Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is arguably one of the nicest, coolest people in the entertainment industry. In fact, his amiable personality may be one of the things that have helped make him such a huge star. And the former wrestler is also big on charity, having started his own foundation to support terminally ill children. What’s to dislike, then? Well, there is something, if the reaction to one of Johnson’s recent family excursions is anything to go by…
To say Johnson’s Instagram account is popular would be an understatement, as he has a whopping 113 million followers. And in addition to the usual movie-promotion material and behind-the-scenes pictures, Johnson also uses his account to document more personal moments in his life.
You see, The Rock is a family man through and through. He has three children – all of them girls – with the oldest, Simone, a result of his marriage to Dany Garcia. The other two daughters, from his relationship with Lauren Hashian, are Jasmine, who was born in 2015, and Tiana, born in 2018. And Johnson certainly comes across as a fun and devoted dad.
In August 2018, however, Johnson, Hashian and two-year-old Jasmine went on a family trip together, which Johnson would later recount on Instagram. Specifically, the day out was to the Georgia Aquarium, a public not-for-profit aquatic center in Atlanta that is home to many thousands of sea creatures.
And Johnson took the opportunity to write a little about the place and its accomplishments on Instagram, too. “Such a great time with our ohana [family] and friends at the famed Georgia Aquarium,” he said on the social media site. “[It’s] the second-largest aquarium in the world and the only institution outside of Asia that houses whale sharks.”
“More than 100,000 animals and sea creatures here that I’m in constant awe of,” Johnson continued. “Specifically, this whale shark that I’m contemplating jumping in the tank and jumping on its back.” The large creature in the photograph was indeed pretty spectacular.
Johnson finished, “Thank you to President and COO, Joseph Handy, and the entire Georgia Aquarium staff for being so gracious, kind and informative to my family and our friends. We had a blast!” The star also showed off a few more photos from the trip; in one, he is seen smiling at an unimpressed-looking sea lion in a tank.
In another snap, meanwhile, the actor is reaching his arm out to “fistbump” a gorgeous white whale, which was also in a tank at the aquarium. “Found my next co-star. Just look at this beautiful animal with staggering intelligence. And the beluga whale is awesome too,” Johnson joked to his followers. “Seriously, in awe of these creatures.”
Finally, Johnson posted a short video of him interacting with an adorable sea lion called Katie. “As all you guys know, I am one with creatures, animals and basically anything with a heartbeat,” he says in the footage. Then, he tries to get Katie to “talk” to him – unsurprisingly, though, she only makes regular sea lion noises.
But while on the surface Johnson’s antics may have seemed cute and harmless – after all, aquariums are popular places for days out with family – many Instagram users clearly thought otherwise. You see, after publishing the photos, Johnson’s account was deluged with wave after wave of angry comments. And those posting objected to him visiting an aquarium at all – never mind posing with the animals.
One commenter wrote, for instance, that a captive animal “doesn’t want to perform tricks or do anything unnatural for you or anybody… it’s 2018, animals deserve rights, not [to] be forced to live in swimming pools to do tricks.” And another comment, which gained a lot of likes, said, “Animal cruelty and captivity should not be supported, let alone promoted.”
Some disagreed with the assertion that the creatures were being mistreated, though. “These animals are cared for tremendously. Most, if not all, of these wonderful creatures are in there because they were rescued by humans and have been cared for,” wrote one individual. “Some of these animals… can never go back to the wild because they wouldn’t survive in it!”
It’s true that the Georgia Aquarium does rescue animals. One of its manta rays, Nandi, was retrieved from a shark net, for instance. Loggerhead sea turtle TJ was also looked after by the Georgia team for nine years before being released back into the ocean. In addition, the facility was given a stamp of approval by animal welfare organization American Humane in 2016.
Yet some people point at Georgia Aquarium’s association with SeaWorld as evidence that it doesn’t provide a good environment for its animals. In 2009 three of the aquarium’s beluga whales were moved to SeaWorld San Antonio while construction work took place in Georgia. One of the trio, Nico, died there; a subsequent necropsy on the body was inconclusive.
Over the years, SeaWorld has courted controversy for apparent mistreatment of its animals, with the 2013 documentary Blackfish arguably responsible for some of the backlash. That film detailed the effects of captivity on an orca whale, Tilikum, who killed a trainer at SeaWorld. And while SeaWorld disputed the claims made in the movie, it did nevertheless announce in 2016 that it was curtailing its orca-breeding program.
Furthermore, the furor surrounding SeaWorld has triggered a worldwide debate about which sea animals should be kept in tanks. Beluga whales, some activists have claimed, should not be among them. “In the wild, beluga whales can live up 60 years or more,” PETA aquatic mammal expert Heather Rally told animal news website The Dodo in June 2018. “But in captivity, there are relatively few adults who live beyond the 20- to 25-year range.”
Perhaps with some of this knowledge in mind, animal activists tweeted directly at Johnson to reprimand him for visiting the aquarium. “With one staged fist-bump photo op, @TheRock just undid YEARS of crucial captive whale advocacy,” wrote ex-marine animal trainer Phil Demers. “That’s no fist-bump… that’s a death punch.”
Marine scientist Naomi Rose tweeted at Johnson too, telling him to look up the aquarium’s controversies. But Rose also spoke to The Dodo and said that she didn’t necessarily harbor any ill-feeling towards the star. “To me, whenever a big celebrity or any celebrity does this kind of thing… I don’t think it’s the right response to just attack them,” she explained.
Rose added, “I think that [celebrities are] just unaware, and the whole point of my job is to educate the public.” But if Johnson is unaware of any problems with Georgia Aquarium and its whales, he may be far from the only one, since the attraction welcomes over two million guests every year.
Whether sea animals should be held in captivity is clearly a complex issue, then – perhaps why Johnson hasn’t as of yet addressed the controversy. What’s more, the comments on the actor’s Instagram suggest that no matter what he may say, people will object. But Johnson may well have done some thinking about it in private, because even though he may be unaware of the controversy around captive whales, he apparently loves animals.