Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Screenplay: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres & Tim Zimmermann
Cinematography: Jonathan Ingalls & Christopher Towey; Editing: Eli B. Despres; Score: Jeff Beal
Interviews: John Hargrove, Samantha Berg, Jeffrey Ventre, Kim Ashdown, John Jett, Mark Simmons, Dean Gomersall, Carol Ray (Former SeaWorld Trainers), Dave Duffus (Whale Researcher/OSHA Expert), John Crowe (Diver), Christopher Porter (Former Trainer, Sealand), Estefania Rodriguez (Alexis Martinez’s fiancé), Suzanne Allee (Former Video Supervisor, Loro Parque)
Produced by CNN Films, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s disturbing, compulsively watchable documentary concerns the 2010 killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando, Florida during a live performance with Tilikum, a killer whale with a long history of violence. This horrifying event becomes a springboard to explore the larger issue of animal rights and the psychological maladjustment of killer whales kept in captivity. As we come to find, Dawn’s ordeal wasn’t an isolated incident but just the latest in a series of alarming episodes dating all the way back to the sixties when orcas first began being captured in the wild and trained to perform.
Revisiting themes touched on in other, relatively recent documentaries like The Cove and Grizzly Man, Blackfish isn’t setting out to break new ground cinematically, but when the subject matter is this compelling incidentals like that hardly seem to matter. The director doesn’t paint her whale’s recidivist behavior in black and white terms to match its color palette, but in the ambiguous shades of grey closer to reality. Cowperthwaite’s primary intent is to invoke audience pity for the plight of these big, beautiful sea creatures kept locked in aquarium tanks too small to contain them. Blackfish wants to be the documentary flagship of the movement to Free Tilly, the affectionate nickname given to Tilikum by his handlers. But the chowderheaded manner in which it goes about getting audiences to back its cause left me feeling completely conflicted instead. So placid on the surface of things, Blackfish soon begins to seem as schizo as its main character.
When animals attack has become a bad joke as we’ve been inundated over the years with sensationalized, off the cuff news accounts of rampaging circus elephants, sharks chomping on surfer’s arms, and chimpanzees ripping off people’s faces. The subject seems so cliché that even a foreign French film like Rust and Bone can incorporate it into a fictional narrative without anyone thinking twice about it. Yet as commonplace as such attacks seem to have become now, Blackfish contains much of the same fascinated horror that draws people to Nat Geo and Animal Planet. There’s something disturbingly Darwinian about watching supposedly civilized creatures engaged in such unapologetically animalistic behavior. The one unwavering constant in all these accounts is that the ravening beasts are always excused for attacking people on the pretext that they’re simply acting on instinct.
Invariably we’re made to feel sorrier for the poor dumb brutes than the unfortunate victims of their primal scream. Blackfish likewise seeks to excuse Tilikum’s lethal behavior on similar grounds, concocting a whale of a tale to get him off the hook. This documentary penned by Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres, with story credit going to associate producer Tim Zimmermann (whose magazine article, “The Killer in the Pool,” inspired the film), asserts that Tilikum wasn’t acting on his animal instincts when he attacked Dawn, but on instincts warped by a lifetime of human handling. We’re the ones being indicted for turning this killer whale into a killer, as though these apex predators are naturally docile or passive creatures in the wild.
As the film relates, it was the indigenous Americans who first referred to orcas as ‘blackfish,’ tying the movie’s mystical conception of these marine mammals to native beliefs in animal guides and spirits. But as it’s applied to Tilikum, the title seems more a comment on the creatures’ blackened name, which has been drug through the mud by reams of negative publicity. Among whale species, orca are the black sheep of the family, though they’re actually not whales at all, being classified as the largest order of dolphin. Nevertheless, the besmirched reputation they have acquired in recent years seems more than justified considering the dark side to their behavior sensationalized through mediums like Blackfish. Despite blaming Tilikum’s actions on extenuating circumstances, this documentary doesn’t successfully color correct the standing slanders against his species, as it seeks to. Instead, as far as killer whales are concerned, the movie ranks as additional character assassination, further blackening the fish’s name.
We’re shown scenes of orcas in the wild to incite soaring awe at these gentle giants’ majestic nobility. Being in their presence is described by adjectives like “inspiring” and “amazing,” with one commentator dreamily gushing, “They’re an animal that possesses great spiritual power.” Such glorious sights are contrasted with the dejected picture of the killer whales in captivity, where the rigid and proud dorsal fins of males like Tilikum are seen to have collapsed, a wilting erection symbolizing their emasculated state. But this overstimulated nature nirvana eventually doubles over on itself, undermining the movie’s finer intentions. Rather than seeming worthy of reverence, the natural world instead comes off as unaccountably cruel and sadistic.
The evidence proffered to demonstrate orcas’ intelligent, highly evolved social structure involves a whole pod working in cunning concert to trap a defenseless sea lion on an ice floe, and then systematically breaking it into smaller and smaller chunks until the animal has no recourse but to topple into the water and the waiting jaws of death. That lone little seal half their size couldn’t have provided much of a meal for one whale, much less an entire herd. But this knowledge doesn’t deter the orca one iota from delighting in the thrill of the hunt. Though Blackfish infers that we should be impressed, it’s completely contrary to human nature to regard a pack of bullying sea beasts as ennobled by this sort of behavior. Instead such nature snuff tends to subliminally reinforce the perception of these whales as serial killers. Cowperthwaite might well be priming us for what’s to come. We’re told orca brains possess a capacity for compassion greater than man’s, that the species form lifelong familial attachments rivaling those of humans, and possess a complex language system. We watch them withdraw into catatonic shock when their young ones are wrested from them, emitting remarkable, long range sound waves in an effort to detect their absent offspring. But no comments are forthcoming concerning their equally anthropomorphic sadistic streaks, as is evident from these hunting tactics. None is really needed since the visual proof speaks for itself.
We’ve seen killer whales playing with their still living food in other video footage, using their tails to pointlessly clobber seals into stunned submission before consuming them. And just as they’ve been captured on camera torpedoing their full bulk directly onto the beach shore to ambush unsuspecting prey, they’re seen behaving in a similar fashion during their aquacade shows. One even unexpectedly lunges at former SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre, to his discomfiture as well as ours, in the shallows of a platform, leaving viewers feeling unsafe on land or at sea.
Blackfish plays up the vintage footage of killer whales being corralled into captivity for maximum emotional impact, wishing to make them as difficult to watch as the dolphin hunting scenes in The Cove. Having been conditioned by earlier drive hunts that employed airplanes, powerboats and explosives, the orcas learned what to expect. So the adults paired off from the rest of the pod, cleverly misleading their pursuers, while the mothers with young attempted to escape north. The fleeing whales were herded into coves so the nursing calves could be netted and ripped from the bosom of their families, and the callous action seems carried out as barbarically as that of slave trading during antebellum days.
As related by John Crowe, a salty old diver who expresses regret now at having participated in these hunts, “(It’s) just like kidnapping a little kid away from its mother.” Due to shipping costs only the smallest and most easily pliable calves were plucked from the pods, and though their families could have fled the scene, they chose to stay and protest their young ones being taken, which resulted in an unintentional host of casualties. According to Crowe, the carcasses of the dead whales killed in the struggle were cut open, filled with rocks and sunk with anchors, leaving no evidence of fatalities for animal rights activists to cluck over. “I didn’t even think about it being illegal at that point,” he relates, “I thought it was a PR thing.”
When SeaWorld’s capture permit was revoked by court order in 1976 following a disastrous drive hunt in Puget Sound, Washington, the perpetrators simply abandoned U.S. waters and continued trawling for whales off the coast of Iceland, where Tilikum was originally captured in 1983, and where Blackfish would premiere thirty years later, after being snapped up at Sundance by distributors. The inflammatory charge that SeaWorld continued to endorse and financially back illegal hunts to procure their present population of marine mammals (SeaWorld now houses 22 killer whales in its three theme park locations), same way The Cove accused marine parks of doing with dolphins, has been hotly disputed.
The corporation has officially distanced themselves from the drive hunts of the past and claims to be opposed to such fishing practices now that orcas can be bred in captivity (though the organization is still said to be quite willing to break apart family units when younger whales begin challenging their mothers and disrupting shows). With dolphins on Greenpeace’s watch list and orcas considered an endangered species, one wonders how SeaWorld possibly could be clandestinely engaged in whale laundering, but the way documentaries like Blackfish point the finger, such implications seem pretty incontrovertible.
This documentary actually does orcas a disservice by attempting to make them seem more like us, describing their actions in turning on their trainers in terms of a ‘psychosis,’ so people can better relate. When we begin thinking of animals in human terms, as they’re portrayed before the paying SeaWorld public, mimicking the movements of their human handlers, their unprovoked assaults also begin to seem less and less like the call of the wild and more like willful murder with malice aforethought. Closely related as they are to dolphins, orcas may be far from single minded eating machines, but that doesn’t automatically make this higher order of animal life superior to other species, any more than a high IQ in serial killing human beings is evidence of any finer conscience at work. If killer whales do possess cognitive reason, as Blackfish seems to be getting around to suggesting, then certainly the focused, prolonged brutality of Tilikum’s final attack would indicate some sort of willful intent. Blackfish doesn’t treat Tilikum as a special case but rather broadens his story into a more generalized examination of the captive killer whale mentality, asserting that the very nature of taking orcas from the wild warps their natural instincts, breeding basket cases and turning them into ticking time bombs. “All whales in captivity are psychologically traumatized,” we’re assured, “it’s not just Tilikum.” Blackfish also overlays a more poetic possibility by implying that the aggression surfacing in attacks on their captors could be seen as some kind of judgment on us, as it was in Melville, ancestral memory of man’s myriad sins against the species.
Despite being a documentary, Cowperthwaite’s singular artistic vision has been imposed on her subject matter in such a way that Blackfish ends up seeming structured like a revenge tale of nature’s retribution. Any fool mortal who tries to tame the wild is fated to be crushed by forces mightier than himself. As the official movie poster lays it out: ‘Never capture what you can’t control.’ Those certainly sound like words to live by, but this ‘nature’s retribution’ theme fails to address why killer whales hunt prey with just as much calculating aggression in the wild, even when they’ve never been corrupted by contact with man. In amassing her mounting evidence that captivity makes orcas crazy, Cowperthwaite unintentionally reinforces the public perception of these whales as vengeance-bent and preternaturally sentient killers.
That’s the way they were depicted in the 1977 Jaws knockoff Orca. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis and starring Richard Harris and Bo Derek, that movie also pretended to present killer whales as placid, harmless creatures twisted by the corrupting influence of man. In actuality, it was exploiting the same horror movie image of them as “vicious killer(s) that had 48 sharp teeth that would rip you to shreds if given the chance.” When clips are shown from Orca, to illustrate how little was known of the species at the time (“We knew nothing,” according to Howard Garrett, Orca Researcher, “in fact less than nothing. What the public had was superstition and fear.”), they instead seem as prescient as the earlier seal scene in light of what we know is to come.
The movie stresses captive whale psychosis by pointing out that “To this day there’s no record of an orca doing harm to any human- in the wild.” This is reassuring to hear, and conveniently strengthens the hypothesis that it’s man’s own fault when the captive whales he’s warped turn on him. But then there were no reports of sharks harming people in northern waters either, until the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916 dispelled that quixotic notion. The suggestion that a wild killer whale would show some sort of compunction about attacking humans if it came right down to it, seems highly questionable.
That there’s no verified report of them having done so to date reflects more on the fact that humans aren’t often in a geographical position to tempt fate in such fashion. Nature has created its own barricade between species that the courts had to reconstitute through legal order. In the wake of the 1820 sinking of the whaling ship Essex by a sperm whale, the event that inspired Moby Dick, there was a follow up assault on the survivors of the catastrophe. Only the threat this time came from an orca attacking the lifeboats. The 1910 Scott Expedition to the South Pole reported killer whales trying to tip ice floes a party member was standing on with his dog sled team.
The more recent evidence of captive orcas preying on their trainers in their sealskin wet suits seems only a slight modification of this natural predatory behavior. That they may be mistaking humans scrambling out of their tanks for seals, just as sharks are said to do surfers on their boards, and instinctively acting on that impulse, seems a likely possibility Blackfish fails to ponder. “Everything trained is an extension of the killer whale’s natural behavior,” the SeaWorld script assures tourists, but when are captive orca ever afforded the opportunity to indulge their equally natural propensity to kill? They have to create their own opportunities.
With its multiple shamu shows per day, SeaWorld has set up such an inflexible regimen it can’t help but add impetus to Cowperthwaite’s argument that captivity warps the whale psyche. Under the pretext of showing humankind to be in harmonious coexistence with all God’s creatures great and small, killer whales included, SeaWorld’s trainers instead seem to be demonstrating man’s absolute mastery over the natural world. Coached into performing what amounts to symmetrically graceful water ballet, these six ton titans are reduced to behaving like trained seals, hoisting their partners twenty feet high into the air as if they were of no more consequence than a bouncing rubber ball.
Cowperthwaite contends that turning regal orcas into circus clowns this way is a total break from reality for them. So we wonder why things haven’t gone haywire before now, until obscure film footage is unraveled proving that they in fact have, with some seventy human injuries attributed to captive killer whales over the past forty years. “It isn’t a singular event, you have to go back decades to really understand this,” we’re assured, and in its most compelling moment Blackfish does just that, rewinding itself to unspool footage which captures, with all the slow, seeping dread of a horror film, a surfeit of frightening hits and near misses between killer whales and their human captors.
Beginning in 1971, when a bikini clad SeaWorld of San Diego PR secretary named Annette Eckis was thrown off the back of a five year old female shamu she was riding around the pool for a publicity stunt and then seized by the leg, we seem to be watching unsavory, recently unearthed snuff films. Blackfish leaves us clapping hands over slack jawed mouths in shocked disbelief that the American public hasn’t been better apprised of the species’ longstanding black record of aggressive behavior.
Even the former SeaWorld orca trainers interviewed for the film, like Samantha Berg, admit to having been kept in the dark about this. Ex-trainer Jeffrey Ventre reveals it was SeaWorld policy to destroy any tapes that showed the whales lunging at trainers or acting out aggressively. There are surveillance monitors placed in strategic positions all over the park, even underwater cameras in the tanks, yet no visual evidence of how the dead body of 27-year old drifter Daniel Dukes came to be draped over Tilikum’s back when workers discovered him in 1999, has ever surfaced.
With such evidence readily at hand of orca aggression against humans stretching all the way back to their beginnings at SeaWorld, the company’s claim that Dawn’s death was an isolated incident seems patently absurd. The increasing preponderance of iPhones, digital camcorders and social media these days makes it far harder to suppress such positive proof the way it was in the past. For instance SeaWorld, in crisis-control mode after Dawn’s death, initially reported that a trainer had slipped and fallen into the tank. It wasn’t until eyewitness accounts disputed that claim that they were forced to change their story.
Seven minutes of amateur video was taken of Tilikum’s act by tourists, but the footage stops at the very point where the attack actually occurs. After the Brancheau family asked that SeaWorld’s surveillance coverage of the event not be released to a lurid public, Cowperthwaite made no attempt to secure it out of respect for their wishes. This grand gesture was intended to leave the victim her dignity (though the director doesn’t demonstrate the same sensitivity toward the Loro Parque victim’s family, proving far less concerned with dredging up the painful memories of more emotionally effusive Spanish speakers). But not showing footage of Dawn’s death is frustrating because the visual evidence would have made it possible for us to discern for ourselves which version of events was more accurate.
The company spiel, given to news feeds by former SeaWorld executive Thad Lacinak, was that Tilikum grabbed the trainer by the pony tail that should have been kept in a bun. But the lawsuit filed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on behalf of the federal government contended that Dawn was grabbed by the arm as further evidence of the whale’s aggression. In fact Blackfish, which displays samples of Dawn’s subsequent autopsy report, never makes it completely clear exactly what did happen to her. The 911 dispatcher in the gut wrenching opening receives the incomprehensible call that a whale has eaten one of the trainers.
Later we hear Dawn was scalped (suggesting Tilikum had hold of her hair at some point), that the whale refused to give up her body, that only her arm was eaten. It all begins to sound very Rashomon. Dawn’s autopsy cites multiple traumatic injuries. This gives every indication that Tilikum was playing with his food, just as we have seen other orcas doing with seals in the wild. Former whale trainer Christopher Porter claims Tilikum is “not killing because he’s a savage, he’s not killing because he’s crazed, he’s not killing because he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Rather, he points out, such whales kill because they’re frustrated and have no other outlet for these emotions, cooped up as they are. Either way, the implication is that the act of killing is a fully cognizant one on their part.
Footage in the film of another attack, this one on trainer Ken Peters during the last show of the evening at Shamu Stadium, shows the whale grabbing him by the foot and repeatedly submerging with him to the bottom of the tank, a rapid depth descent that would have given most untrained divers the bends. The whale allows him to resurface only long enough to snatch a quick gulp of air before sinking back down again. It’s mordantly intelligent behavior, almost like a veiled threat from animal to trainer demonstrating how easily they could annihilate their insignificant captors if they ever got the notion. The orca almost seems to be grandstanding for the crowds, a seasoned performer who wants to give them a good show, but whale researcher Dave Duffas, OSHA’s expert witness in their case against SeaWorld, comes more directly to the point with “they’re not to be meddled with.”
Even before Dawn’s death, Tilikum had caused the ‘accidental’ 1991 drowning of Keltie Byrne, a championship swimmer and part-time worker at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, B.C. Though eyewitnesses interviewed for this documentary (sisters Corinne Cowell and Nadine Kallen, neither of whose statements were ever taken by authorities) stand adamant that there was nothing accidental about it. Keltie Byrne’s obscure death up in Canada was quickly and quietly forgotten, as Duffas sadly observes, “There’s no big lawsuits afterwards and… no memorial… the only thing remaining of (her) is what’s left in the folk’s minds who recall the case.” If nothing else, at least Blackfish will serve as memorial, preserving the names of Tilikum’s victims for posterity.
It was Keltie’s death which served to drive Sealand out of business. Tilikum was sold as a breeder bull to SeaWorld of Florida, where the whale’s black behavior would continue unabated. But former Sealand Director Steve Huxter (a terrible name in a profession like his), claims the sale was made with the express understanding that Tilikum was not to be used as a performance animal since his behavior had shown it was too stimulating for him, making it likely he would repeat his deadly actions. Blackfish makes a persuasive case that SeaWorld was well aware from the moment of purchase that Tilikum had a history of violence and had every reason to exercise caution around him. Instead they hushed up knowledge that the whale posed a serious threat to trainers, downplaying his involvement in the Sealand incident so as not to create panic among the staff.
Blackfish begins as a nature study of animal psychology but with the requirements of drama demanding a convenient villain at center, quickly takes a turn toward corporate conspiracy thriller. SeaWorld receives a thorough drubbing, emerging from this documentary as black and blue as its killer whales. Blackfish indicts the organization for conspiring to deep-six the long standing record of attacks and deaths at the hands of its creatures in order to continue hawking the Disneyfied, family friendly image of orcas as plush, sea dwelling teddy bears for tots.
SeaWorld has a vested interest in maintaining the public persona they’ve marketed of shamu since the sixties and which continues to sell merchandising tie-ins and tickets. The carefully doctored script concerning the natural history of orcas, which SeaWorld trainers and tour guides are coached to recite for tourists, is shown to be chalk full of intentional inaccuracies. Cowperthwaite’s covert coverage captures workers spouting the same misleading info concerning the frequency of dorsal fin collapse and the life expectancy of killer whales in the wild versus that in captivity.
SeaWorld’s considerable investment in these whales they purchase pro rate seems to be placed at a higher priority than one or two dispensable human lives. Aquacades like these, so sunny on the surface, display a discernible lack of sympathy for their performers, regardless of species (though their big time star attractions, worth millions of dollars, certainly seem to rank higher in the pecking order). I shudder to think what the insurance coverage must be like for the animal trainers they place in such hair-raising, high-risk occupations. Regardless of the level of injury, SeaWorld is said to have fostered the ruthless mentality that “you get back on the horse and you dive back in the water and if you’re hurt, well we’ve got other people that will replace you.” The litany of former killer whale trainers that came forward to be interviewed all reveal the shocking dearth of practical experience they possessed prior to becoming animal wranglers. Even they assumed a master’s degree in marine biology would be a prerequisite for this line of work. But the company appears to have promoted them while still very young, based less on qualifications than rapport with the audience and whether they were properly conditioned for all the hotdog swimming that would be required of them. James Earl Jones avers in a SeaWorld promotional film, “It takes years of study and experience to meet the strict requirements necessary to interact in the water with shamu,” but to hear Blackfish tell it, these kids were just thrown into the water and told to swim before they were really ready. “They just told me to do it, and I did it,” admits Samantha Berg.
While this may have strengthened OSHA’s contention in court that SeaWorld has consistently demonstrated a lack of concern for the safety of its workers, it doesn’t help to explain what happened to Dawn, a senior trainer who had years of experience under her belt at the time she died. “She had so much experience,” says Berg, “it made me realize what happened to her could have happened to anyone.” By making it seem like the people in the water are untrained amateurs, Blackfish inadvertently buoys SeaWorld’s claim that killer whale attacks are the cause of trainer error, rookie mistakes.
Christopher Porter initially supported Tilikum’s sale to SeaWorld, believing the whale would be receiving a better quality of existence and superior care than Sealand could offer. But SeaWorld doesn’t display much more concern for the orcas whose lucrative exploitation has made them a multibillion dollar industry than they do for their human personnel. Certainly they didn’t evince any hesitation when they shipped their profitable product to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands.
They were placed in concrete pools that weren’t equipped to house them, under the care of an inexperienced staff who had never worked with whales before. “In the end it was the best trainer there (Alexis Martinez), who lost his life,” laments the park’s Video Supervisor Suzanne Allee. Martinez was considered the one Loro Parque trainer who could hold his own with the veteran SeaWorld staff, who trained him only months before his death. But when the temper of a whale can turn on a dime, it doesn’t seem to matter how talented or experienced the control trainer is.
OSHA’s expert witness reveals that “those (Loro Parque orcas) were SeaWorld’s whales, they were trained using SeaWorld’s techniques and their training was being supervised at the time of the fatal accident by one of (SeaWorld’s) senior trainers from San Diego.” Yet in the transcript of the lawsuit leveled against SeaWorld following Dawn’s death, the park’s head trainer, Kelly Clark, is caught out in the bald-faced lie that Loro Parque was not affiliated with SeaWorld in any way.
The company was trying to distance itself from this tragedy the same way they’ve distanced themselves from drive hunts. Clark is also shown to have responded in astonishingly unfeeling fashion when prosecution probed if she knew Tilikum was capable of pulling trainers into the water. Rather than answering the question outright, her testimony shows her to have shot back with a mind boggling song and dance – “I know you are capable of rape. I could say to you that all men have the potential to be rapists.”
What’s most astonishing is that professional marine parks like SeaWorld seem to have absolutely no standard contingency plan to avert tragedy when live performances begin to take a turn for the worse. We wonder why there are no handlers with stun guns or fish nets, standing by when a whale attacks a swimmer, as is usually the situation with other wild animal acts, in order to pacify the beast and bring it to bay before the assault gets out of hand. It’s almost incomprehensible to think that such professional venues impose no precautionary protocol before placing dangerous shows before an unsuspecting public. But in one attack after another, this documentary doesn’t show them exercising any reliable fail-safe. “Anywhere along the line it could’ve been stopped because everyone knew it was a tragedy waiting to happen, but no one ever did anything about it,” Suzanne Allen says about Loro Parque.
Her observation could be expanded to include the SeaWorld venues on the American continent as well, since they have an even worse track record in regard to trainer safety. In the archival footage, we repeatedly see trainers snatched by whales, usually right off the dock and into deep water, with the attack going on and on for minutes at a stretch while everyone, spectators and professionals alike, stand around in gasping horror, incapable of intervening in any impactful way to effect a rescue (no one jumped in Tilikum’s tank to try and save Dawn for instance). Only on one occasion do we see a senior trainer thinking on their feet in the midst of an attack, taking the chain off the gates to make the instigating orca believe that a more dominant female is being released into the pen. But even this quick move could have backfired as easily.
During the first death that occurred at Tilikum’s hands, more dominant whales were right there in the tank at the time and merely circled the scene, their presence doing nothing to temper his aggression (alternate accounts have them joining in the attack themselves). Apart from a short range missile, there likely isn’t anything that could be done against an out of control orca with a mouth full of pointy teeth to force it to release its prey. At least nothing that wouldn’t inadvertently result in the victim’s death anyway. One would be as likely to hold back a sentient floating silo with their bare hands. There was clear and present need then for OSHA to sue SeaWorld of Florida on the basis that swimming with orcas is inherently dangerous because animal behavior can’t be predicted when humans enter their environment.
The only dependable way to avoid deaths in the future is by keeping trainers out of close proximity with these apex predators altogether. The most disturbing aspect of this documentary, helmed by a woman, is that a disproportionate degree of Tilikum’s violence and unprovoked hostility, dating back decades, appears to have been directed toward his female handlers. Blackfish produces no studies to show if this is simply because the majority of whale trainers are female. In fact, it fails to address the obvious at all, so the issue becomes a big white elephant in the room. It’s related that in the wild, killer whale pods are matriarchal in nature with males kept at the perimeter.
When Tilikum was first captured as a two-year old bull, he was repeatedly bullied and beaten by the more dominant females in his Sealand tank, raked bloody by their sharp teeth when he failed to perform on cue. And though the structure of the narrative suggests that this traumatic early treatment was central to his subsequent behavioral problems, the dots aren’t fully connected when speculating about Tilly’s final psychological snap. But then, since it’s doubtful killer whales can even tell the difference between the human sexes, perhaps I’m being muddled by my own anthropomorphic assumptions, further transposing human motivations to inexplicable, instinctual animal behavior.
The movie’s moony view of the mystic animal world begins to seem just as willfully negligent as SeaWorld’s marketing of killer whales as oversized stuffed animals. Cowperthwaite will temper documentation of captive whale aggression with scenes showing how serene the animal is in the wild as if to expunge any lingering hostility riled up in the audience toward them. The sequence detailing Keltie’s death for instance is followed by the testament of neuroscientist Lori Marino that “It’s becoming clear that dolphins and whales have a sense of self, a sense of social bonding that they’ve taken to another level, much stronger, much more complex than in other mammals, including humans.” Blackfish wants to stand as a memorial to Dawn by continuing to do what she claimed to be striving toward in an archival interview “…Make (orcas appear) as beautiful as they are and have people walking away loving this animal. (If) they’re touched and they’re moved… I feel like I made a difference to them.”
The former killer whale trainers we’re introduced to all once felt that they shared a mystical connection with their orcas. “You form a very personal relationship with your animal.” John Jett rhapsodizes, while Mark Simmons concurs “There’s something absolutely amazing about working with an animal. You are a team and you build a relationship together and you both understand the goal and you help each other. That’s the joy I got out of it. It’s just a relationship like I’ve never had.” Having romanticized this bond with killer whales out of all proportion, and become as protective toward them as if they were domestic pets (“It’s just like training your dog, really,” Dean Gomersall childishly opinions in a vintage interview), the trainers are still reticent today to destroy that illusion. They don’t want to believe that such a symbiotic relationship was based less on trust, respect, love than the animals’ reluctance to bite the hand that feeds them.
As former trainer Carol Ray ruminates “At the time I think I could’ve convinced myself that the relationships that we had were built on something stronger than the fact that I’m giving them fish. You know I like to think that, but I don’t know that that’s the truth.” Presumably Ken Peters had an established relationship with the whale that attacked him. Dawn certainly did with Tilikum, but it failed to make any difference. So the trainers’ unwavering eagerness to jump into waters with these loose cannon leviathans swimming about seems only slightly removed from the more obviously loco behaviors of fanatical snake handlers and backwoods alligator wrestlers. They begin to sound like the emotionally unbalanced Daniel Dukes when he climbed into Tilikum’s tank himself, believing he was in store for a magical experience.
Culled from all over the country, New York, Virginia, even farms in the landlocked American Midwest, when these former trainers remember first being attracted to the foolhardy notion of wrangling wild animals, knowing in their heart of hearts that’s what they wanted to do with their lives, they speak of it with all the certainty of a call to the priesthood (“From that point forward I was hooked… It meant everything to me because I never wanted anything more.”). In court, OSHA charged that SeaWorld knew there was a calculated risk of injury or death but put trainers in the water with the whales anyway. Yet surely the trainers themselves are equally aware of the hazards an occupation such as their’s entails. Choosing to embrace it with open arms nevertheless, as adults they need to be held accountable for signing whatever contractual clause they’re required to, allowing SeaWorld to put them in harm’s way. With their dewy-eyed romanticism, they seem to be inviting their own fate, the way Timothy Treadwill did in Grizzly Man.
Cowperthwaite rightfully rankles with moral disgust that SeaWorld unconscionably tried to blame Dawn for her own death, in order to absolve the corporation of culpability in court, with Jeff Andrews, SeaWorld’s expert witness, going so far as to give sworn testimony that “Tilikum is not an aggressive animal… The only thing that led to this was a mistake by Ms. Brancheau.” (Despite such official denials, the whale’s aggressive behavior had been witnessed frequently enough for SeaWorld to include in Tilikum’s profile that he had a tendency to lunge at trainers). Yet we feel that the ruling handed down in OSHA vs. SeaWorld, mandating that trainers remain behind barriers, separated from their orcas during shows, is just. It may be too late for Dawn and Alexis Martinez and Keltie Byrne, but it will serve to protect overzealous future animal trainers, at least before the public.
We’re told that SeaWorld is (insanely) appealing this decision, making OSHA’s allegations, that the organization only made changes to their safety precautions after Dawn’s death outraged the public, sound much more plausible. The theme park wants to keep its whale trainers in the water, regardless of the inherent hazard posed to them. It makes for a better show and higher profit potential. But we never learn what the trainers who are in those tanks, putting their lives at risk every day think of this ruling themselves. Are they secretly relieved that there’s a physical barrier separating them from the whales now, or do they resent being deprived of those special relationship sessions? It seems that only the most soulless corporate zombie or overemotional animal activist could argue with Dave Duffas’ astute observation, which served as the crux of the court case, “Stay out of proximity with the animals and you won’t get killed.”
Despite their obvious sincerity, something begins to feel a bit fishy as the camera subjects in interview after interview choke up while recalling the unpardonable crimes they committed against their animal brethren. The tearful remorse of those involved in the events recounted seems a tad self serving. Everyone is so eager to spill their guts and confess their sins, the documentary starts seeming like a florid confessional, a cathartic rite of exorcism to cleanse the soul. Referring to their work at SeaWorld as a past life, those interviewed are so determined to expiate their complicity in keeping orca captive, you would think they had been German prison camp commandants. But if they really felt as guilty as is claimed over what they were doing for a living, one would think they would have just up and quit at some point to protest. Instead they sound like drive hunt diver John Crowe, “I just lost it. I just started crying. I didn’t stop working but, you know…with everyone watching what can you do?”
Apart from John Jett who, in an addendum interview contained in the extra features of the DVD, admits to quitting his job only weeks before (the assumption being he would’ve been fired anyway for agreeing to be interviewed for this documentary), no explanation is given as to why none of the other naysayers interviewed appear to be affiliated with SeaWorld any longer. In such situations there’s nothing to dispel the sneaking suspicion that they may simply be disgruntled employees nursing sour grapes and trying to smear their former bosses. Older and presumably wiser, these trainers, who are shown to be all cheery smiles in the archival footage, certainly seem to have experienced a sea change after the fact. And it’s unfortunate that current SeaWorld employees who may have expressed a difference of opinion appear to have had a gag order slapped on them. So all we hear from are opinionated former trainers. Blackfish must have seemed like a class reunion for them. Having gone on to become MDs and PhDs, after making their livings and receiving their training by exploiting SeaWorld’s orcas themselves, they now claim the company made them do it and advocate stopping the animals from performing in such a circus atmosphere. This regardless of the impact on the current crop of trainers and workers whose livelihoods now depend on those same positions they once held themselves. Cowperthwaite’s spokespeople indict the multibillion-dollar corporation without considering the backlash of negative publicity these statements are bound to generate against SeaWorld’s current staff, like those poor tour guides caught in the headlights of the camera and unfairly made to seem as if they were consciously in on the cover-up. But at least the ex-trainers seem to have learned one vital lesson from their prior experience. When they go whale watching now it’s from the safety of a fishing trawler, where they can watch orca disporting themselves from a scenic distance.
These nature scenes have been scored by Jeff Beal to soaring, celestial strings and the trainers who once worked with whales in closeup captivity treat the sight of them in the wild as spiritual revelation. The way they behold the untamed creatures swimming free, you’d think they had never suspected that whales lived any other way. Through them you can hear the filmmakers sighing that ‘yes, this is the way God intended orca to be,’ rather than twisted into the psychotic monsters society has made of them. In her own, more politically correct way, Cowperthwaite wants to make us feel just as warm as fuzzy about killer whales as SeaWorld does. Like those tour guides the director takes to task, Blackfish parrots the party line. The movie adopts the relatively unassailable position that plucking orcas out of their natural habitat in order to place them in artificial environments warps their killer instincts.
Not knowing how else to behave in their new surroundings they respond to unfamiliar stimuli by reverting back to their animal impulses, which make them seem demoniacal after we’d been induced to regard them as a higher order of animal. But then the moral of Blackfish could easily be extended to just about any animal that’s ever performed in a circus, been caged in a zoo, kept as a pet or tagged for scientific study. While the movie, with an understandable if slightly salacious single mindedness, focuses on orca who have gone stir crazy from being penned up, I’d still be curious to know if SeaWorld’s seals have ever turned on their trainers the same way, or if their dolphins had ever caused bodily harm. If captivity breeds psychosis in animals accustomed to larger swimming ranges, as the movie contends, surely it must be evident in other intelligent marine mammals as well.
Following its standard line of logic, Blackfish tries to absolve Tilikum of guilt in Dawn’s death, with almost as much slippery skill as SeaWorld’s PR apologists did on the stand. Instead of placing blame on the trainer though, Cowperthwaite cites psychological scarring caused by the whale’s original capture, the abusive behavioral conditioning Sealand employed to train him, techniques that involved punishment reinforcement, and his virtual immobilization in water tanks far too small to contain his considerable size (he’s the largest orca in captivity). “If you were in a bathtub for twenty-five years don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?,” is the quotable sound byte made by one heated commentator during a crossfire debate. But after a certain point, blaming this sea beast’s behavior on all manner of outside forces starts to sound a tad trite, akin to pardoning a killer by reason of insanity because he’d been horribly mistreated in his past. In Tilikum’s case that may very well be true, and he may just be responding to his innate instincts, but the fact remains that those instincts are to kill. The people who say that Tilikum grabbed Dawn maliciously want to prove the theory that captivity makes animals crazy (which is Blackfish‘s stance). SeaWorld wants to demonstrate that its animals are contented creatures not prone to aggression by blaming the victim. Both sides are distorting the obvious to fit their own spin on events. It’s apparent that whales in captivity have pretty miserable lives and are emotionally scarred by the experience. But what seems equally evident is that these wild animals are not killing to protest their captivity; that’s anthropomorphism again. Captivity doesn’t turn killer whales into killers. The species is just made that way and it’s absurd to presume that they won’t live up to their name, in captivity or out. No matter how intelligent or domesticated orca may seem at times, they remain wild animals who just require the proper stimulus to instantly snap back into instinctual behavior that will never be completely understood or bred out of them. So since Tilikum’s captive state brings him in constant contact with humans who, in the wild, would rarely have occasion to be in such close proximity with him, further attacks are inevitable. Regardless of what forces converged to turn Tilikum more deadly than most members of his species, SeaWorld is still dealing with a serial killer who will take lives again if afforded the opportunity.
Blackfish, which wants to raise our awareness of the innate dignity of orca in the open sea, actually turns out to expend the majority of its running time terrifying audiences of them by demonstrating what danger they pose to man in captivity. Far from buoying our reverence for them, Blackfish instead encourages the unfortunate view of killer whales as carnivorous Monstros. This documentary is trying to scare viewers straight in the worst way imaginable. Vintage footage frequently captures Dawn in the same mise en scène as Tilikum, and in hindsight we can’t help reading nefarious intentions behind his hooded, masklike demeanor. The way the shots have been threaded, he almost seems to be stalking the SeaWorld visitors, contemplating murder as they stare at him like a fish in a bowl through the thin sheet of protective glass separating them. These visuals are meant to be misleading, like the opening ones where the whales appear to be stalking their trainers underwater. Still these orca are made to appear as if they were peeping at people, the same way they did that seal before they tipped it off the ice floe.
Upon learning that Tilikum refused to release Dawn’s body, former trainer John Hargrove professes to have been “So disturbed by that (news) and the reality of how powerless we are.” Blackfish wants to put the fear of God back in mankind, make us shudder in the face of what we’ve proven incapable of controlling so that we’ll gingerly place killer whales back where we found them. The case study of Tilikum is used to terrify us into letting all his people go. Though releasing orcas back into the wild and expecting them to thrive after spending the better part of their lives as performing whales is a dicey proposition, it’s suggested that lifers can instead be placed in ocean pens where audiences can still be charged an admittance fee to see them.
The intriguing debate Blackfish raises is not so much whether it’s morally just to keep exotic animals captive for entertainment purposes (a question it answers satisfactorily for itself) but whether Tilikum who, through human imprinting or not, is now rogue, should himself be freed. Having gone Circus Maximus on us thrice, the question begs whether it is now society’s responsibility to put him down, as Samantha Berg suggests, the same way we would any other animal that’s proven a danger to public safety. Does anyone really want this whale roaming the open seas now that he’s developed a taste for human flesh? Tilikum doesn’t need released, he needs euthanasia. If this killer whale weren’t worth millions to SeaWorld as a star attraction and a cause célèbre among animal right activists who now have a new posterboy, he would have been put down following the first attack.
Rather than a body tag, each of Tilikum’s victims might have been accorded a price tag by SeaWorld, who was obviously weighing the financial impact on lost revenue against the relative importance of lost lives. “So why keep Tilikum there?” John Jett logically asks, “This guy, he has a proven track record of killing people. He’s clearly a liability to the institution. Why keep him around? Well it’s (a question) quite simple to answer and that is that his semen is worth a lot of money.” Instead of destroying Tilikum, SeaWorld instead chose to propagate him by putting their prize whale to stud. Regardless of the consequences for future generations, his genes have been passed on to countless performing offspring who now carry a similar genetic makeup that might someday surface in aggression against their handlers.
Or so Blackfish states. Cowperthwaite actually weakens her line of reasoning by indicting SeaWorld on this front, as Melissa Smith pointed out in her online essay “Why Blackfish is Misleading, Unoriginal and ‘Stupid’.” If being held captive is what has made Tilikum go mad, as the movie suggests, then his psychosis is strictly man-made and there’s no reason to worry about passing down his genes. The problem with Tilikum would have to be inherent in the whale’s own makeup for it to be passed on by heredity. Blackfish claims that the emotional mapping of killer whales is very close to that of humans, suggesting that they’re fully sentient beings cognizant of their own actions. But if Tilikum really were as self-aware as man, and knew precisely what he was doing when he chose to kill, that’s all the more reason why he should have been executed for his actions ages ago. His endangered species status protects him from the possibility of ever facing such a fate however. The movie may argue that he’s actually being punished with solitary confinement in his imprisoning pen, where he’s seen floating lifeless for hours on end, but to our outraged sense of moral justice he seems like the proverbial murderer who got away with it despite all the havoc wrought, Moby Dick at the end of Melville.
Representatives of SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film but issued a statement following Blackfish’s release and television airing on CNN in October 2013, stressing all the good the company does for aquatic research, rehabilitating animals and releasing them back into the wild, the standard-issue twaddle. Some people never learn despite the number of object moral lessons they’re afforded in life. As Dave Duffas points out, Dawn Brancheau was killed almost twenty years to the day as Keltie Byrne, proving that “We have not learned a damn thing.” “I’ve been expecting it since the second person was killed,” Jeff Jett ruefully admits, “I’ve been expecting somebody to be killed by Tilikum. I’m surprised it took as long as it did.” It was an accident waiting to happen. It’s still an accident waiting to happen. After killing three people in the past two decades and counting, Tilikum, astonishingly enough, continues performing in SeaWorld sideshows on a daily basis.
Part horror movie, part PETA propaganda, as documentary Blackfish has a clearly defined agenda to manipulate viewers into wanting to free the captive killer whales it has built a persuasive case convincing us should be clinically classified as psychotic. There’s something wacky with that logic, so one’s critical faculties call for a measure of common sense rather than emotional response. Tilikum should not be freed; he’s become a psychotic serial killer who should be executed. I love animals as much as the next person but not at the expense of human life. Animal rights activists would have a far better shot at saving the whales if they spent as much time stressing the well being of the potential human victims these wild animals pose such a threat to in captivity, as they do the emotional and mental good of the animals themselves. Like SeaWorld, this documentary seems to place far more importance on the welfare of whales than on the safety of their human handlers. Blackfish is the pot calling the kettle black.