Eleven million people visit SeaWorld each year. The park’s popularity is attested to by its annual earnings of $1.5 billion each year. Families are entertained by orcas and dolphins jumping out of tanks. Visitors are amazed at the interactions between marine mammals and their trainers. The documentary Blackfish exposes a darker side of marine mammal parks, particularly SeaWorld. The film investigates the morality of the captivity of orcas and the safety of trainers.
Through interviews with whale experts and former trainers, images of whales gouged by the teeth of others in their pools, and sounds of orca mothers grieving for the loss of their calves, Blackfish tugs at the heartstrings of viewers. Blackfish includes chilling footage of trainers being dragged underwater and one being crushed between two whales, as well as accounts of the events by witnesses and family members.
While the movie provides accounts of multiple attacks, it revolves around one of the most publicized deaths of a SeaWorld trainer—Dawn Brancheau in the jaws of Tillikum. Tillikum is a 22.5-foot long bull orca weighing 12,000 pounds who is associated with the deaths of three people. He was captured at a young age off the coast of Iceland in 1983. Tilikum was taken to the now closed Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, described as a big “swimming pool” by visitors in the film. When Tillikum arrived at Sealand, the attraction already contained two experienced female orcas who bullied him, raking his sides with their teeth. On February 20, 1991, Tillikum played a part in the death of Keltie Byrne, a young trainer who fell into the water and was dragged down by the whales.
Tilikum was purchased by Seaworld in 1992 and Sealand of the Pacific closed soon after. Trainers in the movie claim that upon his arrival they were not fully informed about Tilikum’s involvement in Byrne’s death. He became one of their main breeders despite his aggressive history, siring twenty-one offspring. On July 6, 1999, years after Tilikum was purchased by Seaworld, a man who had stayed in the park after-hours was found in the morning, dead and naked, draped across Tillikum’s back. Tilikum’s involvement in his death is unclear, as the man could have died from drowning or hypothermia, but the autopsy did reveal many wounds, contusions and abrasions.
The death of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau remains controversial, and it is unclear exactly how and why she was dragged underwater. After a “Dine with Shamu” show, Brancheau joined Tilikum on a slide out. While the original reports say she fell into the water, later testimonies make it clear that she was dragged in, either by her ponytail or her arm. SeaWorld has claimed that this was trainer error, that her hair should not have been in a ponytail, but trainers in the film protest that that is not true. Employees were only able to retrieve Brancheau from Tilikum’s mouth after he was lured into a smaller medical pool.
As a result of Dawn’s death, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) ordered SeaWorld to keep trainers out of the water and put a physical barrier between orcas and trainers. SeaWorld sued OSHA, and on May 30 of last year, Judge Ken Welsch issued a ruling that SeaWorld trainers must be separated from the orcas by barriers. SeaWorld has appealed.
Blackfish uses Tillikum’s story as the backdrop for a larger exploration of the morality of keeping orcas in captivity. Orcas are highly intelligent and social animals, and as neuroscientist Lori Marino explains in the film, they may have brains even more complex than our own. The film argues that Tilikum’s experiences in captivity, such as being bullied and kept in close quarters, led to a psychosis that manifested itself in aggression.
Orcas have complex social structures; they travel in groups called pods that cannot be recreated in captivity. Each orca can spend its entire life with its mother, but in captivity, calves can be separated at a young age and moved to different parks.
Blackfish raises other issues about the health and well-being of an orca in captivity. While aggression between orcas does occur in the wild, captive male whales like Tilikum have nowhere to go to escape the dominant females. Orcas can suffer severe stomach and tooth problems from chewing on their enclosures. In captivity orcas are likely to suffer dorsal fin collapse, although the implications of this are being debated. When orcas swim in the wild, the water puts pressure on the sides of their dorsal fin; without this pressure, the dorsal fins of most male orcas in captivity collapse sideways. While SeaWorld claims this collapse is natural, the film contests that it appears in less than one percent of wild orcas, who can travel thousands of miles each day. Captive orcas also have much shorter life spans, living about 25 to 35 years while in the wild they can have lifespans similar to humans.
SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film, and has released eight assertions about why the film is inaccurate, dishonest and misleading. Each of these assertions has been countered by the filmmakers who repeatedly wonder if SeaWorld has seen the movie. Before Blackfish was released, SeaWorld Entertainment also sent an email to 50 critics explaining why the movie is incorrect.
Despite the film’s negative outlook on SeaWorld, there are some positive elements to the marine parks. These parks have allowed extensive research on orcas and taught us a great deal about them. They have helped foster a love and appreciation for marine mammals in people who without these parks would have never had the ability to see these incredible animals. The director of Blackfish, Gabriela Copperthwaite, argues in an interview on CNN that “it seems that the most important thing that we learned from having whales in captivity is ironically that they should not be in captivity.”
Blackfish provides a convincing narrative. It argues that these animals should not be exploited and trainers should not be put in danger for profit. The cries of viewers to “free” these whales is not wholly logical, as these whales, who have spent their entire lives in tanks, could not survive in the ocean. However, a trainer in the movie suggests that pens in the ocean much larger than those at SeaWorld can be constructed for the whales to live out the rest of their days.