Have you ever noticed the floppy dorsal fins on the killer whales at aquatic theme parks like Sea World? The last dog that we adopted from a shelter was a sweet little yellow lab/shepherd mix with mangy bald spots and cute floppy ears. Since our dogs eat better than we do, the mangy spots cleared right up as soon as we started feeding her a healthy diet, but her ears also pricked up. It wasn’t until a vet told us that floppy ears were a symptom of malnutrition that we realized how underfed she was when we adopted her. The whales in captivity at Sea World are the same way; these are animals that were used to hunting and eating seals, sea lions and walruses in the wild, but are fed frozen fish in their tanks. And that’s why their dorsal fins flop over while the whales in the wild have fins that stick straight up. Why am I rambling on about dog ears, killer whale fins, and the treatment of animals in captivity? Because I have just seen Blackfish.
Blackfish is documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s disturbing look into the capture and treatment of orcas, or killer whales, in aquariums and marine theme parks. Specifically, the film deals with those whales that snap, attacking their trainers. Even more specifically, the film centers mostly around one particular animal: Tilikum, a male orca who has been involved in the deaths of no fewer than three people (two of his trainers and one knucklehead who snuck into the park after hours and decided to go for a swim). The story is told mainly through interviews with former marine park trainers and employees, marine biologists, and even a couple of witnesses to the deaths. Blackfish chronicles Tilikum’s entire life as an exhibition animal, from his capture, to his training at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada and his transfer to Sea World in Florida and, ultimately, the detailed accounts of the incidents that resulted in the deaths of his trainers.
Blackfish is a horrible movie. It’s not poorly made; to the contrary, it gets its point across perfectly, illustrating Cowperthwaite’s thesis that whales like Tilikum are products of their environment. It’s just a very hard movie to watch, and it should be. It should inspire anger, guilt, remorse, and pity in its audience, and it does. Although the film is sympathetic to the victims, it is every bit as sympathetic towards Tilikum and other captive killer whales. As a case study, Tilikum’s story is extreme but typical; he was separated from his mother in the wild and tossed into a small aquarium with other whales that bullied him, and he developed an aggressive personality. Tilikum’s unfortunate story is sad on many levels, and Blackfish tells it like it is, in vivid color.
For their part, the former trainers that are interviewed really seem to have a genuine love and respect for the animals for which they were responsible, which may explain why they are “former” trainers. One of the interviewees explains that there are really no qualifications for the job of Sea World Trainer; she was hired because of her personality and her ability to swim. It appears from the film that Sea World would rather hire trainers with no experience so that they can mold them and feed them half-truths. In fact, if Blackfish makes Sea World look bad, it’s not because of the treatment of killer whales; all of the aquatic parks in the film treat their whales the same way. However, Sea World is seen in the film repeatedly feeding misinformation and disinformation to both the public and its employees. In one scene, a tour guide tells a group that whales in captivity live longer than they do in the wild because they have access to veterinary care, a claim that is disputed by the marine biologists interviewed for the film. In another scene, Sea World blames the death of Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum’s third victim, on the fact that she was wearing a pony tail. It’s the outright deceit on Sea World’s part that makes the park look bad, not the treatment of the animals. Of course, as a title card towards the end of the film shows, Sea World declined to participate in the documentary, and who could blame them? The film has an obvious agenda, but Sea World’s silence makes it seem even more so.
The most wrenching segment of the film is an absolutely heartbreaking interview with one of the whalers who helped to initially capture Tilikum. Not only does the man detail the horrors of the process of catching the whales, but shares his memories of the baby whales being stolen away from their mothers because they were smaller and cost less to ship. The tough, salty sailor breaks down several times while telling his tale, making it one of the most harrowing interviews in recent memory.
And then, there are the attacks. Yes, the film shows amateur and news footage of killer whale attacks, including but not limited to Tilikum’s incidents, but none of it is used in an exploitational way. In fact, most of the clips that are included in the film are readily available on YouTube for those who are into orca attacks. The scenes are horrifying and gut-wrenching, difficult to see but impossible to not watch. The sensational moments in Blackfish function solely to emphasize the point of the film.
There are so many examples given in the film of the intelligence and thoughtfulness of orcas that, upon viewing, one can’t help but feel horribly bad for these living, feeling creatures. In one instance, an orca is given an MRI and the scientists find that, not only are the whales’ brains similar to humans, but they have an area that is believed to be responsible for social activity and learning. In another scene, the whaler describes how the killer whales, having been hunted before and understanding that the humans were after their babies, split up and lured the hunters away from the young whales. It is clear from the film that killer whales are extremely intuitive and smart, so it is no wonder that Tilikum becomes the sympathetic hero of Blackfish.
In the end, Blackfish is a question without an answer. Tilikum is used mostly as a sire, having fathered more than twenty calves during his time in captivity, and several of those have reproduced. These whales, having either been in captivity for their entire adult life or born there, can’t realistically be released into the wild. That would be like me letting my domesticated dog run free with the coyotes. However, Blackfish takes an important step towards opening the public’s eyes to the issue, and change can be effected from there.
Official Website: http://www.magpictures.com/blackfish/