“Blackfish” is a critically acclaimed documentary that debuted at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and was aired on CNN Thursday night after a successful world run in sold out movie theaters.
The controversial subject of orcas in captivity for human amusement in theme parks around the globe is the subject of “Blackfish” and it focuses on the inhumane realities of keeping highly social, intelligent, sentient and self-aware creatures in small pools often in solitary conditions, while being “trained” to do tricks for the entertainment of people.
The film was produced/directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, sponsored by Magnolia Pictures/CNN Films and distributed by Dogwoof.
Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry.
The movie spans 35 years starting with the tactics used for capturing young orcas from the wild in the early days when boats, bombs and planes were used to herd mothers and their calves into a small partially-enclosed area, when hunters would surround them with nets. The young ones were harnessed and brought onto boat decks while their mothers circled nearby calling to them in distress. Critics say it was equivalent to kidnapping children, since orcas come from highly bonded matriarchal societies, where females can live up to 100 years.
SeaWorld, the largest theme park conglomerate on the planet, defends its use of orcas on every level, including the fact they no longer have to capture orcas in the wild, because they now make extensive use of their captive breeding program so orcas can be born into a long and sustained life of performing tricks for food and enrichment.
The tragic odyssey of Tilikum
Tilikum was captured as a 2-year-old and put into one of the early parks known as Sea Land in Victoria, Canada. His life there was brutal since trainers of the day knew very little about orcas, their behavior, social interaction or basic enclosure needs.
In “Blackfish”, one of Tilikum’s first trainers gave an emotional accounting of the way the young orca and two females were treated. They did their performances during the day, which amounted to nothing more than pushing a ball around, splashing and circling the pool. At night, they were put into a covered pen that was described as a 20 by 30 module, with little room to move and no stimulation. They had to deprive the whales of food to get them into tanks where they would spend up to 10 hours before being let out again to perform.
The trainer said Tilikum had his sides scraped by the teeth of more aggressive females and would often bleed from the mouth after escape attempts from the pen.
It was during a swimming session in 1991 that Tilikum and two females were in the pool when a trainer fell into the water. Tilikum was linked to his first death after the whales kept the trainer from surfacing and he drowned.
A short time later, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld where his sad odyssey took on darker tones after a young man was found dead, naked and draped over Tilikum’s back in 1999. SeaWorld downplayed the mishap as an accidental death by hypothermia and drowning, but the autopsy revealed multiple wounds, bruises and stated the victim was minus his “scrotum with testes.”
Tilikum, which many marine experts believe was negatively impacted psychologically by his early treatment, was still allowed to interact with his human handlers until that fateful day in 2010 when senior trainer Dawn Brancheau was snatched by Tilikum as she stood near the edge during a performance. Brancheau was taken deep underwater where she died in a matter of minutes from drowning and blunt force trauma.
Since that day, according to the Orca Project, Tilikum has no longer been allowed to perform and has spent most of his time in solitary without a single toy. He mostly bobs listlessly on the surface for long periods of time.
SeaWorld claims orcas benefit from being in their theme parks
In a CNN interview on Thursday regarding the message in “Blackfish” that orcas don’t belong in captivity, associate producer Tim Zimmerman sparred with marine conservationist Grey Stafford. Moderator Van Jones asked Stafford, who maintained that orcas “voluntarily” want to work with the trainers and perform, what they would do if the gates were open to allow access to freedom. Zimmerman claimed that sentient beings like orcas don’t belong in captivity and certainly wouldn’t voluntarily choose to be there. Stafford said that marine animals offered freedom in the past have only returned to their pool. But critics say that proves nothing except the animals were mostly born in captivity and know nothing else.
SeaWorld was repeatedly offered a chance to tell its side by “Blackfish” producers, but they declined. However, the “Blackfish” post-release statement from SeaWorld was a scathing indictment of the documentary. It claimed their orcas are treated humanely and the conservation work to rehabilitate and release marine creatures was not mentioned. They claimed without SeaWorld 11 million people per year wouldn’t have the experience with killer whales that is “personal, enriching and inspirational.”
Cowperthwaite had this to say about her objective in making the documentary: “We advocate, instead, for captive killer whales to be retired into sea sanctuaries where they can live out the rest of their lives in a dignified, sustainable manner.”
It should be noted that not a single person has been killed by an orca whale in the wild. It should also be noted that in April, 2013 SeaWorld profited $505 million after a single initial stock offering.
This summer, OSHA fined SeaWorld $12,000 for violations in Brancheau’s death.
“Blackfish” will air again on CNN Sunday night at 9:00p.m. EST. You can weigh in on the controversy by clicking here.