The orca: A creature of majesty, of inexplicable emotion. That is, until you lock them up in a virtual bathtub for decades all for the sole purpose of entertaining trashy families. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s highly moving—and effectively convincing—documentary, Blackfish, showcases a history of violence among killer whales held in captivity, with specific reference to the practices at SeaWorld.
Beginning with the tragic death of renowned SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in February of 2010, the documentary then goes back to the beginning of one of the first known incidents of whale capturing 39 years prior. OSHA expert Dave Duffus, well-versed in the initial capture of Tilikum–a 12,000 pound male orca–at two years old in 1983, unfurls the information about the build-up to Tilikum’s aggravated state like the pages of a mystery novel.
After being captured by Canadian outfit Sealand (not affiliated with SeaWorld), Tilikum was often abused by other female whales that shared the tank with him. Being bullied by other whales, many of the interviewees argue, is just one of the elements that led to Tilikum’s first attack in February of 1991 (eerily, almost twenty years to the day of Brancheau’s death). One of the trainers, Keltie Byrne, fell into the tank. Because Sealand trainers never actually entered the water with the whales, the reaction was instant antagonism—especially on the part of Tilikum. Two witnesses who were there on the day of the tragedy stated that the report that later came out was simply that Byrne drowned, when, in fact, it was Tilikum that caused her to.
In spite of how the incident was spun, Sealand still ended up selling Tilikum to SeaWorld in 1992. The park closed the same year without the draw of Tilikum to lure people in, and a general ineptitude among those who ran the facility. The fact that Tilikum had set the precedent for violent behavior didn’t seem to faze anyone at SeaWorld, and, unfortunately, most of the trainers were blissfully unaware of his past. This lack of information on the part of trainers like Kim Ashdown, Ken Balcomb and Samantha Berg—all of whom were interviewed for the film—only scratched the surface of some of the lies they were peddled.
Among other twisted truths, trainers and park attendees alike were told that it’s 1) Normal for whales to have a collapsed dorsal fin and 2) That whales live longer in captivity (the average life span of a whale at SeaWorld is mid-30s), though whales in their natural environment have the same lifespan as humans—particularly male orcas. Their need to be a part of a social structure is inherent to their happiness and emotional well-being. Although they have the company of other whales at SeaWorld, it isn’t the same as being with their own family from their own part of the world.
In the wake of (pun intended) Brancheau’s death, OSHA sued SeaWorld for endangering the employees, demanding that they be kept out of the water with a protective barrier between trainers and whales. OSHA won the battle, but SeaWorld has since appealed. The final scenes of the film show Tilikum floating lifelessly by himself in what basically amounts to an isolation tank. He is still used in shows as part of the finale. It is the bittersweet conclusion that pulls at what’s left of your heartstrings after they’ve been tugged at so vigorously throughout Blackfish.