My last production gig in Florida was for SeaWorld Orlando. They wanted a bunch of pre-show videos featuring glassy-eyed trainers talking about all the animals. Something to show guests on the jumbotron above Shamu Stadium.
On day one we shot at Discovery Cove, where guests pay hundreds of dollars to swim with dolphins in pools lined with faux rock and manicured palms and food carts. A square-jawed trainer named Brent waded into the pool and read cue cards about echolocation and melons and positive reinforcement. A bottlenose dolphin named Penny floated patiently at his side.
Brent readied his whistle, nodded, and flicked a wrist. Penny zipped past him and jumped and everybody groaned. She’d failed to slap the water with her tail flukes before jumping, which was an integral part of the maneuver. As a result, we didn’t get our shot and Penny didn’t get a fish.
The director called cut and we rolled again. And Penny missed again. And again and again and again and again and again and again and then she finally got it and we broke for lunch.
I struck up conversation with a dolphin trainer named Becky. She had sun-bleached hair and bronze skin and aspired to work with orcas. I asked her a lot of questions because I had an inherent interest in zoology that had developed during my Fat Stage in middle school. And also because I thought she was pretty.
Becky said that orcas are dolphins and dolphins are very smart. Nobody knows how smart they are, though. The Shamu tank is divided into different sections. SeaWorld opens and closes different gates at different times to keep the orcas stimulated.
I asked her about Tilikum. The big orca who ate the head trainer a few months prior. Becky said she didn’t want to talk about it. So we chatted about the weather instead.
On day two we set up at Shamu Stadium. They called an orca named Katina to the main pool and closed the gates to keep the others out. She had a newborn baby, Makaio. The senior trainer, Constance, waded onto a shallow lip and fed Katina to keep her close.
Constance explained that Makaio wasn’t nursing and nobody knew why. Should he decide to nurse, said Constance, we have to cut and let him finish. Absolutely no interference allowed.
We got a couple of takes of mother and son at the edge of the tank, on their marks. Then, Makaio submerged and began nursing. Constance called cut and was all smiles. The crew oohed and aahed.
After a few moments Katina dropped below the surface, forced Makaio to stop nursing, and pushed him onto the ledge so that he was fully exposed to the air. Constance gaped in shock. Katina gaped for fish.
We started shooting again. Finished early, solely because of Katina’s assistance. Makaio had lost his interest in nursing by the time we wrapped.
They opened the gates and a third orca swam into the main tank. He hugged the glass and lapped the pool like a black torpedo with swiveling eyes. Searching every nook and cranny because he knew he’d missed something.
I pressed my face to the glass. He locked eyes with me on every pass. Then the AD told me to collect the crew’s trash.
We shot in the sick bay on our last day. It was warehouses and concrete and razor wire. They had a couple of SeaWorld executives in suits standing over a little pool filled with sea turtles. Talking all about their efforts to rehabilitate injured wildlife. Conservation. Preservation. Breeding programs. Flashing pearly whites and talking about the future. Our children and our children’s children.
At wrap the gaffer asked me to carry a bunch of equipment back to the vans. Lugging C-stands and lights and hampers back and forth. All under the watchful gaze of a bottlenose dolphin.
He was in an above-ground pool that couldn’t have been more than twenty feet in diameter. Just deep enough for him to submerge and turn around. He propped his head on the edge of the pool and watched me do my job. Stared me right in the eye when I looked. And I could feel his eyes on me when I wasn’t looking.
It reminded me of an uncomfortable and cathartic bus trip I had in Milan, once. An old woman wouldn’t take her eyes off me. Just smiled and watched me read my book. Unapologetic, too.
I couldn’t concentrate with her eyes on me so I tried to make small talk. She didn’t speak English. I didn’t know Italian. So I just nodded and smiled back and she kept watching me.
This dolphin was the same. Like somebody who spoke a different language. Using his eyes to communicate with me because that’s all he had.
At the end of the shoot Becky said I should apply for a job at SeaWorld. Said I was a good fit. I told her I had actually applied and been hired at the beginning of 2010. Took a test about cetaceans and pinnipeds and sirenians and aced it.
A jovial lady in a pink muumuu gave me a W2 and an I9 and everything was fine and we joked. Then, she said I was supposed to do a drug test and my heart stopped. There’d been nothing on the application about any fucking drug test.
She led me to a man shaped in form and personality like a fire hydrant. He asked for some leg hair. I had no choice but to say yes. He trimmed a bunch from my right shin.
I got a phone call from a restricted number a couple of days later. I answered and heard a lot of static. A gravelly voice asked if it was me and I said yes. It was Dr. Charles Weimeraner, of Anheuser-Busch. He asked if I was ready to hear the results of my drug test.
I said yes. Then there was a really really long pause. Really really long. Like he was going to tell me I had HIV.
Then he said, you tested positive for THC. I considered my options. I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about. He ignored me and asked when I’d last used.
Truth is, the last time I’d used was twenty minutes before his call.
But I told him I’d taken a single puff of weed on July 4th, six months prior. He laughed and said he found that hard to believe. My leg hair was more cannabis than human.
I got an official letter stating that SeaWorld had a zero-tolerance drug policy. For the safety of employees, guests, and animals.
A few days later, Tilikum dismembered the head trainer. On the 24th of February. The day I was supposed to start.