I've mentioned this on the blog a time or two, but my one true love has always been the ocean and its inhabitants. (Killer whales, in particular, are my animal soulmates.) I felt a strong pull to marine biology from an early age, and still do, but I also love medicine and would prefer to treat patients rather than spend my days writing grants. I still pursued biology, but opted for a more practical application. If marine biologists spent their days watching orcas swim the open ocean, I'd have my PhD in record time. But alas, pipe dreams.
As a child growing up in San Diego, I had the pleasure of being exposed to these magnificent creatures from an early age. (My birthday request was always to visit SeaWorld. It has always been a place where I could dream.) And while I watched Blackfish (four times) with rapt horror just like the rest of America—I am equal parts haunted and exhilarated by killer whales—I can't help but think that the issue is so much more complicated than just freeing captive animals. First and foremost, I'm absolutely opposed to keeping orcas and other large marine mammals confined to what is tantamount to a swimming pool. But what about all of SeaWorld's conservation efforts? If SeaWorld ceases to be a profitable company, the philanthropic sector of the organization also goes kaput. Then what? We would have one less means by which to save beached animals and fight environmental offenders. California recently banned the breeding of captive whales, a ruling I wholeheartedly agree with. Every single one of these animals should be free to swim, eat and live as nature intended. (Whether or not they were captive bred is moot in my opinion. The genetic instincts are still there and the tanks will always be too small for an animal that swims 100+ miles per day in the wild.)
During last week's visit to San Diego, I decided to visit SeaWorld. And though this was not without a bit of internal conflict, I'm so glad I went. I saw firsthand the behaviors described in the documentary: orcas listlessly floating in the pool for long periods; rake marks on their bodies (of which the juvenile orca in particular had many); refusal to respond to commands during a "Dining with Shamu" show; and many other subtle signs of malcontent that were not previously on my radar prior to watching Blackfish.
Still, the issue of SeaWorld as a whole isn't so black and white (pun intended). While there I was able to experience the wonder that is a tank full of tropical fish, touch and feed bat rays (many of which were clearly missing or had deformed spines—a disadvantage in nature), and see endangered animals I doubt I'll ever get to witness in the wild. (Polar bears will likely become extinct in our lifetime, and if not, our children's.)
All in all, it was a beautiful day spent with my aunt, bonding, talking and revisiting my childhood. So many times throughout the day I felt that tingle in my belly I get when I experience something profound, something bigger than myself. Being there gave me the rare opportunity to feel that fluttery excitement I did as a child when I dreamed of reaching my true potential. Controversies aside, I needed to feel that. To know that a deep-rooted desire to change the world still lies within me. To be reminded that the world is vast and my problems are small by comparison. (Oh, and that I can still be awed. It's a magical feeling.) It's one of the few places I feel at home in head and my skin. For that, there is no regret.