Friday, October 25, 2013


    Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is a documentary about orcas in captivity and specifically about Tilikum, an orca currently working at SeaWorld, who has been involved in the deaths of three people. The film has one essential, riveting sequence that encapsulates the problem of captive, working orcas: an attack on a SeaWorld trainer, Ken Peters, by another orca, Kasatka, in 2006.
     The attack was widely reported on in 2006 and was brought to light again by David Kirby's 2012 book, Death at SeaWorld, and Blackfish, which was released in theaters this summer and on CNN this week.
     The Kasatka, Peters sequence is gripping for two reasons. The footage of the attack is professional  a taped SeaWorld, San Diego show. It's filmed on mounted, focused cameras that provide overhead, high angle, eye level, and underwater views of the swim tank. As a result, we can clearly see almost every aspect of the attack as it happens. In the first few minutes we see: Kasatka in the large concrete tank, having just executed some elements of the show; Peters diving into the tank to perform the final maneuver with Kasatka called a "rocket hop."; and then Kasatka abandoning that plan, rolling Peters, grabbing his foot, and dragging him down to the bottom of the tank while shaking him, something she does several times.
      The footage alone is visceral and powerful, but Cowperthwaite  additionally informs her audience by cutting back and forth between the footage and Dr. Dave Duffus (yes, that is his name), a marine mammal expert and professor at the University of Victoria, who discusses the attack. Dr. Duffus gives the audience a better sense of why Kasatka is distressed (she hears her young calf calling from another pool), what she is doing (taking her panic and frustration out on her trainer) and what Peters is doing in response (remaining calm, breathing, and communicating with Kasatka and poolside handlers). When Kasatka surfaces for the first time after dragging Peters around near the bottom of the pool for about a minute, Peters is not screaming or trying to swim away. Dr. Duffus draws our attention to Peters' control and his expertise as a swimmer, diver, and orca handler. Dr. Duffus points to Peters' attempts to soothe Kasatka by stroking her back, while practicing controlled breathing, preparing to be dragged under again, which he is.
     Dr. Duffus puts every action and reaction into perspective for the audience. We trust Dr. Duffus' expertise and we hear his  deep respect for both Kasatka and Peters, which is what allows the sequence to be that much more relatable and chilling.
      You can read a full explanation of the attack here.
      The fifteen minute video is availble below.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Big Sur

   A friend and I recently, accidentally, visited the California Condor research and education center located in Andrew Molera State Park, in the Big Sur area of California.
    We were camping, looking for firewood, finding none, and thought we would try our luck at a horse ranch up the road. Walking toward it we saw an outbuilding that turned out to be the Condor center. A guy named David, who told us he couldn't help us with firewood, welcomed us in and asked if we'd like hear about Condors.
     Hell yes!
    David took us on a short tour of the facility and, in about five minutes, explained as much as he could about Condors, the cause of their decline, and the efforts that have been undertaken to rescue and recover the species. He had more pressing matters to attend to. There was a sick Condor in the back of his truck that needed to be taken to L.A. for chelation. (Yes, David was kind enough to show us the magnificent bird). He told us that lead poisoning from hunters' bullets is the number one cause of death in Condors and was the reason the Condor in his truck was sick. But, he said, this is good news because removing lead from the environment can be done.
    David explained that a piece of legislation banning the use of lead bullets for hunting, AB 711, had been passed by California's legislature and was awaiting thgovernor's signature. He went on to show us effective pictures of soaring Condors and a deer's body cavity coated in a "storm" of lead dust after a bullet had exploded there. We looked at a graph of the Condor population before and after captive breeding and reintroduction in the wild. My friend asked all the right questions. I mostly stood there and smiled.
      Two days after our visit, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 711 into law.
     Last night I dreamt that I was teaching again. My students and I were on a field trip, standing in the middle of the California Condor center, listening to David. The kids kept interrupting him, and each other, to ask good questions. I remember the sensation of smiling at them in the dream. I think that woke me up. I was still smiling. I wondered, for the first time since I quite teaching three years ago, if I could go back to it.
     Who knows? Right now I just feel lucky to be part of this random world.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Canadians and more

     Alice Munro, your writing is bright and inspiring, and really kicks ass. Congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize in Literature!