Mary Winters, former SeaWorld employee as a ‘Sea Maid’, reflects on powerful moments with cetaceans, advises current trainers and challenges American culture to reject captivity. Interview and edited for length and clarity by Zoie Wesenberg, IMMP Intern & Mary Winter’s daughter.
When did you work at SeaWorld?
Just after graduating High School, from 1977 to 1982.
What does a Sea Maid’s job entail?
We mainly did underwater ballet shows with dolphins and sea lions. I eventually did shows with pilot whales and dolphins at the lagoon, which is attached to the bay. My act was to pretend I was an audience member who volunteered to play a concentration game with the dolphins, and at the end I “accidentally” fell into the lagoon. I would then be swept up by the dolphins and, later in the season, by pilot whales. Their job was to bring me back to the trainer’s stage.
I would ride the backs of the dolphins like water skis around the lagoon, waving. Sometimes they would play tricks on me. One time the dolphins just sunk down into the water in the middle of the ride, and I went down right along with them! Other times they would gradually separate, causing me to to practically do the splits—I swear, they had a sense of humor!
Only a handful of Sea Maids did this show, it took some acting and athleticism. Some years into my time at SeaWorld, they brought white Russian beluga whales and we launched a show called “Belinda Boogy,” where we danced and sang with the whales; [laughs] it was quite cheesy. I helped out in the Shamu shows, although I never swam with the orcas.
What sparked your interest in working for SeaWorld?
A girl I knew from high school had worked at SeaWorld and had told me there was a Sea Maid opening. I decided to try out and remember being really nervous, but being able to just swim with the dolphins in the tank calmed my nerves. There was something about the creatures that I loved. They intrigued me.
The interview was almost like a ballet try-out; the SeaWorld staff noted how your body looked while performing underwater. I was called back and accepted – I needed money for college and plus, I liked the job. But it wasn’t always as glamorous as people thought—we were cold and wet a lot of the time, and it was hard on our hair and skin to be constantly drenched with saltwater. The dolphins, whales and sea lions pooped in the underwater tank we swam in, which no one really liked to think about—it was embarrassing to SeaWorld when a cloud came out during a show! But the Sea Maids were close and cared about each other. And the animals were amazing.
Was there a particular moment that made you realize cetaceans do not belong in captivity?
My realization was gradual, but a few moments stand out.
In one instance, I was doing an evening Belinda Boogy show. In the midst of a loop through the pool, Kojak, one of the beluga whales, swam directly above me and pinned me towards the floor. This was a massive animal. I absolutely could not get up and wasn’t going to push him; you don’t do that to a whale. The trainers were supposed to deal with these scenarios and I remember them slapping the water and the lights dimming, as though the show was meant to end, so the audience wouldn’t see. Kojak released me and I was able to swim up. My heart was pounding. I was never blamed for this; it was always the trainer’s responsibility. I think the beluga whale was just pissed. They had to do too many shows. A few were fine, but when they were forced to doing 10 shows a day, they seemed to become aggressive or at least annoyed.
A more powerful moment happened with Dinah and Stein, who were among the first dolphins I swam with. One day, I went to a feeder pool to visit them because they’d gotten too old to participate in the shows. I remember looking into Dinah’s eyes and…it was horrible. She was stuck in this shallow pool and I remember realizing that this animal was going to die in a bathtub. In that moment, I was completely confused by SeaWorld and knew it was wrong. The last act for this intelligent, charismatic creature that I had liked and bonded with, that I had affection for, was stuck in jail. I knew they wouldn’t survive in the wild, but I wondered why they couldn’t they at least put Dinah in the lagoon? In that moment, I thought, I have no idea how these creatures aren’t so full of hatred towards us…or maybe they are, I have no idea. That was my biggest turning point.
If you had the chance, what would you tell current SeaWorld employees?
We all do things that we justify in some way. We rationalize many of our actions, on some level, and push thoughts away. We are humans, and we are often stubborn. We cling to our beliefs, despite all the evidence pointing elsewhere. Trainers have many rationalizations even if they, at times, question captivity—they think about how will they change the system; how the corporation is so powerful; if it’s not me it’s someone else, finding a new career path, I love these animals…I’ve been there, and I am careful about judging every trainer. So, I would be inclined to ask them about what they observe, to set aside the glamour and their own views, and see what the creatures are telling them about their lives in captivity. Sit down, watch them, and think. Truly think. Don’t let predispositions block the thought process.
Getting people talking and articulating their senses may be precisely how change is affected. I don’t know that trainers are so different than those who give in to SeaWorld’s misleading advertisements, or go to the shows because they are often interesting and truthfully, they can be fun. People want to blame someone, and that blame can often be placed on the trainers and SeaWorld. But I think the blame is on us as citizens and consumers. It’s on American and tourist cultures and our values, which are reflected in what we consume: SeaWorld. We have to own that as a culture. Once we own it, we can change.
We know these beings are intelligent, curious, feel pain and loss when separated from their young and each other, and are meant to live in the wild. We really don’t have any excuses left – we just have our own choices. But those discussions have to occur with a minimum of judgment and a maximum of understanding and finding “hooks” that change minds and hearts. I mean, who am I to judge, I too worked there. But I try to use it now as a discussion point.
All photos courtesy of former SeaWorld employee Mary Winters.