I have to admit, when I first heard about Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary on killer whales in captivity, it seemed to me like the perfect formula for dramatism and exaggeration. Although I had been to SeaWorld several times, I was unfamiliar with its practices as well as with the conditions in which the performance animals were kept. And so, with a little indisposition, I first saw Blackfish over the summer with a friend at a small theater in California. And then I went and saw it again with another friend. And again when it aired on CNN. I rarely watch anything more than once, so the fact that I saw Blackfish not once, but three times is a testament to its captivating and powerful message. I was absolutely blown away by the documentary’s story, its passion and the witnesses it called to reinforce its call for change.
In the wild, orcas are used to swimming hundreds of miles a day. Although they have life spans of roughly 35 years in parks like SeaWorld, these whales can live up to 100 years in their natural habitats, a fact SeaWorld likes to keep quiet. According to Blackfish, killer whales (in spite of their name) have never been known to attack humans in the wild. But these creatures — with strong senses of family and sophisticated languages — are driven to do just that in captivity, in tanks that are too small and conditions that can be harmful and indirectly abusive. In Blackfish, Cowperthwaite explores these conditions and illuminates the command-based interactions between humans and orcas.
The documentary fleshes out methodically the events that could have potentially led up to the brutal killing of veteran SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, by the killer whale, Tilikum, during a show in 2010. Before Dawn, Tilikum had previously been implicated in the deaths of two other people. In 1983, he was captured as a baby in the North Atlantic and shipped off to SeaLand of the Pacific in British Columbia where he killed a 24-year-old trainer before being acquired by SeaWorld. Then, in 1999, a mutilated 27-year-old man was found draped over Tilikum’s back. Having been kept in tiny pools for decades and suffering abuse from other whales, it is not difficult to see why Tilikum lashed out the way he did.
Blackfish is a thought-provoking and intensely impassioned documentary that sheds light on a subject that deserves much more attention than it gets. It does what any good documentary should do: it asks the right questions and fuels discussion, discussion that has long been overdue.