You may remember Ric O’Barry from the Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove, in which he and a team of daring filmmakers go undercover to expose the brutal truth behind the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan.

On a follow-up trip sometime later, Ric was arrested and held in a Japanese jail for 17 days. Undeterred, he is currently on another covert mission in Asia.

Which brings us to the shoot in question—a week-long adventure in southeast China none of us will soon forget.  

In the wake of the compelling 2013 documentary, Blackfish, SeaWorld’s stock went into a tailspin and three years later the company reluctantly made two major concessions: to stop its orca breeding program and to phase out orca performances by 2019. So far, so good on concession one. Not so with concession two. SeaWorld spent millions of dollars in creating Orca Encounter, billed as “the world’s first live documentary.” It is more educational than previous shows but the changes are mostly cosmetic. What the audience sees, the façade, is clearly different: natural rock work, faux trees and man-made waterfalls surrounding a 138-foot-wide high-definition infinity screen. But the concrete tank and 5,500 seat Shamu Stadium haven’t changed. More importantly, nothing has changed for the 20 orcas in three SeaWorld parks. They continue to perform their circus tricks every day for unwitting audiences.

The SeaWorld revelation was part of the impetus behind Long Gone Wild, the feature documentary I wrote and directed. The film covers the so-called Blackfish Effect along with the visionary work of The Whale Sanctuary Project, soon to unveil its model seaside sanctuary for retired orcas. The sanctuary will consist of a netted-off cove, some 300 times the size of a concrete tank, where orcas will receive 24/7 care in their natural habitat with no requirement to perform. As such, SeaWorld’s claim that there is no place for the captive orcas to go will no longer be valid.

A 3D image of the proposed whale sanctuary. Image courtesy of Vision Films

China, however, is another story. Currently, the country boasts 82 marine theme parks and counting, in anticipation of a middle-class population expected to reach 800 million by 2030 (SeaWorld had four parks in its heyday). Meanwhile, the Russians are wild-capturing orcas and selling them into the Chinese market for a reported $7 million per whale, a proven recipe for greed and corruption in two countries notorious for both. To date, three of those parks house orcas, including nine whales held at a secret location near Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai. But photos revealed only six orcas. Had three of the whales died on the grueling trip from remote Russian waters to Southeast China?

An overhead view of a Russian “Whale Jail”

We decided to go undercover to find out. There were four of us: Woo, our Chinese cameraman and interpreter; Josh, our U.S. cameraman and experienced guerilla documentarian; Ric O’Barry, and me.  A few weeks before the trip, a contact in Hong Kong (who shall remain nameless for security reasons) emailed me overhead photos of the facility where the orcas were allegedly being trained along with GPS coordinates.

The day prior to our stealth operation, we visited Chimelong Ocean Kingdom to shoot b-roll and get a lay of the land. It’s a huge park, very SeaWorld-like, with large stadiums for dolphin and beluga whale shows, among others. I had been warned by a producer of The Amazing Race (who had done a segment at Chimelong) that our every move inside the park would be monitored. Despite there being only a few other non-Chinese visitors, we were not stopped or questioned. Josh did all of the shooting with a Sony A6300 which doubled as our B-Cam for interviews in the documentary.

(L to R) Long Gone Wild Producer William Rowan Jr., Dr. Naomi Rose, Director William Neal, and DP Randall Love.

The following day, armed with the GPS coordinates, Woo picked us up at our hotel and drove us to a location just beyond Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. The trip took an hour or so and eventually led to a winding dirt road. A guard stopped us near the entrance to a large open construction site (the eventual home of a massive stadium for the performing orcas). He and Woo exchanged angry words. The caper, it seemed, was over before it started. To our surprise, however, the guard lifted the gate and waved us through. Woo parked several hundred yards down the road where we pulled out our gear. In the distance, maybe 200 yards away, we could see a large blue and white building I immediately recognized from the photos. But getting there would mean trespassing on private property, not a particularly brilliant idea in China. Ric, however, was determined to find the orcas and marched off in the direction of the building. Woo rolled his eyes, and we all followed along. 

A construction worker confirmed to Woo that, “yes, that’s where the mammals are held.” We cautiously worked our way over to the building through jungle-like foliage. Ric pointed out a large water filtration system and all the other trappings of orca captures, including several heavy stretchers used to transport the whales and a refrigerated truck for frozen fish to feed them. Ric turned to me and said, “the orcas are here someplace.” 

The A6300 soon overheated in the oppressive heat and humidity, so we pulled out our cell phones to capture additional footage. We were about to make our way into the building when two non-Chinese men (Russian trainers we assumed) suddenly appeared with cell phones pinned to their ears. Ric insisted on grabbing one last shot through a side window before we walk-ran in the direction of the SUV. Ric and I were maybe 50 yards ahead of Josh and Woo, and as we approached our vehicle four security cars rolled in and screeched to a halt. 

Josh, watching this nightmare scenario unfold before him, had the presence of mind to replace the media card in the Sony with a blank card. When he came closer, he slipped me that card along with the three other media cards we had used the day before at the park (which I should have left at the hotel but didn’t). So, while the guards screamed at Woo, “What are you doing here! What are you doing here!” I ducked inside the SUV and hid the four cards inside the glove compartment. 

Meanwhile, Ric laid down in the backseat of the SUV, his shirt off, faking a heat stroke – a clever attempt to con our way out of this mess. Unfortunately, the guards ignored him while continuing to scream at Woo. I told Woo to tell the truth, more or less. “Tell them that we had been to Chimelong park the day before,” I said, “and an usher mentioned there were several orcas off-site.” I added, “Explain that we’re shooting a film about orcas and we came here to investigate.” Woo calmly interpreted my words only to have a supervisor demand to see our film permit. We didn’t have one, of course, mostly because there was no chance the Chinese government would have issued a permit given the nature of our film. 

These heated back-and-forth exchanges went on for another 90-minutes, during which three different supervisors appeared on the scene, each angrier than the last. Woo dutifully repeated the same story. To say we were sweating bullets—literally and figuratively—would be an understatement. By this time the guards were furious. They took our cell phones (except for Ric’s which he had hidden under the back seat of the SUV) and erased the footage we had shot at the construction site. They also took photos of our passports and a group photo.  They did not, however, ask for the media cards. I still don’t know why.

Footage of the Chinese security detainment crew at an off-site orca location.

The supervisors then huddled together for what seemed like an eternity, after which the supervisor in charge said something to Woo. We were fully expecting to be hauled into police headquarters never to be seen or heard from again. “Going to jail in China is going to be really ugly,” Ric said. 

Moments later, Woo turned to me and whispered, “I think they’re going to let us go.” I asked why. “I’ll tell you when we get in the car,” he replied. And sure enough, the most obstinate of the guards reluctantly handed over our passports and we got the hell out of there. 

Woo explained that the supervisors feared being reprimanded (or fired) by their superiors for allowing a ragtag team of U.S. filmmakers to get through tight security and on to the premises. Go figure!

Two days later, we experienced several tense Argo moments getting out the country with our footage (after all, they had taken photos of us and our passports) but we made it through more tight security without incident. MM

Long Gone Wild opened on Digital and On Demand July 16, 2019, courtesy of Vision Films. All images courtesy of Vision Films.