From Blackfish to Sea World

Students form their own opinions on marine mammal entertainment after seeing both sides of the issue.

On Friday, January 10, 2014, students participating in Associate Professor of Biology Fiona Harper’s intersession class Biology of Marine Animals visited SeaWorld for a behind-the-scenes tour.

Intended for students not majoring in biology, the week-long course partnered a screening of the documentary Blackfish, which takes a scrutinizing look at killer whale entertainment, with a visit to Sea World, the park at the focus of the film.

“While students spent the week exploring the biology, ecology, and conservation of various marine animal groups, because of the recent controversy over the film Blackfish, a particular focus of the course was the roles of aquaria and aquatic parks such as Sea World in conservation,” Harper said. “Students were asked to address the question about which types of marine animals should be maintained in these facilities, and evaluate, using the knowledge they gained in the course, their conservation and educational value. In permitting my students access to tour the behind-the-scene areas; to meet with staff involved in rescuing, maintaining, and training species; and to have all of their questions answered by upper-level folks like the chief zoological officer and the director of animal training, Sea World addressed student concerns and clarified misinformation from the film.”

During a tour of the park’s conservation areas, Kelly Flaherty Clark, head of animal training for Sea World, shared that more than 23,000 animals rescued since 1965; the most frequently rescued animals are birds, specifically sandhill cranes; and that while Sea World employs four veterinarians to handle checkups, procedures, and surgeries, the animal keepers and trainers are the first line in ensuring the animals’ health and wellbeing.

The behind-the-scenes access was thanks in part to alumna Valerie Greene ’05, who helped make it happen. When she was four, Greene visited the park, and she’s known since then that she wanted to be a trainer. A New Hampshire native, Greene came to Florida pursue that dream—and to study English at Rollins (she credits her English degree with helping her write scientific reports and presentations). For more than eight years, Greene has been working at SeaWorld, first at Sea Lion and Otter Stadium and, for the past three years, as a trainer at Shamu Stadium.

“This new show [Shamu Up Close] is a chance for us to give everyone a behind-the-scenes look at what we do. This is what I’m passionate about” said Greene, who can also be seen on Sea Rescue with Sam Champion on Hulu. “I think it’s a great experience for guests. You get some background on the whales, as well as get to see the personal interaction with the trainers.”

“I found it valuable to hear Sea World’s perspective on what they are doing to combat some of the bad publicity from the film,” Lena Geupel ’16 said. “They had the opportunity to explain themselves and share the message of conservation.”