If you have ever been to an aquarium or a zoo, odds are you don’t question the trainers when they tell you the animals are well treated and happy to be there. The thesis of the documentary “Blackfish” is that orcas held in captivity by SeaWorld are not only unhappy but are also an active menace to their trainers. The testimonies and graphic images in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film will make you rethink everything you think you know about captured whales.
Various events and incidents concerning SeaWorld’s orcas are covered, but the main focus is on trainer Dawn Brancheau who died at an Orlando facility in 2010. After her death SeaWorld claimed the incident was caused by her ponytail, which made it easier for the whale to drag her down. However many retired trainers describe Brancheau as a safety guru who was admired by everyone in the profession. As to the ponytail, she was not the only female trainer with that particular hairstyle so laying all the blame on her seems like SeaWorld trying to deflect blame.
Further expert testimony suggests the whale itself should bear the blunt of the responsibility as it has a long history of causing similar accidents. The whale, called Tilikum, was captured in the 1980s and taken to SeaLand in Victoria, Canada. The tight space of the facility and the physical punishment he endured were not ideal living conditions. In 1991 a trainer fell in the pool and two witnesses recall hearing her scream for her life before dying in the water. The official cause of death was drowning, even though the witnesses recognized Tilikum as the whale responsible for dragging her down. SeaLand closed and the Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld.
The film does not argue that there is anything wrong with Tilikum himself, but that the problem lies with his living situation. Orca researcher Howard Garret says there is no evidence of orcas hurting humans…in the wild. Other experts demonstrate that these whales are highly intelligent and might even have a language of their own to communicate amongst each other and even devise plans to avoid capture by fishermen. They have emotions and social bonding structure, meaning if you put three of them in a pool and two develop a dislike for the third, that third whale could get bullied and even killed.
In addition to testimony from many researchers and retired trainers, the film uses recordings of graphic incidents involving the whales. One trainer is crushed by an orca during a performance, another gets her hand mangled, and another gets repeatedly dragged to the bottom of the pool for minutes on end. A lawsuit by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) argues these animals are too dangerous for trainers to be interacting with them. Given all the serious incidents listed and shown onscreen, you tend to agree with OSHA.
Now for a disclaimer. SeaWorld apparently declined to be interviewed for the documentary and after its release claimed it is inaccurate and misleading, contesting ideas from the movie such as orca mothers being separated from their babies in captivity. Two trainers also claim their interviews were edited to fit with the film’s agenda. It is of course always difficult for a documentary to include all points of view and it possible for documentarians to omit facts to fit their central idea, but there seems to be a few indisputable facts.
First, all of the trainers interviewed say they chose to work at SeaWorld after seeing other trainers in their childhood and that they would eventually form a personal relationship with the orcas. Second, no matter how personal the relationship, at the end of the day these are still enormous animals who can easily kill their trainer, whether by accident or because they are feeling angry.
“Blackfish” is scary, gut wrenching, and infuriating. It will make you feel for the orcas and curious to learn more about just how they feel about performing in front of a crowd.
(“Blackfish” is out on DVD and Blu-Ray and is streaming on Netflix.)