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Blackfish – Revealing Look at Orcas in Captivity


Official site for Blackfish, with screenings and info is here.

Most of us don’t know what goes on behind the Sea World propaganda curtain. For over twenty years they’ve been selling the animal stunts at Sea World like it was Disneyland — they sell stuffed whales and tiny bursts of happiness to children.

In Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s unforgettable new documentary Blackfish we come to know one whale, Tilikum, a giant, 4 thousand pound orca who killed a trainer in an incident that made headlines and stripped away the truth about whales in captivity. Though it would have been forgotten, and the Sea World empire held intact were it not for Cowperthwaite’s film. In horrifying detail, the unimaginable life of Tilikum is played out. Back in the ’70s fishing boats hunted orcas and stole their babies from them to sell at amusement parks.  When they would do this, the entire family of orcas would hover nearby, speaking to their young. When one of the hunters saw this he burst into tears. To this day it’s the worst thing he’s ever done, he said.

We also learn that orcas in the wild spend their entire lives alongside their mothers. So to take Tilikum away as a young whale was to already destroy his life. But what happens after that is what the documentary is really about. The former Sea World trainers talk about how the park routinely takes newly birthed calves away from their mothers. One of the hardest parts of the documentary is watching those mothers express their grief — huddled in the corner of their tank, crying out for their babies.  For hours.   This is simply unnecessary. If they’re going to keep them in captivity they have an obligation to, at the very least, keep the whales together.

We can’t undo the cruelty that took place over thirty years ago but we can certainly do something about it now. Tilikum was sent to a low-rent animal park where he was kept, for years, inside a tiny water cage and in total darkness. It was after this point that the large whale killed a trainer. It was covered up when they then sold him to Sea World. None of the trainers there knew of his aggressive behavior — after all, millions of dollars were at stake. They give Tili a slightly better life among female whales but those whales have been tortured in their own horrific way, as you’ll see if you watch this film — and you really should.

The film studies the science of the whale brain, revealing a larger emotional center than even human beings have. Whales are so smart that when the pods were being hunted they would launch coordinated escape efforts, driving the mothers and babies off one way and then the adult males down a different path. But of course there were helicopters overhead to track the babies anyway. But it shows you how smart they are.

You won’t come out the other side of Blackfish thinking it’s okay to keep them in captivity at Sea World. This documentary comes from a very specific, moral, point of view. It makes no bones about its activism. Sea World is multi-billion dollar corporation. They will do what they can to discredit the film, no doubt. They will ratchet up their propaganda machine and families will continue to shell out money to watch poor Tilikum and others perform for their amusement.

Former Sea World trainers are interviewed. Most of them dissolve in tears recounting the things they’ve seen, and all of this leading up to the death of Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum. It was the end of the day. He was tired. She signaled him to swim around the pool and wave at the clapping families. He did so. She then whistled for him to stop but he didn’t hear her. So he went around again and waved. Then she punished him by not giving him a treat at the end — he knew she was running out of fish and he became aggressive and pulled her under.

What we don’t know, what no one knows, is what the whales are doing when they pull trainers under. In a way, they are showing their dominance by taking over commands from the trainer. But surely if they simply wanted to kill them there are easier ways than dragging them under. We see one such attack filmed in its entirety with a skilled trainer who survives the attack by gulping air when he’s brought to the surface, then stroking the whale and staying calm until he is let go. He is then treated with an oxygen mask because he nearly died. It is terrifying to watch. Sea World and OSHA’s response to this aggression is to prevent Sea World’s trainers from interacting with the whales, yet no ruling has thus far taken the whale’s well being into account.


A petition to give Tilikum some space.

Since the attack Tilikum is in isolation mostly, as he’s spent much of his miserable life, used now and again to pump semen to breed yet more whales for human entertainment.

There are currently several ways you can help free Tilikum, even if our collective instincts on the matter are that nothing can ever be done because nothing ever changes in America where that much money is at stake. But why not try? As Bob Dylan would say, when you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose.

The documentary does a thorough job making its case. Sea World has no defense. We are treated to footage of live orcas swimming in pods in the wild. There they should remain. We have enough entertainment stuffed into our greedy gullets to last five lifetimes.

Blackfish is one of the best films of 2013 so far .