Former SeaWorld killer-whale trainer: 'They are not healthy, they are not thriving'

John Hargrove releasing book 'Beneath the Surface'


ORLANDO, Fla. – There's a new call for change at SeaWorld and this time it's coming from a former trainer. It's all detailed in a new book that hits stores Tuesday. Local 6 News got a look at it Monday night.

"Beneath the Surface" was written by John Hargrove, who calls himself one of the most experienced killer-whale trainers on the planet.

He quit working at SeaWorld three years ago, and in the book he describes the highs and lows of working there.

Hargrove said the documentary "Blackfish" caused an earthquake for SeaWorld by raising questions about marine mammal captivity.

Now, in his new book, the former killer-whale trainer urges theme park visitors to spend their money elsewhere.

"SeaWorld refuses to change its business model," Hargrove said. "They want to say, 'No, no, these animals are healthy and they're thriving.' I can personally tell you from being there for 14 years, they are not healthy and they are not thriving."

In the book, Hargrove explains how a childhood visit to SeaWorld Orlando inspired him to pursue a career at the company's parks in Texas and California, where he rose to become a top-level killer-whale trainer.

"For most of us, this was our dream job," Hargrove writes in his book. "We were never going to rock the boat. Not about pay. Not about the danger. We loved the whales we worked with. There was also fear: Many of us chose not to speak out about the conditions at SeaWorld because management might assign us away from the whales.

"Look, I tried my best from the inside to change this and I could not do it," Hargrove told Local 6. "I could not pull it off. The only true way to change this that's left is to leave and speak out and tell people my story."

"Despite the false claims from John Hargrove and other extreme animal rights activists like PETA, we provide the highest standards of care as noted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and are highly regulated by the federal government," said SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs. "Anyone doing their research will find that not only does the book contain statements that are either purposefully misleading or demonstratively false, much of the content is contrary to Hargrove's own previous statements."

"I know they love those whales, but I also know they have to protect the company," Hargrove said. "That's why we're on bitter opposite ends at the moment."

Hargrove said he hopes the same changing public sentiment that reportedly prompted Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus to retire their elephants will pressure SeaWorld to end their killer whale breeding program. He said if that happens SeaWorld employees will still have jobs for the next 30 years or so caring for SeaWorld's existing whales, which he believes should be retired to "sea pens" in the ocean.

"I finally came to the realization that if I had to live their lives, it would be hell," Hargrove writes in his book. "Captivity is always captivity, no matter how gentle the jailer."

Meanwhile, SeaWorld on Monday started an advertising campaign focusing on the marine-life theme park's efforts at caring for animals in captivity and in the wild.

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. has faced declining revenue and attendance since the release of "Blackfish." 

Last year, SeaWorld's revenue declined 3 percent from the previous year. Its chief executive resigned, and the company announced plans to build larger environments for its marine mammals.