Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove
source: free review copy via NetGalley
title: Beneath the Surface
author: John Hargrove
genre: non-fiction
published: Palgrave Macmillan Trade (March 24, 2015)
pages: 272
rated: An incredible eye opener
5 out of 5

Over the course of two decades, John Hargrove worked with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld’s U.S. facilities. For Hargrove, becoming an orca trainer fulfilled a childhood dream. However, as his experience with the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. When two fellow trainers were killed by orcas in marine parks, Hargrove decided that SeaWorld’s wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers. After leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove became one of the stars of the controversial documentary Blackfish. The outcry over the treatment of SeaWorld’s orca has now expanded beyond the outlines sketched by the award-winning documentary, with Hargrove contributing his expertise to an advocacy movement that is convincing both federal and state governments to act. In Beneath the Surface, Hargrove paints a compelling portrait of these highly intelligent and social creatures, including his favorite whales Takara and her mother Kasatka, two of the most dominant orcas in SeaWorld. And he includes vibrant descriptions of the lives of orcas in the wild, contrasting their freedom in the ocean with their lives in SeaWorld. Hargrove’s journey is one that humanity has just begun to take—toward the realization that the relationship between the human and animal worlds must be radically rethought.

Captivity is always captivity. No matter how gentle the jailer.
p.19, Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

My Thoughts:
After having watched the eye-opening documentary Blackfish in 2013, I was appalled and saddened to learn of the conditions of the whales in captivity at SeaWorld and in other marine theme parks.

Until viewing Blackfish it never occurred to me to wonder where the orcas at SeaWorld came from. Now that I know where they come from and how these incredibly intelligent creatures suffer in captivity, I will never visit another marine park that has these animals on display, this goes for dolphins as well.

The documentary Blackfish has interviews with former SeaWorld orca trainers, which is really what makes you stop and listen because you are hearing it directly from people who experienced it first hand. One such former trainer is John Hargrove and he went on to write this book, Beneath the Surface. I have to give it up to him because speaking out against an empire as powerful as SeaWorld cannot be an easy feat. His writing this book is a testament to how much he cares for these creatures.

Hargrove presents us with a first hand account of what it was like for him to finally reach his dream of becoming an orca trainer and how that dream turned him into an advocate for these amazing creatures who are at the mercy of human beings.

My life and career have evolved through four stages as the job I wanted more than anything else became a kind of grieving for a shattered dream.
p 248, Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

During his career at SeaWorld John came to form personal bonds with the whales, he had an instinct for knowing if one was having a bad day, if one would listen to instruction and this instinct helped save him from danger a few times over. I cannot possibly wrap my mind around how these trainers got into the water with these huge animals who are apex predators of the ocean.

As I read I was appalled at these marine parks but I was also in awe of John and his accounts of working with these magnificent creatures. His love for them shows through as does the pain he feels in having to leave them behind, especially his beloved Takara, his favorite orca. John also goes into the friendships he formed with his fellow employees and into the deaths of other orca trainers. He speaks out against SeaWorld and provides the facts and different arguments to back it up.

It is obvious that these whales are highly intelligent and social creatures and should not be in captivity. Seeing these orcas held captive for decades and made to perform tricks all their lives, in the name of conservation and education, is an awful thing. These shows have no educational value whatsoever.

At the end of the book John includes photos of himself with the orcas Takara and Corky and you can see he loves them. Beneath the Surface is an emotional and informative book on an important issue that cannot be ignored.

I loved those charismatic and complex beings. I can’t quite call them animals; the whales are beings just as we are beings.
p.15, Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

At the end of the day, even if you do not want to view the documentaries or read these types of books due to them being too sad or disturbing, you can still be an advocate, inform yourself, help spread the word and do not support these types of marine parks.

If you are interested in learning more, you can visit

Below is the trailer for the documentary Blackfish.

Disclaimer: This review is my honest opinion. I did not receive any kind of compensation for reading and reviewing this book. I am under no obligation to write a positive review. I received my free review copy of Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove via NetGalley.

15 thoughts on “Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

  1. I will definitely be reading this one as Blackfish already had me intrigued by this topic. I can only imagine how much more detailed this book will be and I am really looking forward to reading it! Great review Naida!


  2. Thank you for presenting this, Naida. The book sounds like it would be a real eye-opener. Many people will be surprised about the effects of captivity.


  3. This is a very disturbing subject. Before Blackfish I too never dreamed that that these creatures were enduring a such a detrimental life.

    The book may actually trouble me a little too much to read. However it is a good thing that the word is getting out.


    • Hi Brian. Right, I had no clue either. And I found both the documentary and this book difficult to view and read but I am glad I am informed now.


    • Hi Lainy. After viewing Blackfish, I really felt duped by SeaWorld as I always thought they were doing such great things with the orcas. I won’t go to any of these parks again either. It’s just not right.


  4. Hi Naida,

    For a confirmed Disneyholic, a trip to Seaworld, Florida, has always formed an integral part of our trip.

    However, last time we visited, we were appalled by the amount of rollercoasters which had been built around and so close to the animal enclosures, surely causing undue stress and anxiety for them.

    Add to that the recent deaths of a couple of the trainers and surely it must be obvious that the whales and indeed many of the other ‘exhibits’ don’t belong in such a restrictive and stressful environments.

    I know there are two sides to every argument. On the one hand, if some of the endangered species weren’t bred and kept in captivity, they would be lost to us forever and future generations would never know about them. On the other hand, surely this is all part of the evolutionary chain and we should allow species to die out and be replaced naturally.

    I’m not qualified to come down on either one side of the argument or the other, suffice to say we will be planning any future trips with a wholly different focus.

    Probably not a book or film for me, but a thoroughly interesting post and a very neutrally unbiased review, thanks.



    • Hi Yvonne. I love Disney as well, we have taken a few trips out there over the years. I have been to SeaWorld as a child and the orcas were always my favorite.

      That is the sad part, these animals becoming extinct, but also, it is the natural order. After viewing Blackfish and reading this book, I cannot support another one of these marine parks in good conscience. SeaWorld is not the only culprit and these whales are kept in tanks that are just way to small for them.
      To be made to perform tricks and in essence, work, all their lives is such a disrespect to these amazing creatures. There’s alot of money to be made off these whales, and it seems to be covered up in the name of conservation.


  5. The issues raised here are worth thinking about. What’s the line between protection and exploitation? How much do we really understand about the animals we keep in captivity, who could behave so differently in the wild… I appreciate this review and the book you’re recommending.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You hit the nail on the head HKatz. Where do they draw the line? I think it has crossed over into exploitation. And when captive, these animals behave differently than they would if free, so how much can be learned here? And for what?
    What is shocking is the unnatural way these marine parks are keeping these animals. Everything from the food they give them to their sleeping arrangements to making them perform tricks. Very sad really.
    Thanks for stopping in.


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