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blackfish - posterRare is the movie that I watch that takes me over a week to process and gather my thoughts about. Blackfish just happens to be one of those films. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of it while on the road for my job and it is obvious why it is garnering so much attention right now. This is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen.

I’m not sure I can put it any better than the filmmaker herself, so this is what the film’s official website lists as the synopsis:

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry.

Tilikum performing at Seaworld.

Tilikum performing at Seaworld.

This film focuses almost solely on Tilikum, a whale that was captured at sea and sold to a facility called Sealand of the Pacific in Canada. The story of his capture is just devastating:

There he was kept in a pen that was 20 feet long and 30 feet deep when he was not performing. Orcas that live freely swim on average 80-100 miles per day, so to have him kept in a pool that is basically equipped to hold a family of four humans did him no favors. He was hazed (if you can call it that) by the other two whales in the pen (yes, there were multiple whales in that small space) and they raked him repeatedly. He undoubtedly suffered serious psychological damage from this treatment day after day, night after night. And when one trainer fell into the pool after a performance, the three whales attacked her and drowned her. Shortly thereafter, the park closed and Tilikum was sold to Sea World.

blackfish - tilikum

Tilikum would later kill a patron of Sea World who hid while the park closed and somehow ended up in Tilikum’s tank. Despite the presence of night trainers who are supposed to be watching the animals, no one heard anything out of the ordinary that night. When the staff arrived the next morning, Tilikum had the patron draped across his back. So clearly there was a pattern of behavior here, yet Sea World chose to ignore it. And that oversight or however you want to call it cost another trainer, Dawn Brancheau, her life. Dawn Brancheau‘s death and Tim Zimmerman‘s subsequent article in Outside magazine, and the lawsuit against Sea World after her death were the inspiration for this film.

It wasn’t just Tilikum whose behavior was suspect. There were several incidents caught on film and by the park and by patrons of the aggressiveness of these whales and are we fucking surprised? Ken Peters (although not interviewed for the film) nearly died after an almost 10-minute ordeal with one of the orcas:

And another trainer foolishly interacted with orcas without a spotter and it nearly cost her her life: (warning: the footage, especially at the end, is graphic):

Yet time and again, Sea World has an excuse for all of it. And of course, why would they slow the wheels of a money making machine? After all, Sea World just went public on the New York Stock Exchange on April 19 of this year. Would they do it for the safety and welfare of their animals whose species they seem so intent on conserving? Not a chance. They clearly don’t give two shits about that. If they did, they wouldn’t breed orcas in captivity nor would they buy animals who have been so cruelly plucked from their families out at sea. Would it be for the welfare of their trainers? Clearly their bullshit position taken in the Dawn Brancheau case excludes any hope of that.  So where does that leave it?

And at the heart of everything they do, education is so important to the mission of Sea World…except the information they perpetuate is completely false. The film does a great job of showing this in the film and former trainer Samantha Berg stated in a recent AMA (ask me anything for those who aren’t in the know) on reddit: “As far as the animals that are captured from the wild, the permit states that SeaWorld has to be providing education to the public but based on the false information that SeaWorld promotes to the public, as seen in the movie, there is no real education in any of the shows, therefore we would consider them in violation of the permit.” So Sea World fails in its most basic service to the public. No surprise here. Once again, who is going to tell their friends to come to a place where the steal then breed huge aquatic mammals, train them to do something that is completely against their nature, house them in facilities that are laughable at best and that if the animals weren’t at Sea World, they would live 50+ more years? None and that’s why they are lying assholes.

"I am not against captivity because of accidents, it is because I want these animals to have better lives" - John Jett

“I am not against captivity because of accidents, it is because I want these animals to have better lives” – Dr. John Jett

This story is told almost exclusively through the voices of former Sea World trainers who worked with the same animal(s) that have attacked and/or killed other trainers and whale experts such as Dave Duffus of Orca Network and Howard Garrett, an OSHA expert witness in the trial against Sea World after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. The trainers’ (John Jett, Samantha Berg, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, Jeff Ventre and a few more) testimony is unbelievably damning when it comes to the state in which Sea World handles and treats these animals and the absolute recklessness with which they have subjected the staff of trainers to deadly situations. John Jett was particularly eloquent on the subject and how the only reason that he kept coming back to work there despite his feelings for Sea World was that he wanted to make sure Tilikum was cared for properly. Jett and fellow former Sea World trainer Jeff Ventre wrote a paper on the stresses of captivity on orcas that is very interesting. Check it out here.

This film has left an indelible mark on me much like Louie PsihoyosThe Cove did. I will never attend Sea World or any park like it. My children will never attend Sea World or any park like it. And if this story rattles you like it has me, you will do the same. This is the best documentary I’ve seen all year and I doubt that will change. If it does, that will be one hell of a film.

This film will be airing on CNN on Thursday, October 24, at 9:00. Please do yourself a favor and set aside the time to watch it.

Here are some resources you might check out, if you are so inclined, to learn more about orcas and animal advocacy:





Here is the trailer:

And a side note: This film has already affected change in people’s perceptions of orcas and their treatment at parks like Sea World. Pixar changed the ending of their new film Finding Dory (the sequel to the smash Finding Nemo) because of what was contained in this film. Bravo to Pixar for doing so, although perhaps Disney should have a look at their Animal Kingdom since the animals contained there are in a similar situation as the whales and other marine life at Sea World.