‘Blackfish:’ Killer Thriller

In Blackfish, documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite exposes the long hush-hushed history of the effect of captivity on the behavior of orca whales at SeaWorld and other parks around the world. The film is a constantly gripping and heart wrenching investigation of the inarguable malpractices that SeaWorld employs when capturing, keeping, and handling these killer whales.

Through the tale of Tilikum, a 12,000 lb. orca whale who was captured at four years old and has been responsible for the deaths of three people, Blackfish eviscerates the inhumane process by which these whales are cornered and netted. Orca researchers explain that these animals are extremely intelligent, are advanced emotionally beyond the realm of human capacity or understanding, and live in the wild in distinct packs that each has their very own language.

When they are trapped in a concrete pool for the rest of their lives, when they are ripped from their tight-knit family and community and dropped in a pool with whales they’ve never seen and with whom they don’t speak the same language, they are affected mentally and physically in ways that are predictably negative. It is with great dismay and disbelief that Cowperthwaite’s documentary reveals how either uninformed or intentionally ignorant Sea World authorities remained on the effects of these conditions on orca whale behavior, and how little of this information was shared with the trainers, those who were in the pool with the animals each day.

That is the most horrifying and enlightening aspect of the film: the testimonies from former SeaWorld trainers who insist they were never informed of the over seventy trainer injury incidents that took place with the whales throughout SeaWorld’s history; who were, in a sense, brainwashed to believe that they were receiving extensive training on how to handle these extraordinarily intelligent creatures, when in fact, they were only learning how to perform tricks; who were led to believe that whale-on-whale violence and occasional whale-on-trainer aggression were simply par for the course, expected, and just had to be dealt with, when there is actually almost no evidence of orca violence toward each other or humans in the wild.

What is most moving is the interviews with these trainers who discovered that they had been lied to, mistreated, and captured themselves, who trained for their jobs and were in it to connect with these animals and make something positive, but found themselves trapped in a place that willfully held information from them, information that would have drastically changed their views on what they were doing. The total betrayal in the eyes of these trainers is hard to watch but so poignant and so scary. SeaWorld exploited these young, hopeful trainers and totally took advantage of humans’ sometimes blinding desire to form meaningful relationships with animals. They were not properly trained, nor were they educated on the actual statistics and natural behavior of these animals.

Appalling misinformation and deliberate cover-ups of trainer/orca incidents, no doubt for PR reasons, meant that this treatment and these incidents with trainers, including several deaths, continued for over twenty years until 2010, when Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and SeaWorld claimed that it was her fault because she was wearing a ponytail.

SeaWorld repeatedly dismissed offers to be interviewed for the film, but in a bizarre move, they released their assertions about the film which the filmmakers of Blackfish then responded and swiftly administered a good ol’ fashioned “schooling.”

Blackfish made my stomach churn and my heart ache for those who have been so misled, and for the orca whales, for all the victims of this inhumanity.

Grade: A

Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
10 years ago

I saw this documentary. It made me cry. I heard all the rhetoric and lies from Sea World growing up. These animals should never be in captivity. Go on a whale watch in Alaska if you want an experience.