Marea is perhaps the most intimidating restaurant on all-too-posh Central Park South. Its long bar is composed of backlit Egyptian onyx, meticulously cut and re-assembled so the undulating striations in the stone link up from slab to slab, the translucence of the mineral held together by the web of an almost animal intelligence. Marea’s stylish and shiny dining room lies just beyond, punctuated with coral red lamps; its impeccable tables are often populated by captains of industry, famous actors and actresses, the mistresses and boy-toys of the rich, and the occasional mobster.
Then there’s me. I love Marea for chef Michael White’s take on Italian seafood and his marvelous touch with pasta. But I particularly love sitting at that stone cold tour-de-force of a bar, because that’s where I get to feel Marea’s hidden warmth, where I see the knowing winks emerging from the uniformed staff that otherwise exudes correctness and politesse. I’m sure the other regulars love it for the same reasons: the bar is almost always packed. It makes you feel secretly powerful. Not too long ago, I walked in looking for a seat. There was one, but it was squished in by two gentlemen who had spread out a bit as they waited for a table in the dining room. George Barber, the maître d’, saw me looking forlorn, and without a qualm walked over to the man closest to the empty stool, saying, “Mr. Murdoch, would you mind moving over a bit so Howard can sit at the bar?” And Rupert Murdoch did. That story says nothing about me really, but everything about George and the rest of the staff.
I’ve come here this time to meet a friend who is also far more unassuming at the bar than I’m used to seeing him. There sits John Hargrove, in his jeans and sneakers, munching on the grilled octopus—a thick, luscious tentacle—and on the large calamari stuffed with fregola suffused with squid ink. The seafood choice is a bit of an irony, because the last time I saw John, he was dressed in a skin-hugging black and white wetsuit, surfing on the back of a speeding killer whale. Preparing for what was called the “rocket hop,” John and orca would submerge in tandem, dive deep into the pool and rejoin underwater, the human planting his feet on the snout of the cetacean. With immense flaps of its tail fins, the giant mammal then sped toward the surface, bursting up from the water, catapulting John high into an arc through the air to splash back down into the pool. It was a breathtaking act that John and his fellow trainers had mastered; and it helped make SeaWorld a magical place, a realm where humans and animals seemed able to mind-meld into theatrical tours de force.
The magic, it seems, was more a mirage. John, veteran orca trainer who had spent more than a dozen years with SeaWorld, is in New York this time to do press for a film that gives him a brand-new role: whistleblower. “Blackfish” is a documentary by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite that examines the death of John’s friend and colleague Dawn Brancheau, a star trainer, in a horrific 2010 incident involving the 12,000-lb. male orca Tilikum in SeaWorld Orlando. The film contends that Tilikum was psychologically damaged by the conditions of his captivity. And in the film, John goes on record describing the harsh realities of SeaWorld’s relationship with the huge beasts.
It was a bit like superhero-school, including a need to wear a disguise.
John clearly misses the old job, which he retired from on disability in 2012. SeaWorld had changed his life and given him a career. He had wanted to be a killer whale trainer since he was a boy in Orange, Texas, spending hot summers learning the basics of animal behavior modification working with dolphins in Galveston. At 20, he was interviewed by a SeaWorld trainer he idolized—and was hired for his dream job, beginning months and years of study and athletic preparation to work with orcas. There were constant tests of fitness, for example, being able to perform a series of aquatic feats within seven minutes, including a 150-ft underwater swim on a single breath and leaping up from the water to grab a bar set high above the surface to lift yourself out of the pool.
It was a bit like superhero-school, including, in John’s case, a need to wear a disguise. One day, John’s idol, the man who gave him the job, told him: “I almost didn’t hire you because I thought you might be gay.” The thing is, John is gay. But he became so fearful that he would lose his job he went back into the closet. Only two years later, when he was transferred to SeaWorld’s San Diego operation, did he feel secure enough to come out again.
At Marea, John hews to his regimen—no alcohol, lower fat content in the food he eats, fruit for dessert (fortunately, the restaurant’s Macedonia is a fruit plate of the gods). Nevertheless, in his final months at SeaWorld, the adventure had changed—it had become less physically exacting even as it became more emotionally fraught. After Brancheau’s death, OSHA—which has fined and cited SeaWorld—banned the marine park’s trainers from working in the water with the whales. “It’s hard to keep up your fitness if you don’t swim everyday with the animals you love to work with,” John says.
Many trainers are convinced that the whales receive better care at SeaWorld than in the wild.
SeaWorld refused to cooperate with the making of the documentary and, just as the film opened, accused it of being scientifically inaccurate (the filmmaker’s responses are here). SeaWorld sticks by its argument that orcas in captivity help educate humans about these marine mammals. And because of the meticulous recording of the orcas behavior and moods, many trainers are convinced that the whales receive better care than they would in the wild. John confesses that he gave in to that cult-like mindset—one that was instantly suspicious of any outside criticism of SeaWorld’s treatment of the whales. But that changed with the death of his friend Dawn, who was suddenly dragged underwater while lying next to the orca in what’s called a “relationship session.”
There was a wave of media attention then—killer whales have never killed in the wild, so why did Dawn die?—and Blackfish has generated a new flood of interest and speculation. And so John has been on the network morning shows, on Nightline and on Bill Maher’s Real Time. But he knows all that will end quickly. As he ponders what his next identity will be after his whistleblowing role is over, John grows wistful about two whales in particular: Kasatka, who is roughly the same age as John; and Kasatka’s daughter Takara. Orca pods are matriarchal by nature and Kasatka and Takara were among the most dominant of the females in SeaWorld’s artificial ecosphere. They can emit signals to keep wayward orca in check—even if those misbehaving whales were out of sight and in a different pen. Takara was exported to a park that did not have a strong female in order to keep up whale discipline. Tilikum was more than likely bullied by female orca perhaps half his weight—a plight made more painful by close quarters.
But even these powerful females were subject to the administrative policies of SeaWorld. They were artificially inseminated to calve; then their offspring—the fruit of 18 months of gestation—were taken away so they could be inseminated again once their fertility cycle had resumed. The dominant whales had become baby factories for a world market of marine parks hoping to replicate their black magic.
It’s hard to know what will come of the killer whale entertainment complex. The facts seem to go against the trade. Yet there will always be a fascination when a creature of such raw and unchecked power is able to follow the gentlest of commands, not unlike Rupert Murdoch scooting a few inches to make room for me beside him at the bar.