Again, another close encounter with a Southern Resident Killer Whale. Amazing doesn't begin to cover what that's like. When a wild orca chooses to swim right up next to a boat - a boat that maintained a respectful and legal distance from the pod - and looks at you, eye-to-eye, no other interaction between species feels quite like that.
I know. I know there's millions of folks who can say that they had an "experience" with "Shamu" or some other cetaceans at a marine park. But that's a show. It's a lie. It's artificial and manufactured. Those swimming whales at SeaWorld are captive shadows of what real orcas are. In fact, by definition of captivity, they are not allowed to be "real" orcas. The sad, imprisoned animals folks cheer for when they jump to choreographed music have been stripped of almost everything that makes them killer whales.
An orca's world is acoustic, they see, navigate, hunt and communicate through sound, over great distances and in very exclusive dialects born form thousands of years of cooperative hunting and amazingly tight-knit families.
Know a "momma's boy?" No, you don't. Well, not until you meet and know a male Southern Resident Killer Whale. They spend their entire lives with their mothers, siblings and extended families. They suffer from great stress if they become lost or separated from their families. "Granny," a resident orca more than 100-years-old leads her family - leads the entire pod - still, to this day.
Human beings in most cultures cannot even imagine the deep-rooted emotional ties and culture that spawns from the strength of their family ties.
We do get some insight, though.
When wild orcas - Southern Residents - were rounded-up for capture in the early 1970s, the young were separated from their mothers and family. Some adult, female orcas (likely the mothers) chose to die, rather than leave their young.
The "canned" experience people pay for is truly an abomination and speaks very lowly of what humans are capable of. More than 80% of Americans live within 200-miles of the coast. Almost every state with ocean coastline offers wildlife or whale-watching tours. Still, folks will book entire vacations based on visiting a marine park to see dolphins or whales.
I know some who would rationalize that the marine parks offer educational experiences for their children. Bullshit.
A child would get more education form the experience of exploring tide pools and seeing sea urchins than an entire day at SeaWorld.
No, I believe it's the "path of least resistance." I'm a parent, I get it. Who wants to take little Johnny or Suzie to some random coastline, and look at a few dorsal fins out in the distance, when you can easily hop on a plane, pay the admission price and suddenly you're sitting in the "splash zone," getting smelly pool water dumped on you and your kids are clapping like trained seals....exactly like trained seals.
So, what's the takeaway? Ten years later ask Johnny what they learned about killer whales at Marineland.
"Um, that water smelled bad."
Oh, but wait, some people go the "extra mile" and pay a much larger amount of money to "swim with the dolphins." Awesome, right? I mean there you are having that once-in-a-lifetime experience and actually getting to hug a real, live dolphin! Except that you're not. At all.
It's not a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience for the dolphin. It's a same-crap, every freakin day experience for the dolphin. What about the "hug?" That's genuine, right? Short answer is "yes." If by "genuine" you mean a conditioned response built on food rewards that sure as heck beats swimming in circles all day and eating antibiotic-laden, semi-thawed fish. That "special" experience is more manufactured than the dolphins jumping through hoops act. And, again, about as educational.
It's easy to take a family to a theme park to see performing animals. Very little thought and effort need go into it.
Now, I know none of my friends - who are intelligent and immensely humane people - would acquiesce to a bought "experience." Right?
If you're thinking about it, if you're on the fence as to whether or not going to a marine park would be a good experience for your family, I urge you - as a friend, as someone who has seen marine mammals in the wild in seven different states - to think about taking a better, more meaningful and more sustainable path. Let your children know where these amazing creatures really live - take them to their home. I challenge you to do this, and I absolutely promise you that - even if it turns out to be just looking in tide pools - your children will take away more knowledge and a fonder memory from the real experience.