By Erika Webb
Awe and wonder rapidly gave way to dismay after John Jett went to work at SeaWorld as a young man.
His initial wonderment turned to horror when he discovered what happens to marine animals in captivity. He's not alone.
Dr. Jett, a visiting research professor and lab coordinator for Stetson University's biology department, is featured in the documentary Blackfish, which began airing on CNN Oct. 24.
Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, the performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in January and received high praise.
Director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiled "shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature's extraordinary nature, the species' cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry," according to the Blackfish official website. "Blackfish is the first film since Grizzly Man to show how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits."
Ms. Cowperthwaite was inspired by an article, The Killer in the Pool, written by Tim Zimmerman and published in Outside Magazine after Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Dr. Jett, who helped train Tilikum in the 1990s, was featured in the article.
An op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times -- "Killer Whale Captivity Grossly Unjust" -- after Ms. Brancheau's death and a paper he co-wrote with fellow trainer Dr. Jeffrey Ventre summarizing stressors, caught Mr. Zimmerman's attention, Dr. Jett said.
The connection led to Ms. Cowperthwaite contacting Dr. Jett and Dr. Ventre.
"When Dawn was killed in 2010, I knew it was time to speak out against this whole thing," Dr. Jett said in a phone interview. "Jeff and I wrote an article about the stress to these animals. (It) acted as a road map for people to understand what these animals go through."
What they go through, the "Kid from Kansas" discovered at SeaWorld, is incomprehensible.
"You start working there and you're new, you're in awe of the enormous, beautiful, obviously intelligent animals," he said.
It wasn't long before objectivity moved in.
"Almost immediately you recognize something's wrong," Dr. Jett said. "The first thing I noticed was how little they swam. They just sort of floated around all day, logging."
"Logging" is the term used to describe whales at rest, floating at the surface of the water. Throughout the motionless activity, part of the head, the dorsal fin and parts of the back are exposed.
In their natural habitat whales swim around "100 miles a day and hardly ever stop," Dr. Jett said.
Not possible in the -- by extreme contrast -- kiddie pools at the theme park.
Dr. Jett said the held-in-captivity-orcas are prone to chronic sunburn -- a result of logging, as well as chronic infection from chewing on metal gates and concrete due to boredom.
"Their teeth are a train wreck," he said.
Dr. Jett explained the constant chewing breaks the whales' teeth and grinds them down. Infection ensues.
"Some genius at some time decided it was a great idea to drill holes in their teeth (to relieve pressure from infection)," Dr. Jett said. "The holes are never filled, which leaves a direct route for bacteria and pathogens to enter the bloodstream."
"Tilikum was on two antibiotics and an antifungal when he killed Dawn," he said. "He can't feel well."
Theorizing that boredom also contributed to the whale's deadly actions that day, Dr. Jett said Tilikum simply "had the chance to access a novel experience."
"He was bored. There's not a lot to do in those tiny, tiny pools," Dr. Jett said.
The trainer's instinctive actions unfortunately served as reinforcement to the mammoth creature.
"She squirmed and he thought that was interesting. She tried to swim away and that was interesting," Dr. Jett said. "One shake of the head and you're dismembered."
That the whale is a victim, not a villain, explains this and the two other times Tilikum killed, the professor said.
Whales' entire social setup is destroyed when they are taken into captivity, he said.
"We know he was ripped from his mom at age two. In the wild he would live with his mom his entire life. They truly are momma's boys," Dr. Jett said. "Tilikum started life in a very tragic way. Then he was plopped into these pools, lived among animals he didn't know, got beat up by the females ... he got his butt kicked most of his life. He got beat up brutally when I was first at SeaWorld."
SeaWorld bought Tilikum from Canadian Sealand of the Pacific after he killed 20-year-old trainer Keltie Byrne. The park immediately went out of business as a consequence of the trainer's death, according to a National Geographic article written by Kenneth Brower.
In the article, Mr. Brower wrote about Blackfish, its potential impact on SeaWorld and the claims of the park's officials.
"SeaWorld claims that Tilikum did not attack Dawn. It says that all evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water," Mr. Brower wrote.
"Tilikum's environment is not Florida. Tilikum's environment is the cold, windy, herring-filled seas of Iceland from which he was yanked as a calf. There is no record, in all history, of an orca ever having harmed a human being in that environment, or anywhere else in the ocean. That world, the ocean, is where all killer whales belong and should be. Where Tilikum saw Dawn's ponytail, if he noticed it at all, was in the tank at SeaWorld. The only place killer whales ever kill and injure humans is here, in the confines of tanks like these."
Dr. Jett is on the same page.
"I liked Tilikum," he said. "He always seemed glad to see me and he responded well to me. He seemed like a gentle animal and struck me as being a big puppy dog, really."
SeaWorld is presented to the public as "this amazing conservation organization" and it has done some good work, Dr. Jett said.
But, he admonished, SeaWorld has done nothing to repair the damage from whale-for-entertainment collecting in the 1960s and 1970s from which it benefitted mega-financially. The decline of Southern resident killer whales off the coast of Washington State resulted in the species falling under the Endangered Species Act.
"I would ask SeaWorld: 'How have you helped this population you've decimated?'" Dr. Jett said. "They have the resources to do it more than any entity I can think of, yet they've never given one red penny to the population they destroyed."
In his "Letter to Film Critics" months after the Sundance Premier of Blackfish, Fred Jacobs, SeaWorld vice president of communications, listed what he called the film's "most egregious and untrue allegations."
One being: "The insinuation SeaWorld stocks its parks with killer whales captured from the wild. In fact, SeaWorld hasn't collected a killer whale from the wild in more than 35 years; more than 80 percent of the killer whales at SeaWorld were born there or in other zoological facilities," Mr. Jacobs wrote.
Another: "The accusation that SeaWorld callously breaks up killer whale families. SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales. It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare. And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them," he stated.
Dr. Jett is proud of the film. He feels it will make a difference.
"It assumes the viewer is intelligent. It's not preachy and doesn't tell you how to think. It leaves it up to you," he said.
The professor has not passed the baton. He is researching the deadly impact of mosquito-transmitted diseases on the immobilized orcas.
Drs. Jett and Ventre documented the deaths of two orcas at SeaWorld by mosquito-transmitted viral diseases, including the West Nile and St. Louis encephalitis viruses, according to Stetson Today.
"As trainers it's common to see swarms of mosquitoes around (the whales) at night," Dr. Jett told Hometown News. "They're attracted to warmth, butyric acid and carbon dioxide the whales give off in large plumes (as they exhale, because they're lungs are so large)."
Additionally, Dr. Jett said, the animals' dark hides, logging, chronic sunburns and immunosuppression all put them at risk for mosquito-borne diseases.