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PARK CITY – Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s emotionally powerful Blackfish documents a shattering reality far removed from both the sensationalistic horror of the 1977 Richard Harris Jaws imitator, Orca, and the cuddly fantasy of Free Willy. For anyone who has ever questioned the humaneness of keeping wild animals in captivity and training them to perform tricks for food, this will be trenchant, often harrowing stuff. Perhaps even more so for those who have never considered the issue.
Taking its title from the name given to killer whales by Native American fisherman, the film is a damning indictment of the SeaWorld theme park franchise, whose management declined repeated requests to be interviewed. It’s framed by details of the death in 2010 at the company’s Orlando park of Dawn Brancheau, reportedly one of the most safety-conscious trainers, who was dragged underwater and drowned by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound bull orca.
What’s most disturbing about this and the other tragedies detailed here is that there are no records of aggression against humans by killer whales in the wild. Yet Tilikum has a long history of such attacks, starting in 1991 when the mammal was one of three whales responsible for the drowning of trainer Keltie Byrne at the rinky-dink Sealand park in Victoria, Canada.
Despite that warning sign, SeaWorld purchased Tilikum when the Canadian park was closed soon after, with the tacit understanding, according to former staffers, that the whale would be used exclusively for breeding purposes. But with the need for a big splash to cap off the famous Shamu act, Tilikum, the largest of SeaWorld’s orcas, was soon required to perform.
Given the two-decade span between Byrne’s death and Brancheau’s, the documentary reveals with stinging clarity how little has been learned about killer whale behavior. The film makes the case that in order to protect the multibillion dollar corporation’s brand, SeaWorld has repeatedly downplayed injuries and fatalities caused by Tilikum and other whales, attributing them to “trainer error.” A number of former trainers at the park attest that the company withheld information regarding attacks from staff.
Those talking heads give moving accounts of what drew them to working with orcas, of the experience of close communion with these majestic creatures, and of the self-delusion involved in buying the company line that these animals execute performance behavior because they enjoy it.
Anecdotal evidence from the former trainers is given scientific backup from animal behaviorists to support the widely accepted view that whales are uncommonly intelligent, sentient creatures. They live in close-knit family pods, each of which communicates via its own distinct language, and offspring remain with their mothers for life. An MRI of an orca’s brain indicates “highly elaborated emotional lives.”
That information makes it all the more heart-wrenching when a former whale hunter recounts the barbaric details of capturing orca calves in Puget Sound in 1970, while their distressed mothers stayed by the boats omitting shrieks that sound unmistakably like grief. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever done,” says the interviewee. When Washington State banned the practice, Iceland became the preferred hunting ground for marine-park recruits, the capture technique usually involving separating calves from their parents.
While Blackfish illustrates that every killer whale kept in captivity is traumatized, Tilkum’s history is an especially sad one. Captured off Iceland in 1983 at about two years of age, the whale was subjected to punishment-based training at Sealand, with failure to perform resulting in food deprivation. Because the more seasoned whales at the park also were punished, Tilikum was bitten repeatedly, or “raked” by its fellow captives’ razor-like teeth. As one scientist notes, just the confinement alone in tiny modules that forced these dynamic mammals to remain immobile would be enough to cause psychosis.
When Tilikum was taken to Orlando, the smaller, more agile females attacked it viciously, causing park management to isolate the new arrival. Here and elsewhere, evidence is presented that the killer whale is poorly equipped to socialize outside its pod.
It’s startling to learn that despite Tilikum’s unstable history, the mammal’s sperm has been so extensively used for artificial insemination that its genes are now present in more than half the whales in SeaWorld parks. As scientists state, breeding from such a clearly damaged animal would be unthinkable in virtually any other case.
Despite alleged assurances from SeaWorld officials that mothers would not be separated from calves born in captivity, those offspring almost invariably end up at other parks. When one disruptive calf was removed, an interview subject recalls its mother shaking and screeching in a corner of the pool, issuing unprecedented long-range distress cries.
Juxtaposed alongside the ecstatic commercials for SeaWorld’s Believe and other Shamu shows, footage of various attacks on trainers over the years hits hard. But this is due less to the human casualties than the clear indications of frustration, boredom and psychological imbalance that prompt erratic behavior in these regal creatures. Accounts of whale-on-whale aggression and footage of gashed or bitten flesh are shocking.
The film also makes clear that despite misleading claims by SeaWorld, whales’ life spans in captivity are a fraction of those in the wild. And health issues such as dorsal fin collapse in males are rampant in theme parks but visible in less than 1 percent of orcas in the world’s oceans.
In commercial terms, Blackfish will likely draw comparison to the 2009 doc The Cove, about mass dolphin capture and slaughter in Taiji, Japan. As searing as that film was, this one has equal if not greater impact. The sheer size and magnificence of the animal makes its plight in confinement arguably even more tragic, along with the evidence of its ruptured family dynamic.
The findings here also are magnified by the unflattering comparison between SeaWorld’s public whale-lover image and its profit-driven maneuvers to minimize negative publicity. In the lawsuit against SeaWorld that followed Brancheau’s death, Occupational Health & Safety ordered the parks to place barriers between whales and trainers. The company is appealing that ruling.
Cowperthwaite perhaps uses Jeff Beal’s forceful orchestral music more than is necessary both for inspirational and unsettling purposes. But co-writer Eli Despres edits the detailed reporting with propulsive narrative drive. The film ends on a moving note, with former SeaWorld trainers on a boat watching the awesome spectacle of orcas in their natural habitat.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Our Turn Productions, Manny O Productions
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Screenplay: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres
Producer: Manuel V. Oteyza
Executive producers: Judy Bart, Erica Kahn
Directors of photography: Jonathan Ingalls, Christopher Towey
Music: Jeff Beal
Editor: Eli Despres
No rating, 83 minutes.
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