REVIEW: Blackfish – An Inside Look At Killer Whales In Captivity At SeaWorld

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When I was a kid I loved SeaWorld. Watching animal shows and hoping to get splashed was the best part, of course. The trainers would talk about the orca as if they loved to do these shows, that this behavior was normal for them in the wild. So, when I went into this film, the child in me was devastated to find out that this amazing show was a farce.

Blackfish is a documentary that takes a hard look into the reality of orca’s (a.k.a. Killer Whales) lives in captivity. The film begins with a rough looking fisherman almost breaking down in tears talking about the capture expedition he went on in 1983. In this expedition, they captured a baby orca, named Tilikum, off the coast of Iceland.

Tilikum is the focal point of the film. The largest male orca in captivity (12,000 lbs), Tilikum has been involved in three deaths over the course of his captive life. He started his career at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, which was little more than a net in the ocean. Tilikum, along with two other females, was regularly shown off to spectators.

In a pod, or family, of orca in the wild, females are dominant. With Tilikum being so large, in such a small space, he was constantly battered and “raked” by his fellow orca. Raking is exactly what it sounds like, one orca drags their teeth across another’s body. This does happen in the wild, but very superficially and the orca under attack can easily get away from the offender, whereas in captivity, these rakes can be very damaging. With nowhere to escape, Tilikum was constantly forced into small spaces with more dominate females who would act aggressively toward him. Between raking and sleeping in a cramped module, it is very likely that Tilikum was mentally damaged by this treatment.

Dawn Brancheu's first photo with Tilukum the orca, who would later kill her.

Dawn Brancheau’s first photo with Tilukum the orca, who would later kill her.

Having a good understanding of animal rights, I prepared myself for tears throughout the film, but I was surprised to find that this movie was not an in-your-face, “you’re a terrible person because you go to SeaWorld!” kind of film. The director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, gave a Q&A after the film and the first thing she said was that she had not gone into this as an activist, but as a mother who would bring her children to SeaWorld. She had heard about the death of Dawn Brancheau, one of the most experienced SeaWorld trainers, and could not understand why the orca would lash out at their trainer, the person who fed them and clearly loved them.

Dawn was the third, and as of today, final death involving Tilikum. The first incident happened at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991 when Keltie Byrne slipped into the tank and was tossed back and forth between the three orca, to the horror of spectators. Keltie subsequently drowned and soon thereafter Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld and Sealand of the Pacific closed.

The second incident has some strange circumstances surrounding the event. Daniel P. Dukes was a guest at the park and was able to elude security after the park closed for the night and was found the next morning in Tilikum’s tank. He was pronounced dead due to hypothermia and drowning, but was also covered in multiple wounds, contusions and abrasions. The people interviewed in the film found the incident suspect, because it is well known that SeaWorld is covered in cameras and has night trainers on hand, yet there was no footage of Daniel’s death, and none of the trainers had noticed a person in the tank until the next morning.

The third and final death was of Dawn Brancheau, as I mentioned earlier. She was the last person trainers believed would die at the mercy of orca. As one of the former trainers stated, “What happened to her, really could have happened to anyone.” Right after the last show of the evening, Dawn was spending some quiet time with Tilikum, as per usual. While the details once again are murky, somehow Dawn was dragged into the tank and was pronounced dead from drowning after being in the tank for over a half hour with Tilikum.

What I really appreciate about this film was it doesn’t criminalize the people involved. In fact, most of those interviewed were former trainers. These people saw orca and fell in love. All they wanted to do was to be with these majestic animals and would never want to cause harm to them.

A killer whale with a curled-over fin.

A killer whale with a curled-over fin.

It was interesting to hear SeaWorld had not disclosed information about previous incidents.  When they did give information, it was often skewed and misleading. With the death of Dawn, the company went so far as to say she would have blamed herself for her death.

SeaWorld was shown to also give misleading information to guests of the park. For example, it is common enough to see an orca in captivity with their fin falling over. SeaWorld claims this happens to 25% of orca, but in the wild, there are less than 1% of these cases known to scientists. SeaWorld also tells guests orca’s lifespans are much shorter than what is believed in the scientific community.

Mrs. Cowperthwaite constantly reached out to SeaWorld to be a part of the film, but never heard back from them. That is, not until 48 hours before the premiere to a national audience. They directly sent out a response to about 50 high profile film critics, most likely to discredit the film. You can find SeaWorld’s response along with Blackfish’s rebuttal here.

As I left the theatre, I had a quick word with Mrs. Cowperthwaite and thanked her for making this film. I told her I would tell everyone I knew to see this film, and I meant it. Please see this film. It was so well done and will give you a new perspective on animals in captivity.

What I have written about here only touches on some of the issues and details discussed in the film. Find out more about the film and find a screening near you by visiting their website: