Blackfish, the critically acclaimed documentary on killer whales in captivity, debuted on CNN Films on Thursday and proved to be a significant ratings win for the cable news network. The film, which explores the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity, won the 9-11 p.m. block with an average 472,000 viewers in the very desirable adults 25-54 demographic.
SeaWorld has three large marine sea parks, located in California, Florida, and Texas. Killer whales (more correctly known as "orcas") are a huge attraction draw for the millions of visitors who make their way to the parks each year. The parks offer live daily shows when the orcas perform tricks with their trainers, delighting and wowing the crowds.
But, as Blackfish shows, there is a dark side to this entertainment. The very traits of intelligence, sociability, and self-awareness that make the dolphin species so easy to train may be the strongest argument against keeping them in captivity.
Orcas are the largest, and possibly the most intelligent and culturally varied of the dolphin species. In the wild, "killer whales" are not considered a threat to humans. But in Blackfish the testimony of several former SeaWorld employees shows how orcas, frustrated and bored in captivity, can lash out on occasion - sometimes with deadly consequences.
The deadly and aggressive potential of orcas was most recently brought to the public's attention with the death, in 2010, of SeaWorld orca trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau reportedly inadvertently slipped or fell into the orca's tank, and was fatally shaken by one of the whales.
Brancheau's death was not the first time that whale, Tilikum, had been involved in a human fatality. In 1991, Tillikum was also involved in the 1991 death of 20 year-old Sealand orca trainer, Keltie Byrne, when she slipped and fell into the tank.
And in July 1999, the drowned body of Daniel Dukes was found lying across Tilikum's back in a SeaWorld Orlando tank. Authorities said it was unclear how Dukes remained in the park after closing, but that he had shown a "fascination" with the killer whales previously. Dukes' death was later ruled as accidental.
In the wild, most orcas stay near or with their families for life, travel up to 100 miles a day, and display complex communal rituals. Orcas travel in intensely social, tightly-knit groups, led by a dominant female. The offspring of the group typically stay with the group for life. Each group has its own unique dialect of clicks, whistles, creaks, and groans which allow them to communicate across considerable distances and ensure the family pod stays together.
However, many orcas in captivity were captured from the wild as juveniles - some as young as three months old. In capture hunts, high-speed boats, helicopters, and explosives are used to herd the animals into a large net or blocked cove. The calves are then separated from their mothers and sold to aquariums and amusement parks.
Research has shown that orcas - and the dolphin species in general - have the intelligence and curiosity of the average small child. Yet, in captivity, they are separated from their families and confined to the equivalent of a concrete bathtub for the rest of their lives. Since confining a child to such conditions would be considered cruel and inhumane (and would be illegal), the confinement of these sea mammals to the same conditions raises troubling ethical questions.
Supporters of SeaWorld and similar venues say holding orcas and other dolphins in captivity serve an educational purpose. They believe seeing the animals creates an affection for them, and a subsequent interest in conservation and the well-being of the species.
However, opponents (some of whom are former orca trainers) counter those claims by pointing out that there is no evidence that the exhibits have any educational value, at all. Additionally, they say, children exposed to captive wildlife in artificial enclosures become desensitized to the plight of wild creatures, seeing captivity as "normal".
Meanwhile, the debate rages online. SeaWorld, which declined to be interviewed for Blackfish, has been the focus of intense and increasing criticism since the film aired. The company has since issued a statement calling the film "inaccurate and misleading".
In a statement reported by Variety, SeaWorld went on to say, "To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld – among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research."
Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite disagrees. "I think SeaWorld is just looking to sow a seed of doubt because they have to," Cowperthwaite told Canada.com. "There were so many things I didn’t include because they took us away from Tilikum, but they were very disturbing and could have easily loaded the film and turned it into a piece of activism — which was never my intent."
Blackfish will encore on CNN Saturday, October 26, at 7:00 p.m., E.T., and Sunday, October 27, at 9:00 p.m., E.T.