‘Blackfish’ Star on Tell-All Book’s Shocking Claims About SeaWorld and Its Legal Threats Against Him

Former killer whale trainer and “Beneath the Surface” author John Hargrove tells TheWrap how the park threatened him

Last Updated: March 28, 2015 @ 9:39 AM

SeaWorld is about to take another hit as a damning new tell-all book hits shelves, claiming the company is a “soulless,” money-grubbing enterprise.

In the new book, “Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond ‘Blackfish’” former Orca trainer John Hargrove reveals new details of physical and mental abuse that he says killer whales were forced to endure . Those conditions led to brutal and even fatal attacks by killer whales on their trainers, which the company swept under the rug. Hargrove also claims SeaWorld has silenced trainers who sued the company by dragging out court cases, then promising money if they agreed to a gag order.

“[Director] Gabriela Cowperthwaite did such a great job with ‘Blackfish,'” Hargrove told TheWrap, referring to the high profile documentary, “but she only had 83 minutes… I took my 14-year career and I gave all the high points and all the low points. I did not set out to do a tell-all book but that’s what happened.”

The book’s release comes the same week that a class-action lawsuit was filed against SeaWorld by customers who claim they would have never set foot in the company’s theme parks had they known the deplorable conditions under which the whales were being kept. Another lawsuit filed in September 2014 claims SeaWorld Entertainment misled investors early on when it denied that fallout from the Magnolia-CNN Films documentary “Blackfish” had anything to do with decreasing attendance.

TheWrap spoke with Hargrove about his book “Beneath the Surface,” the theme park chain’s repeated threats against him and what really happened during his 14 years training killer whales.

TheWrap: Are you hoping the book will finally send the company packing?
John Hargrove:
Well, the fact I’m sure of is that last year they lost $80 million in revenue and they lost a million visitors. I just want them to end their breeding program with their killer whales.

SeaWorld operates 11 parks with more than 89,000 sea animals. The company reported a slump in attendance was the main reason for a 6 percent drop in revenue, to nearly $1.4 billion in 2014. Sounds like they’re not too worried. Or at least that’s how they’re spinning it. Are you angry that even though “Blackfish” was a huge success, it didn’t manage to close down SeaWorld parks?
Well, I think it’s just going to gain momentum and you’re going to see more and more of it now because there is a class-action lawsuit against SeaWorld as of [Wednesday] morning. Within hours, there were thousands of people expressing interest in that class action case. People saying they had gone out and had platinum passes and spent thousands of dollars over the last few years. And if they had known what was in “Blackfish,” or my book they would not have gone. So they want their money back.

SeaWorld threatened you, claiming you signed a non-disclosure agreement. Did you?
SeaWorld has issued a statement saying that [the lawsuit] is a publicity stunt to coincide with the release of my book, that I was just trying to gain more publicity, which is so stupid because by issuing that PR statement, that’s exactly what happened. There was a very poorly-written employment agreement that I signed in 2008 when we were owned by Anheuser-Busch, which is a beer company, mostly a non-compete agreement for those working in beer companies to not give away trade secrets. Confidentiality agreements have to be very specifically tailored. They have to give you a specific timetable, like three years or one year, and they also have to be very specific to what’s considered confidential and what is not. You can’t just be broad. This one said everything we learned or did was confidential and it never ends. So, even if we quit, we’re not allowed to speak about any of it for the rest of our lives… All of the attorneys that I consulted with are confident that this agreement would not be enforceable.

Did they threaten you with a lawsuit?
They sent a total of three threatening legal letters. I had Macmillan [Publishers] attorneys looking at it and I also hired my own law firm to rep me and they are a powerhouse firm. They basically told them I had a First Amendment right to free speech and they cannot silence me. The last threatening letter I got from them was probably six weeks ago when they threatened to file an injunction to stop my book.

Is it true TheWrap was named in one of those letters?
At this point they’ve already been sued for investor fraud for not revealing the harmful effect that “Blackfish” had on their company. They’re still telling investors, ‘Oh no, it hasn’t impacted our business at all.’ In fact it did impact their business. That’s why there’s this federal lawsuit against them for investor fraud. Part of the case is that investors are saying that SeaWorld was not honest about the risks that trainers are under when they’re interacting with killer whales. Which is why this letter is so stupid because they’re telling me flat out, ‘You better not talk about those incidents.’ They’re not saying those incidents didn’t happen they’re saying, ‘You gave this quote to TheWrap and that implies that you plan on talking about it. And if you talk about it, you’re going to be in violation of a confidentiality agreement.’”

You claim the company is “soulless.” Can you elaborate?
Trainers sued SeaWorld because they were nearly killed by whales and the end result was SeaWorld would force them into a settlement and gag ordered every single trainer. They tried to threaten me and scare me so I wouldn’t write the book. This is very predictable behavior by SeaWorld. They’re bullies, but the difference is this time I’m the first trainer that they’re not shutting up.

Did they try and offer you money?
No. Filmmakers kept my participation in “Blackfish” a secret until the day it premiered at Sundance. So, I think the reason why they didn’t try to pay me off is because by that point I was already so out there publicly saying everything that they have done, it was too late.

You tell a horrific story about a trainer who was forced to walk to an ambulance 200 yards away after an Orca broke her neck because SeaWorld didn’t want visitors to know what had happened. Tell me about that.
Joanne Webber had her neck broken by a killer whale during the show. They made Joanne get out of the pool by herself and didn’t even try to help her because they didn’t want to draw attention to her being hurt. Then, they made her walk on her own with a broken neck to the trainer offices. They tried to make her take off her wetsuit because they did not want the paramedics to cut it off but. But because she had a broken neck she could not take the wetsuit off and SeaWorld personnel basically took the suit off and made her put on regular clothes, all in an effort to save money. Making things worse, instead of allowing the ambulance to drive up to Shamu Stadium, they did not want people to see the ambulance and draw any attention to it, so they made her walk on her own I think 200 yards to the waiting ambulance, which was out of sight to the public. So she sued for negligence and she settled and she was gag ordered.

Watch Hargrove’s interview with Jon Stewart on Thursday’s “The Daily Show”:

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