Documentary delves deep into killer whale captivity

The documentary Blackfish skillfully investigates the devastating realities of killer whale captivity.  (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) The documentary Blackfish skillfully investigates the devastating realities of killer whale captivity. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Millions of people visit SeaWorld every day without thinking about the lives of the animals behind the scenes. Why would they worry? SeaWorld does everything it can to convince the general public that the animals in its parks are happy and well-cared for. If that were true, however, why would Tilikum, a 12,000-pound killer whale, brutally attack and kill Dawn Brancheau, the head trainer at SeaWorld Orlando? The documentary Blackfish was created precisely because director Gabriela Cowperthwaite asked herself this question after hearing of Brancheau’s death.

Blackfish, which recently began screening in the U.S., relates the history of killer whale captivity, using this backstory to lead up to and explain Tilikum’s attack on Brancheau. In a story with CNN, Cowperthwaite said she started her investigation into the issue not as an anti-captivity activist, but “as a mother (who had just taken her kids to SeaWorld) and as a documentary filmmaker.”

The film starts by explaining how killer whales were rounded up from the wild — the young ones separated from their families — and taken to parks to perform. One of the men who helped to round up young Tilikum speaks in the documentary, saying that because of the whales’ reactions, it was “the worst thing I’ve ever done.” Until this point of the film, it might seem that the people protesting killer whale captivity are overreacting, and the whales at SeaWorld are happy. However, the footage of the young whale in the net crying out to his family is devastating enough to make viewers question their views and reach for a tissue.

The story only gets worse as the film continues, following Tilikum from Sealand of the Pacific — a subpar version of SeaWorld in British Columbia, Canada, which had to be shut down after Tilikum’s first attack on a trainer — to his current home in SeaWorld Orlando. Cowperthwaite uses similar first-hand sources to dig into the dark past and present truths of the industry. Testimonies from eyewitnesses of Tilikum’s first attack, relatives of people who have been attacked by killer whales in other theme parks, and people who previously worked as trainers at SeaWorld itself add credibility to the film and make it hard to argue with its claims.

Experts who have researched killer whales for years say that the animals have no history of attacking humans in the wild, but the film presents raw footage of trainer after trainer being attacked by whales. As a result, it’s hard to argue that the attacks were not caused by frustrated and psychologically unstable whales.

Blackfish presents the whales as extremely intelligent and emotionally complex creatures whose lives are centered on social interactions with their families. It reiterates that these are not dumb brutes forced to perform for an audience’s momentary pleasure and an industry’s hungry bank account; these animals are mentally and emotionally equivalent to humans and completely conscious of what is happening to them. By the time the film shows footage of mother whales separated from their calves in the parks because they weren’t performing well together, viewers are ready to fly to Orlando and free the whales themselves. Blackfish is effective in eliciting an emotional response from the audience because it juxtaposes humanizing facts about whales with the awful circumstances they face every day.

The film has already elicited a vivid response from audiences. According to an article on digitaljournal.com, SeaWorld has been battered by public response to the documentary. Celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Olivia Wilde, and Ewan McGregor have tweeted endorsements for the film and joined a website called backblackfish.com. The SeaWorld San Diego Facebook page was forced to disable comments, and many concerned viewers have called and written letters to SeaWorld to express their disgust. Even Pixar has caught wind of the controversy surrounding the film and altered the ending to the upcoming Finding Dory in response, according to The Huffington Post.

While the general public certainly has not been shy about voicing its opinion on the subject, SeaWorld has been anything but vocal. SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the original documentary or appear on CNN since it aired and issued only a brief statement about the film, calling it one-sided and unfair.

According to a recent article on marketwatch.com of The Wall Street Journal, SeaWorld’s stock has dropped 25 percent since the release of the film and sales are down by $4 million since June (months before the film was aired on CNN). In addition, ticket prices have recently decreased, though the park insists the change has nothing to do with public response to Blackfish.

To learn more about the documentary, visit www.blackfishmovie.com.