Editor's Note: Blackfish has been held over through the weekend of Aug. 23-25 at the Tampa Theatre. Don't miss it.
My first exposure to killer whales was in the children’s book The Whales Go By, by Fred Phleger. I distinctly remember my Grandma Bardi reading me the story, which involved a grey whale that gets separated from his family and harassed by some black and white beasties (the only whale that eats other whales, the book claimed), before finding his way to his family’s summer swimming grounds. I also remember the Richard Harris stinker Orca, a cheap Jaws rip-off that I watched quite a bit as a kid and which substituted a killer whale for a great white.
My grandparents moved to Orlando in the early 1980s and my family began yearly pilgrimages to the Sunshine State (we lived in New York at the time), which usually included trips to the theme parks. It was at SeaWorld Orlando that I got my first up-close-and-personal glimpse of the killer whale, and the big guy didn’t seem so scary. Not with trainers hopping in and out of the water with the giant creatures, coaxing the animals to jump and swim and wave to the crowd before splashing the first few rows. It was majestic and amazing, but decidedly not scary.
It never occurred to me that the entire SeaWorld operation could be dangerous to the trainers and cruel to the animals. Or that the orcas themselves might be highly developed creatures with complex emotions that are shattered by human meddling. Unfortunately, that’s the takeaway from Blackfish, a new documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite that makes a convincing argument that, in addition to being a bad idea for safety reasons, the capture and training of killer whales is inherently immoral as well.
Blackfish is largely the story of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound beast of a whale that was captured in the early 1980s and sent to live and perform at the Canadian attraction Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia. The conditions for the whales at Sealand were terrible. According to trainers who were there at the time, when not performing, Tilikum was kept in a dark, confining metal box which he was forced to share with two other whales that would repeatedly and viciously attack him. One trainer puts the amount of time in the box at two-thirds of the whales’ lives.
In 1991, all three whales participated in the killing of a trainer. Though there was doubt as to which whale did what, Blackfish presents eyewitnesses who finger Tilikum as the instigator once the bloodshed began. The death led to the closing of Sealand and the selling of the whales, with SeaWorld Entertainment snatching up Tilikum and moving him to Orlando. According to former trainers interviewed in the film, the company obscured the fact that they had just bought a true killer whale. The reason? Because, the film suggests, as a male capable of breeding Tilikum was insanely valuable to the company.
Blackfish mixes archival footage, news reports and contemporary talking-head interviews to chronicle Tilikum’s life at SeaWorld in an attempt to figure out exactly why the whale eventually killed head trainer Dawn Brancheau during a “Dine With Shamu” show in February 2010. The film works like a detective story, getting statements from the key parties (well, all except SeaWorld Entertainment, which refused to be interviewed for the film), examining a possible “motive,” and unearthing telling details from the past. In the end, Tilikum may be the murderer in Blackfish, but SeaWorld corporate hierarchy is presented as the real villain.
You can still catch Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando, though he’s getting too old to perform and new OSHA rules prohibit the trainers from entering the pool with the whales. That should add some level of safety. Of course, Tilikum’s offspring now make up a sizable chunk of the whales in SeaWorld’s collection, according to a genealogical chart shown in the film. Think about that for a moment: SeaWorld bred an animal known to have exhibited aggression toward humans, copying its DNA into dozens of other animals. What could possibly go wrong?
I enjoyed and was horrified by Blackfish. It makes a convincing argument against the type of captivity that fills the coffers of companies like SeaWorld, and it is often heartbreaking.