After seeing “Blackfish,” many SeaWorld visitors and celebrities are turning their back to SeaWorld which makes billions of dollars each year. Unlike SeaWorld’s billion-dollar industry, “Blackfish” has grossed only $2.1 million during its limited release in theaters this summer, reported the Orlando Sentinel on Dec. 20, 2013.
However, as “Blackfish” is continuing to air on CNN and debuted this week on Netflix’s streaming-video service, the popularity of the small-budget January Sundance Film Festival documentary is increasing and it has just been shortlisted for an Academy Award.
“On Feb. 24, 2010, 40-year-old SeaWorld killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau was leading an afternoon killer whale ‘Shamu’ show at SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium in Orlando in Florida. ‘Brancheau, who weighed about 120 pounds, was reclining on a platform that extended into the pool and a few inches below the surface of the water. Tilikum, who weighs about 22,000 pounds, was supposed to mimic her behavior by rolling onto his back. Instead, Tilikum grabbed Brancheau and pulled her into the pool. Tilikum clenched onto Brancheau for about 45 minutes before other trainers could draw the animal into a smaller pool and retrieve the trainer’s body’.”
An investigation into Dawn Brancheau’s death focused on the SeaWorld’s trainer “pony tail” which might have prompted Tilikum’s action, according to SeaWorld. “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, however, suspected that there was more to the story than just a pony tail.
In her “Blackfish” film, Gabriela Cowperthwaite focused on Tilikum’s captivity, his involvement in the deaths of three individuals (not just one), and the killer whale’s life in captivity. The story of Tilikum begins in 1983, when the killer whale was captured off the coast of Iceland and continues of how he was being held in dark tanks with other harassing captive whales. In the end, after years in captivity, the “whale killer” (the reason why killer whales have their name) – turned into a true “killer whale.”
After “Blackfish” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, SeaWorld issued the following statement:
"'Blackfish' is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau's family, friends and colleagues. 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. Perhaps most important, the film fails to mention SeaWorld's commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals, as demonstrated by the company's continual refinement and improvement to its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures both before and after the death of Dawn Brancheau."
Despite SeaWorld’s early attempt at damage control, the popularity of “Blackfish” is growing and with it the amount of SeaWorld guests who are horrified.
“For years, fifth-graders at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School in Malibu, California, have taken an overnight trip to SeaWorld San Diego. But this year, a 10-year-old named Kirra Kotler reportedly told her parents and teachers that she didn't want to go, after seeing how the film depicted the park's treatment of whales,” reported National Geographic.
And little 10-year-old Kirra Kotler is being joined by many other children, schools, animals rights group activists and celebrities who are speaking up.
"I'm among the millions who saw ‘Blackfish’ and am sickened that my music was blasted without my permission at sound-sensitive marine mammals. These intelligent and feeling creatures communicate by sonar and are driven crazy in the tiny tanks in which they are confined,” wrote rocker Joan Jett in a letter to SeaWorld president Jim Atchison. Her song "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was being used as opening music "for its cruel and abusive 'Shamu Rocks' show."
Following “Blackfish,” other celebrities who have cancelled their scheduled performances at SeaWorld parks include the Barenaked Ladies, Martina McBride, Heart, Cheap Trick, Trisha Yearwood, Willie Nelson, and REO Speedwagon.
SeaWorld Entertainment, a family entertainment company owned by Blackstone Group, has 11 theme parks that drew a combined 24.4 million visitors last year – an income of billions of dollars.
On Thursday, SeaWorld President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison announced that in response to the “Blackfish” controversy and the show cancellation by celebrities, SeaWorld Orlando is placing full-page ads in eight of the country's largest newspapers.
“The ‘Open Letter from SeaWorld's Animal Advocates’ — which appears in today's Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, among other papers — defends the way SeaWorld cares for the 29 whales in its corporate collection. Although it never identifies ‘Blackfish’ by name, the ad is the first step in a campaign to rebut criticisms raised by the film and the animal-rights activists promoting it.”