Barnum & Belugas
Believing in Belugas
How the Beluga Business Began
My Life with the Belugas
Smart, Chatty and Chirpy – and That’s Their Problem
Visiting with Belugas in the Wild
The Legal and Moral Issues
What You Can Do
Contact Information for the Georgia Aquarium.
Questions for the Georgia Aquarium and the NMFS.
Notes and Talking Points for letters, e-mails, phone calls and general discussion
(Fourth in a series on belugas in captivity.) Samantha Berg worked with the belugas at SeaWorld in the 1990s. Today, she is an outspoken critic of the captivity industry and a frequent expert guest on radio and TV shows. We talked with her about what it’s like for belugas in captivity, about their life in the wild, and about her time at SeaWorld with Shadow, Spooky, A.J. and Bandit. (While belugas in the wild can live well into their sixties, all four of the ones she knew at SeaWorld have since died.)
Earth in Transition: You worked at SeaWorld Orlando for three-and-a-half years, and much of that time was with belugas?
Samantha Berg:Yes, I was there from 1990 to 1993, and about half of that was working with the belugas. They are very gentle, very playful. They were my favorite animals. I thought of them as big Pillsbury dough boys!
My favorite was Shadow. I didn’t know until later that he’d been captured from his family in July 1987, less than three years before I started working with him. And he died after just 11 years in captivity. He lived a mere fraction of the time he could have lived in the wild.
E.T.: How long do they live in the wild?
S.B.: In the wild they routinely make it into their 60’s or older. Most captive belugas barely live half that. SeaWorld and the other aquariums and sea circuses try to breed them in captivity, but it’s rare for their offspring to survive.
All four of the belugas I worked with in the early 90’s – Shadow, Spooky, AJ and Bandit – are dead now. Spooky gave birth to one stillborn calf and Bandit’s calf lived less than four years.
E.T.: That’s why they want to bring those 18 new ones in from Russia. What’s it like for them at a place like SeaWorld or the Georgia Aquarium?
S.B.: Like all the other animals, belugas’ lives are severely deprived in captivity. They have a tiny fraction of the space that they’d be used to in the wild, they have to eat dead fish which is limited in nutrients, and at SeaWorld they have to perform as many as seven shows per day.
And because they’re so gentle, they’re very popular for guest interactions where you can “meet a beluga.” They’re often used for swim programs, too, and it’s highly stressful for them to have all those people getting in the water with them. They can’t get away if they don’t want the contact.
I didn’t realize how bad it was until years after I’d left SeaWorld. So all my memories now of working with Shadow are bittersweet. In this photo, I’m leaning over to kiss him on his melon – that’s the top of his head, which all kinds of whales use for their echolocation. That photo used to make me smile, but now it just makes me sad.
E.T.: What was it like being in the water with belugas? “When they’d swim by you, you’d feel this overall buzzy feeling all over your body. It’s like they’re sorting out what you look like. It’s unique to belugas. “
S.B.: We used to call them buzzers, because you could actually feel the sensation of the belugas echolocating on you underwater. When they’d swim by you, you’d feel this overall buzzy feeling all over your body. It’s like they’re sorting out what you look like. It’s unique to belugas and quite a different experience from being in the water with other whales and dolphins.
E.T.: Why so different?
S.B.: I don’t know exactly. But they’re arctic and sub-arctic animals, and they have this pretty amazing ability to find pockets of air under the sea ice using their powerful echolocation abilities. In an area that’s 96 percent covered in ice, they can find that one place where they can come up and take a breath.
E.T.: You live in Alaska now, so you see them in the wild.
S.B.: I’ve seen pods of wild belugas in the Cook Inlet and in the Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage. The Cook Inlet belugas are in decline. In 1970 there were about 1,300 whales there. Today there are only 280. The Cook Inlet belugas are a threatened species under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
E.T.: So at what point did you really become aware of the plight of these animals in captivity?
S.B.: When I was working at SeaWorld, I saw a lot of things that I questioned. But it wasn’t until almost 18 years after I’d left there that I really began to understand it all. It was when Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum the orca two years ago.
Dawn had had 16 years of experience, and I realized at that moment that what happened to her could have happened to any of us. My first wake-up call was seeing what this was doing to the trainers. I saw that SeaWorld had lied to the public about Dawn, saying at first that she fell in the water. And only then did I really start thinking about the animals.
When I was still working there, I never even thought about how the animals had come to be there in the first place. I somehow thought that Shadow, for example, had always been there at SeaWorld. But now I started to realize that less than three years before I’d started working with him he’d been swimming in the wild.
And it sounds strange, but I’d never really known that belugas don’t do well in captivity. I was always told they do really well.
E.T.: So the trainers are getting the same kind of propaganda that the public’s getting.
“People are afraid that if they say something they’re going to lose their job.”S.B.: There’s this thing we talk about called cognitive dissonance. You see a lot of things that are disturbing to you, but you don’t talk about it and you try not to think about it because you still think you have the greatest job in the world and you want to keep doing it.
I’d seen bad things – I’d seen a dolphin starve to death because she had a behavioral problem and I was very upset by that, but I managed to put it out of my mind. And I’d seen a false killer whale die a horrible death. And I didn’t know that all the false killer whales came from the drive fisheries like the Taiji massacre in Japan. I didn’t even know what a drive hunt was. I was 22 years old when I got hired. I was busy making sure that I did my job well and that supervisors liked me. I was a good employee and I followed the rules so that I could do what I wanted to do which was swim with the whales. And we all knew that we were expendable and that there were plenty of other people ready and eager to take our job at any time.
And for someone who’s been there a long time, they have a secure job and probably a mortgage to pay, and it’s not worth it to them to start making trouble. So if you don’t want to talk about it, it’s best not even to think about it. People are afraid that if they say something they’re going to lose their job.
You know, it’s still hard for me, 20 years later, to use the word “trick” to describe the things the whales are taught to do. We were trained to use the word “behavior.” Or to call it a sea circus, which is what it is, rather than a “marine park,” which is the word these places all use.
It’s like brainwashing. I know this is silly, but the first time I spoke out, after Dawn had been killed, was when I went on Fox News, and I was really nervous. I was afraid I might get sued, or even that a van from SeaWorld would come to pick me up and whisk me away!
E.T.: One of the top trainers at Marineland in Canada finally resigned his position there and came out as a whistle blower.
S.B.: Yes, and then some of the others followed. But it’s really hard to be the first one. And Phil Demers, the one who quit, knew that he was losing his livelihood by coming forward.
E.T.: Some people say that these marine zoos and circuses are a good way of teaching people about conservation. Like you see the whales close up and have a real experience of them. “It’s just a tank with glass and concrete walls and a painted-blue bottom, and that’s all. It’s just flat and bland. I mean there’s nothing. Nothing.”
S.B.: It’s not a real experience. In the wild, these animals can swim 60 or 70 miles a day. Belugas live in pods of hundreds, even up to a thousand at breeding times. They’re incredibly social animals, so when there are only four of them together they must be incredibly lonely.
And a tank at SeaWorld or the Georgia Aquarium is so stark, so utterly different from anything an animal would be familiar with in the wild. They’ve got to be bored out of their minds.
And there’s no way even to have the kind of enrichment programs you do for land animals in some of the bigger zoos – like having a habitat that looks a bit like the wild. For the belugas and dolphins and orcas, it’s just a tank with glass and concrete walls and a painted-blue bottom, and that’s all. It’s just flat and bland. I mean there’s nothing. Nothing.
And then there’s the booming music. These animals use sound to navigate their world and to understand their environment. And here you have music and people banging on the glass windows or just the fact that in these small enclosures, sound is just going to bounce off the walls of the tank. It’s like if you were living in a small room that’s just made of mirrors.
They don’t ever get any peace, even if there isn’t a show going on. It’s a completely alien environment. Plus they’re being fed dead fish that’s dehydrated because it’s been frozen.
Unless the people who come to these shows are being told this, they’re not being educated. They’re just getting lies and propaganda.
A certified acupuncturist, Samantha Berg runs the Alaska Center for Acupuncture with her husband, Kevin Meddleton.
Coming Next: Visiting with Belugas in the Wild.