Movie Review: Blackfish (2013)

30 07 2014


Magnolia Pictures / CNN Films





Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes no prisoners in her examination of Americans’ fascination with wildlife, perverted into an industry of animals-as-entertainment. The nation’s greatest offender? Sea World, according to Cowperthwaite.

At once beautiful and tragic, BLACKFISH pulls back the curtain on the industry built on trick shows and ‘swim with’ gimmicks. The concept that a several thousand pound marine mammal could/would revert to basic animalistic defense behaviors against their handlers “friends” seems shocking to those in the trade, something that is disturbing on a whole new level as a viewer.

“This culture of ‘get back on the horse’ and you dive back in the water, and if you’re hurt, well then ‘weve got other people that will replace you’ and ‘you came a long way are you sure you want that?’”   (John Jett, PhD – Former trainer at Sea World)

BLACKFISH chronicles an established, savage 1970s practice of kidnapping infant whales from their pods; barbarically housing, training and inseminating them; and maliciously twisting science to fit their profit-driven agenda. In short, BLACKFISH manages to strip any forethought that marine-parks are working in conjunction with conservation and/or research efforts.
Cowperthwaite interviews over a dozen former Sea World trainers, all of whom became disillusioned with the organization. A contributing factor for many was the consistent practice of covering up incidents of animal (specifically orca) aggression and spinning “trainer error” to the concerned public. They now, collectively, feel bad for all of the whales— knowing what they know and having seen what they saw.

Cowperthwaite, who has produced and directed for over a decade, was inspired to make this movie after the highly-publicized attack on veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World Orlando in February of 2010.
Brancheau, you may recall, was pulled into a large performance pool by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound bull orca. While the Sea World company higher-ups insisted that Brancheau was at fault for the incident (alleging that her having touched fish then her long pony-tail, confused the animal), witnesses know that the 22.5 foot long mammal targeted her.
It would become public knowledge that the animal had been involved in responsible for two deaths previously; the first, in 1991, at the now defunct Sea Land of the Pacific in British Columbia,  20-year-old swimming star and amateur trainer, Keltie Byrne was killed by drowning (three whales held her under, tossing her back and forth); and another, in 1999, a defiant park-goer sneaked into Tilly’s tank overnight— Daniel Dukes was found naked and mutilated, slung across the whale’s back the next morning. [*This incident is highly suspicious, as the PR explanation is vastly different from the medical examiner’s findings. There are cameras every which way at Sea World, and at least 4 night trainers were on duty at the time of the attack— no one saw or heard anything.]

“It didn’t ‘just happen,’ it’s not a singular event. You have to go back to understand this.” (Dave Duffus, Researcher/Expert witness for OSHA case against Sea World)

Researchers have found that orcas have a part of the brain that humans do not, it is called the paralimbic cleft. The inference of this discovery, based upon it’s location and application as compared to known chemistry/functions, is that orcas have highly elaborate emotional lives and social complexities, in which their sense of self is inherently tied to their community (ex: mass stranding, the pod will not abandon a beached whale).  This information makes Sea World, their less-respectable Canary Islands affiliate Loro Parque, and facilities like them seem so cruel!
Former Sea World trainers who spoke with Cowperthwaite stated that on several occasions when a calf (infant/child aged orca) was separated from it’s parent, the mother whale would vocalize her grief and anxiety with seering cries and long-range sounds that were unlike anything the staff had ever heard from one of the marine beasts.

Another egregious falsehood being perpetuated by Sea World regards the quality of life and the lifespan of orcas.  Several segments of film are included in BLACKFISH showing trainers and park support staff spouting off facts for an audience; the most blatant lie of which is that orcas in captivity live twice as long as in nature. In fact, whales free in the ocean have been tracked to live 50-80 years (depending on sex). The majority of captive whales die by the time they’re 35.
A hot-button issue in the community is that of dorsal fin collapse; 100% of male whales in captivity have a slumped over dorsal fin, whereas 1% of wild ones are afflicted with the condition. This issue is addressed by Sea World park staffers filmed in the documentary, each of which says that ‘it’s just something that happens,’ although plenty of data exists as to why. (See a scientific article HERE, or videos HERE.)

Several experts featured in BLACKFISH theorize that Tilikum developed a kind of psychosis from his treatment in captivity— from being ripped from the wild at the age of 2; being deprived of food to illicit specific (show) behaviors; being isolated in too small, dark pens; and being rejected by the forced family unit (despite his gargantuan size, he was ganged up on by female whales that would grate their teeth across his skin and ram into bully him).

A thoughtfully written and thoroughly researched NatGeo article on Tilikum, and his far less belligerent, but equally famous “twin,” can be found HERE.

Terrifying incidents are recounted by Cowperthwaite’s panel of former trainers, and in some cases shown with archival video. Among them: 1987 – John Sillick, 26, is crushed between two whales during a show at Sea World San Diego; 2002 – a trainer named Tamarie was thrashed by a whale called Orkid, eventually she rose from the pool waterlogged with a compound fracture to her arm; 2006 – senior trainer Ken Peters was dragged about the show pool, down to the bottom, by 6,000 pound Kasatka. The animal continued to charge him after he fled over a float net and struggled to stand on his mangled feet/ankles.

“…[Dawn] had so much experience. It made me realize what happened to her, really could’ve happened to anyone.”   (Kim Ashdown, resigned as a Sea World trainer one year before Brancheau’s accident)


Something particularly eery and jarring for me during this film was the 911 recording played at the beginning. The caller, a man, is incredibly calm while describing to the operator that a Sea World trainer had been “eaten by one of the whales.”  Given the later information, from a paramedic’s testimony, that she was essentially scalped and had an arm ripped off (and a lack of blood shed indicated her heart had already stopped beating when the injuries were inflicted)— a gruesome picture of Brancheau’s death is painted.
BLACKFISH accomplishes for the patronage of wildlife exhibits and water-based amusement parks, what SUPER SIZE ME did for the fast-food industry and WAITING FOR SUPERMAN did for the nation’s broken education system. Certainly it will not eliminate the business, but it is sure to drive people into a tizzy for some time to come.

**  UPDATE:  Initially Sea World claimed that this remarkable and necessarily unsettling documentary had, and would have, ‘no effect’ on their business, yadda yadda, and they would continue their work for ‘research’ and ‘conservation.’ But I’m pleased to report that the organization has in fact suffered a 13% decrease in revenue/attendance in the first quarter of this year.  **