Parkite’s killer whale documentary is ‘Long Gone Wild,’ and will be released July 16
William “Bill” Neal’s “Long Gone Wild” documentary, produced by Michele Wolpe, William Rowan Jr. and Rachel Weil, will be released on July 16. For information, visit longgonewild.com.
William “Bill” Neal nearly found himself in hot water last year while filming “Long Gone Wild,” a documentary about the Russian trafficking of orcas for Chinese aquatic theme parks.
Neal, who is a filmmaker who lives in Pinebrook, Ric O’Barry, founder of the Dolphin Project, a nonprofit that protects dolphins, and their crews, which included a Chinese cameraman, entered a killer whale holding facility in Zhuhai, China, to shoot footage.
After it was finished, the group was surrounded by a team of security guards.
“They took our Chinese cameraman to task, asking why we were there and what we were doing,” said Neal, who has worked on documentary TV programs“They took photographs of our passports and held us for 90 minutes.”
Fortunately, they saved footage of the killer whales in captivity.
“While guards were shouting at the Chinese cameraman, one from the United States silently gave me his camera card, which I shoved to the bottom of our car’s glove compartment,” Neal said. “But it was hairy. We knew we were trespassing, and we were sweating bullets.”
That scene is depictedin “Long Gone Wild,” which will be released by Vision Films on July 16, during the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.”
The documentary is a chronological follow-up to Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 award-winning Sundance Film Festival premier, “Blackfish,” which revealed the abuse of killer whales at SeaWorld theme parks, Neal said.
SeaWorld fought the allegations, but after its stock dropped and sponsors cut ties, eventually made two concessions in 2016, Neal said.
“One was to stop the (killer whale) breeding program, and they appear to be following through on that,” he said.
The second was to phase out orca performances by 2019.
They now showcase the animals in more natural settings than the concrete pools, Neal said.
“They are building huge displays for the audiences with jumbo screens, rocks, palm trees and water,” he said. “Ironically, the trainers talk about the whales, and audiences watch videos of the whales in the wild, and then they bring the whales into these display areas and feed them dead fish.”
The documentary begins with a history of the killer whale, according to Neal.
“Its genus name, orcinus orca, roughly translates to ‘demon from Hell,’ and throughout history, these animals have been feared,” Neal said.
That perception changed in 1965 when Seattle-based entrepreneur Ted Griffin, the first man known to have swum with a killer whale, bought an orca that was trapped in a fishing net in British Columbia, according to Neal.
“When he brought the whale back to Seattle by boat in a cage, the whale’s family followed the boat,” Neal said. “And after Ted got into the water with the whale, he realized these animals are very gentle.”
The film then goes into the development of SeaWorld and the impact of “Blackfish,” which aired on CNN.
“We also show how whales as sentient, emotional, intelligent and social animals,” Neal said. “Then we get into the Russia and China stuff.”
Initially, Neal planned on making a documentary shortabout the killer whale Lolita, the subject of his 2012 nonfiction book “Rogue Justice.”
Lolita, who had been in the Miami SeaQuarium for nearly 50 years, intrigued Neal, known for his work on “Unsolved Mysteries” and “E! Hollywood Story,” enough to lease his L.A. digs eight years ago, rent a place in Port Townsend, Washington, to research orcas and begin writing the book.
“While I was there, I saw many orcas in the wild, and I met a lot of orca experts,” he said. “I realized the last place this fascinating species belongs is in concrete tanks at these aquatic theme parks.”
After Neal published “Rogue Justice,” “Blackfish” came out.
“That had a profound impact on the public and showed how criminal it is to keep these animals in captivity,” he said.
While doing research for his own documentary, Neal came in discovered the Whale Sanctuary Project helmed by Charles Vinick and Lori Marino.
“They have been working tirelessly for the past three years to find and develop a seaside sanctuary for these animals,” Neal said. “The sanctuary will be netted off from the ocean, because the orcas that they rescue don’t know how to hunt.”
Vinick and Marino have nearly closed a deal for the sanctuary, which will be named later this year, Neal said.
The filmmaker also reached out to Dr. Naomi Rose with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington state. Orca Research Trust founder Dr. Ingrid Visser in New Zealand and Ric O’Barry, all of whom Neal says are the “leading orca experts in the world.”
Neal’s research also connected him with whale activists in Russia.
“They are out there tracking what’s going on,” he said. “Through them, I was able to find the information on China.”
Neal, quoting the China Cetacean Alliance, a coalition of animal conservation organizations, said China currently has 80 running aquatic theme parks, with 20 more under construction.
“They report there are 15 orcas in captivity from Russia in three parks, and last November, the Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park started its first orca performances in a stadium-sized venue that was packed with people,” he said. “It’s still disturbing that after ‘Blackfish,’ nothing has changed for these whales.”
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Park City Beethoven Festival presents a preview of an upcoming Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performance.