Sometimes the air smells like it did when I went to SeaWorld 10 years ago. A chilly, July night with a faint dampness from the oceanic atmosphere is truly the greatest scent to ever grace my nostrils. I went to the “Shamu Rocks!” nighttime showing with my mom and brother (please keep in mind I was eight and didn’t know the ethical repercussions of my contribution to the exploitation of marine wildlife) and let me tell you — Shamu PERFORMED for the masses. Flip after flip, tail-flick after tail-flick was illuminated by automated, neon lights. As Shamu glided through the tank, his movements were backed by a heartfelt and touching soundtrack that made even middle-aged men bob their heads in approval.
Watching the orca spectacle, my teeny-tiny brain knew it even then: This is what modern society has strived for. The Industrial Revolution paved the way for “Shamu Rocks!” and there was nothing like it. Shamu’s intelligence was on display that night when he obeyed his trainer’s every command (so long as he was rewarded with a mouthful of squid as compensation for his labor). His sheer, massive size amazed every child around me who was tightly packed into my row of bleachers — as we fixed our gaze upon the whale who would change our worldview.
What Shamu was doing and all that he was capable of did not go unnoticed by me. My eyes darted from whale to trainer, my brain struggling to fathom all the training and hard work that Shamu had undertaken to deliver the stellar performance I was witnessing. I wanted him to know how much I loved him. The best I could do was wave goodbye to the whale beyond the SeaWorld parking lot.
As expected, I became obsessed with whales after that performance. They encapsulated all the wonder I had about the world and I had the dire need to learn more — or maybe, whales were cool to me. Both of these sentiments could be expressed on equal footing. I specifically devoted all my time and attention to a children’s book called “The Whale’s Song.” The storybook is about the ocean and proposes an interesting idea of how when you give the ocean a gift, the whales will sing for you in return. The ocean never made more sense. So, I decided: If the ocean wants a gift, I will give it one. In fact, I would give the ocean myself if it meant I could, someday, fully belong to it.
Pink floaties escorted me to the shoreline and a baby blue suit clung to me like a second skin. And while the water was terrifying and unnerving to my childhood self, it proved better than the dry sand that clung to my feet and aggravated me up to the crook of my neck. I was ready to jump in. So I did.
I had become a changed woman after Shamu – Well, a changed girl. I thought they should consider changing B.C.E. to L.B.S. (Life Before Shamu) because of the impact that this whale had on my life. I finally saw the ocean for what it was. A symbol of fascination and exploration. Whales were just the tip of this imaginative iceberg.
The water was freezing but I forced myself to wade out a bit further to get the full effect. A feeling that I couldn’t put into words rushed past my knees. It felt warm, regardless of the icy temperatures, and it allowed my mind to be at ease. As though I was listening to music, I tilted my head toward the ocean. Afterward, I sprawled out on the shore like a starfish and waited for the whalesong to reach my ears again. This time, water reached them first. A painful sequence of ear infections would follow for years to come, but for a moment, saltwater relieved the dull ache of anxiety that I am internally accursed with.
In “The Mill on the Floss,” Mary Ann Evans writes that we could never love the earth so well if we didn’t have a childhood in it and if there was no ever-changing landscape to roam and immerse ourselves in completely. We could never stand in awe of the ocean if we did not jump between its waves and dig our heels into its crest. If there was no song composed by nature there would be nothing at all. It’s a philosophy that I, while no longer experience, believe nonetheless.
Some Modern Contexts for the Readers:
- Shamu is no longer a living legend. After the airing of the documentary, “Blackfish,” SeaWorld announced their plan to put a stop to their orca breeding program and their pool performances. The documentary shed light on the unethical practices of captive breeding and the abuse SeaWorld’s killer whales endured throughout their time as circus-like animals. There’s a guilt-ridden feeling in my stomach, knowing that Shamu wasn’t having as much fun as me.
- The ocean no longer gives me what I need. Instead — insecurity ties me down to the beach towel 20 feet away from the shoreline. As a young adult, the water is no longer wonderfully terrifying, and even the dry sand is better than the idea of everyone potentially looking at me. I’d let every grain of sand swallow me whole before I ventured back to the ocean. I’d burn, eyes looking upward toward the sun before I let the water fill my ears again. Do you also find it embarrassing to exist?
“The Whale’s Song” by Dyan Sheldon & Gary Blythe
(REVISED (indicated by italics) by Jordan Stokes):
Lilly’s grandmother told her a story. “Once upon a time,” she said, “the ocean was filled with whales. They were as big as hills. They were as peaceful as the moon. They were the most wondrous creatures you could ever imagine.”
Lilly climbed onto her grandmother’s lap. “I used to sit at the end of the jetty and listen for whales,” said Lilly’s grandmother. “Sometimes I’d sit there all day and all night. Then all of a sudden I’d see them coming from miles away. They moved through the water as if they were dancing.”
“But how did they know you were there, Grandma?” asked Lilly. “How would they find you?”
Lilly’s grandmother smiled. “Oh, you had to bring them something special. A perfect shell. Or a beautiful stone. And if they liked you the whales would take your gift and give you something in return.”
“What would they give you, Grandma?” asked Lilly. “What did you get from the whales?”
Lilly’s grandmother sighed. “Once or twice,” she whispered, “once or twice I heard them sing.”
But after time, Lilly’s grandmother could no longer hear the whales sing. Even though she would provide the ocean a gift, they did not take kindly to irremediable women who had lost their joy and passion and ultimately, offered nothing in return. Their song did not follow her from the jetty and it would leave her as insurmountable, lack of said passion, inevitably overcame her.
One year, I handed out Shamu Valentine cards to my class and then I cried in the corner of the classroom because my head was pulsating with anxiety. My teacher offered the advice to listen to music when I felt overwhelmed by this pounding in my temples. Not just any song will do. I miss the bright, migraine-inducing lights at “Shamu Rocks.” I want the whales to sing.
When I reflect on this anxiety, I think back to the sand and how it sticks with me under my fingernails. It’s annoying — it lingers until I pay special attention to scrubbing it away. When I’m at the beach, I draw smiling faces in the sand and become surprised when they deeply embed themselves into my cuticles. I’ll never learn. Like this feeling, I’ll continue to dig my hands into it.
- Elliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Penguin Classics, 2003, ISBN 0141439629
- Sheldon, Dyan. Blythe, Gary. The Whale’s Song. Dial Books For Young Readers, 1990, ISBN 0-8037-0972-2
- Thomas-Walters, Laura. “Blackfish: How Captive Killer Whale Documentary Ended SeaWorld’s Orca Breeding Program.” The Conversation, 2021, theconversation.com.