must be under extremely high levels of continuous stress when confined in enclosures that look big to us but must seem tiny to them. It is amazing that there aren’t daily incidents of harm to people who participate in keeping these animals under such unnatural constraints. We can only guess that the reasons such incidents are not more frequent is that orcas are highly cooperative animals by nature and that they try to be cooperative even with the beings that imprison them.
Imprisonment of humans inevitably results in psychological problems and in regular outbursts of violence as humans lose control in their frustrations at incarceration. Orcas are not humans, but they share certain brain structures and emotional responses that somewhat resemble those of humans.
Therefore it seems inevitable that holding orcas in captivity will always result in a certain amount of dangerous and sometimes deadly interactions with the humans who work with them. That the orcas manage to control their frustrations as well as they do only makes the times they don’t less easy to predict and more likely to be dangerous, because these events will always be unexpected. The only predictable thing is that these terrible events will happen.
In the wild, orcas are stunningly unthreatening to humans. But we believe, after spending two years watching a wild orca live in freedom, that in captivity, orcas will always be dangerous in unpredictable ways.”