Blackfish: Putting the ‘Killer’ Back in ‘Killer Whale”

By Jennifer Epps

The non-fiction feature Blackfish currently in theaters is in many ways a sterling example of summer counterprogramming: a success at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter, it now provides a quiet voice of seriousness, an exposé on a serious subject, amidst the usual superheroes and monsters at the multiplex in the hot weather months. It begins, however, rather like a famous summer monster movie, with the mystery of a young woman’s gruesome, watery death, and like that blockbuster, proceeds to pile on clues of just how she died and how many others like her there might actually be. The template I’m referring to is the 1975 thriller Jaws, which together with Star Wars, launched the gargantuan juggernaut of costly, loud, franchise-heavy action pix which dominate the out-of-school season — so there is a poetic irony in a documentary cousin emerging from the depths to challenge that paradigm. The irony pales in comparison to the tragedy, however;  the genesis  for the making of Blackfish was an actual death, that of 20-something Dawn Brancheau, an accomplished swimmer and trainer at Sea World Orlando, who was mauled and dismembered in 2010.

The culprit in Blackfish is not a wild rogue shark but a tame orca or ‘killer whale’, a large male named Tilikum who Dawn knew very well. While much of the file footage in the documentary shows positive, intimate interactions between humans and these giant marine mammals, there is still a very ominous slow build of suspense and horror. Some of the segments feel (unintentionally, perhaps) like the July 4th beach scene in Spielberg’s movie — a sense of impending doom arises as documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite scrutinizes, in forensic detail, old footage of trainers’ key interactions with killer whales who’d been involved in violent incidents. We soon realize that it is not at all unusual for orcas to attack marine park staff, even with highly athletic trainers who follow protocol to the letter and who, in addition, adore the animals they train.


Ultimately, Blackfish is about more than just one kind of monster. Like the resort-town business leaders in Jaws, there are irresponsible figures in Blackfish ignoring all the evidence of a serious problem   – and prioritizing profit over life itself. Only in this case, they’re not fictitious, but real, and not just a few bad apples, but an entire corporate structure with an institutionalized pattern of lying to their employees and to the public. The documentary shows that SeaWorld’s public statements after the death or injury of its trainers tended to blame the trainers themselves, while maintaining a culture of internal secrecy. For example, a former trainer complains that when she was hired, SeaWorld already knew there had been dozens of incidents of whales attacking trainers, yet this was not disclosed to her. Indeed, it would seem that if SeaWorld really believed their arguments of ‘trainer error’, then they’d go out of their way to show their staff the footage leading up to the ‘accidents’ — and to painstakingly review exactly what fatal errors their staff ought to take care to prevent. They did the opposite.

Much like the Robert Greenwald documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, this documentary accumulates its accusations of carelessness, corner-cutting, and duplicity on the part of a big corporation until the evidence seems overwhelming. Cowperthwaite builds the case incrementally, conservatively — she consults marine mammal experts as well as a large number of former trainers, but stays away from potentially incendiary advocates like animal rights leaders. She interviews one apologist  for  SeaWorld as well. And in publicity for the film, she maintains that she tried very hard to obtain interviews with spokespeople from the company — however, they weren’t willing to participate in the documentary. They waited instead until it was about to open, then sent a letter   to film critics calling the documentary dishonest, misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.)

It is clear that SeaWorld was not doing its employees any favors sending them into the water with its orcas, but the movie also examines the effect of captivity and training to perform what are essentially circus tricks on the killer whales themselves. The film does not want to make us fear killer whales as a species, the way Jaws made us afraid of sharks, and it points out that there are no reported incidents of orcas attacking humans in the wild. It is more about how they got to be this way, how their misery grew so intense that they felt the need to be violent.

Though other orcas are discussed, Blackfish focuses in particular on Tilikum’s story, as the most complete and the most horrific. Cowperthwaite has been able to unearth a fairly rich biography about Tilikum: from his childhood abduction on the ocean, through his apparent interest in learning and his joy at interacting with people, to his series of fatal assaults on humans. Blackfish becomes a study in the creation of orca psychopathology.

The grief that comes from orca families being ripped apart, the sensory deprivation they endure when shut up at night, and many other stresses are eloquently expressed. Experts weigh in on orcas’ advanced intelligence, complex social needs, and how different their normal behavior is in the wild from that seen in a tank; trainer testimony is provided attesting that in these marine parks the animals have been deprived of food or collectively punished if just one among them got a trick wrong; and visual evidence is supplied that whale-on-whale violence, a rare occurrence in the wild, is commonplace when these mammoth beasts are confined together in close quarters.  (One element of captivity that is overlooked, however, is how sonar bouncing back from the tank walls is a form of aural torture.)

Very intriguing scientific information is interwoven into the narrative. The discovery that orcas have an extra part of the brain that we don’t, a part that processes emotion, is fascinating. So is the description of killer whale cultures in the wild and how distinct they are from each other, even down to having completely different languages. Throwing animals from disparate families together, as is the norm in marine parks, is likened to throwing people from different nations together without interpreters. (You could also add that it’s like throwing them together in jail.)

Part of the documentary re-enacts  SeaWorld’s hearing at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over violations of safety law. A federal judge rejected Sea World’s position that it should be exempt, and ruled that SeaWorld must separate its trainers from the animals at all times in order to protect its workers.

This would, however, put an end to a major component of SeaWorld’s activities and the entertainment that they’ve been marketing for years so they have fought against it strenuously. If the ban holds despite SeaWorld’s attempts to circumvent it,  perhaps fewer trainers will be injured. That in itself is hugely important. Unfortunately, it won’t mean that life for the many orcas SeaWorld owns around the world will improve. Blackfish doesn’t forget that.

One particularly striking revelation of the film is how SeaWorld spreads blatant disinformation about the animals it houses — despite the company’s pretences at fulfilling an educational function.  In order to make what they are doing look less terrible, SeaWorld lies to its staff about orca biology and sends them out in turn to lie to the public. This pertains to the most basic facts about orcas’ life expectancy (SeaWorld won’t admit that it’s less than half the length in captivity than it is in the wild) and about persistent signs of ill-health (because drooping dorsal fins are so common at the marine parks, the corporation promulgates the idea that it’s normal for dorsals to droop in the wild — though others interviewed in the film state categorically this is untrue.)

In short, Blackfish depicts how SeaWorld betrays orca whales by kidnapping them, holding them captive, and mistreating them in the name of entertainment; how they betray their staff by endangering and misleading them, while abjuring accountability; and how they even betray the public, systematically deceiving them about the animals for whom they are supposed to be ambassadors.

The young swimming champs the corporation hires are seen in Blackfish starting out full of energy and enthusiasm, genuinely excited to be working at what they believe to be a fun and noble job where they will get to bond with special creatures. The trainers Cowperthwaite interviewed believed what SeaWorld told them in the early days, believed that killer whales actually enjoyed being in the tanks and performing, believed that this work elevated the stature of the species in the public eye. Many of these trainers now sound as if they are heartbroken — and as if they came to that opinion in part by watching the orcas’ own broken hearts.

One of the saddest takeaways from a documentary full of lingering sadnesses is how SeaWorld exploits and abuses the positive feelings that many people have towards these impressive, mysterious leviathans. When I saw the film, a toddler sitting next to me had come to see it with his family and ecologist older sister. The little boy was obviously a fan of killer whales, clutching a stuffed orca toy in his arms the whole movie. His mother told me they had just been to SeaWorld two weeks before.  Obviously, it was hard for this small child to process all that cognitive dissonance. What he was a powerful symbol for, however, was another of SeaWorld’s offenses: that they take the fascination, awe and love for animals which children entrust them with and turn it all into dross.

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