Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Review: Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

For my return to book blogging after a long hiatus, I'm taking a step back from YA to write about a biographical non-fiction novel that I have literally been unable to stop reading between work and sleeping. Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove is addictive, emotional, unforgettable, and soulful novel about his experiences as a former SeaWorld trainer. 

If you, like me, were forever changed by Blackfish, put this book at the very top of your to-read list.

Summary: Over the course of two decades, John Hargrove worked with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld's U.S. facilities. For Hargrove, becoming an orca trainer fulfilled a childhood dream. However, as his experience with the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. When two fellow trainers were killed by orcas in marine parks, Hargrove decided that SeaWorld's wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers.
After leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove became one of the stars of the controversial documentary Blackfish. The outcry over the treatment of SeaWorld's orca has now expanded beyond the outlines sketched by the award-winning documentary, with Hargrove contributing his expertise to an advocacy movement that is convincing both federal and state governments to act.
In Beneath the Surface, Hargrove paints a compelling portrait of these highly intelligent and social creatures, including his favorite whales Takara and her mother Kasatka, two of the most dominant orcas in SeaWorld. And he includes vibrant descriptions of the lives of orcas in the wild, contrasting their freedom in the ocean with their lives in SeaWorld.
Hargrove's journey is one that humanity has just begun to take-toward the realization that the relationship between the human and animal worlds must be radically rethought.
Little needs to be said for the content of the book because there is no question that is poignant, moving, and engrossing. Hargrove is undeniably a knowledgable, experienced, and reliable narrator. His love for these animals is felt on every page, and from this, I feel as if I know and love them, too. 

It is a rather pricey book—and I held out for two months for the paperback release after discovering this book existed. I was worried, particularly because of the price, about buying a redundant book that would basically retell Blackfish. This is not that at all! Within 10 pages, I had decided that it was worth every penny—and more! 

Anyone who was moved by Blackfish or with a love of animals can appreciate Hargrove's struggle to work with and eventually stop working with whales in captivity. Because despite working for the corporation that has imprisoned these magnificent creatures, he and all the trainers work hard and stay there, enduring repeated injuries, poor working conditions, death-defying risk, and terrible pay all because they love the whales and want to make sure that they are cared for; to make the best of an awful situation. His many examples of agonizing injuries, fearful moments, and near-death experiences is a testament of how much a person will go through for someone they love, even when that someone is an apex predator.
Blackfish is a very thorough examination of whales in captivity, but the film is focused largely on the tragedy of Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum. Hargrove does not just repeat the things of the documentary, branching out so much more to include his path to becoming a trainer, detailing typical days with the whales, explanations of waterwork, breeding, behavioural psychology, and accidents and near-accidents. You learn more about other whales he's worked with and loved (particularly Kasatka and Takara), and his experiences at multiple parks, as well as touching on Dawn and Tilikum, and the resulting legal battle between OHSA and SeaWorld, and SeaWorld and the changing social climate of animal rights. 
Beneath the Surface is beautifully written and Hargrove allows his readers to delve a little deeper into Shamu Stadium, both in the pool and backstage. As a fellow animal lover and someone who grew up with awed visits to Marineland in Niagara Falls to watch the orca shows—something that our children will never know it is impossible not to be pulled into the narrative, exposing the terrible truths about orcas in captivity to the world. 
Eye-opening and heart-breaking. I cannot remember ever reading a book that I loved and felt this much—and I work in publishing! 
5 Stars 

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