Movie Review: Blackfish (2013)

Blackfish is a masterpiece. It boasts excellent writing, tight editing, and deeply moving music.

Blackfish is a documentary about Tilikum, a male orca who in 2010 killed Dawn Brancheau, a senior trainer at SeaWorld. Using old and recent footage, interviews, and possibly some undercover filming, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite maintains a sympathetic focus on Tilikum while exposing unethical SeaWorld practices and the cost of keeping killer whales in captivity.

There are three main threads to the story: Tilikum’s capture, at age 2, and subsequent misery in his artificial environments; the disillusionment of four former SeaWorld trainers, who knew the killer whales best; and the contrast between the incredibly close social bonds of wild orcas and their sad, short lives in the marine parks.

When the orca craze hit in the seventies, the traumatic separation of young whales from their family was captured on film. One of the men involved remembered the other whales in the pod staying close as the little ones were taken, all of them calling out to each other in distress. Tilikum’s capture was the same. Then he spent years basically in a bathtub at SeaLand in Canada, before the death of a young part-time worker caused the park to shut down. Two eyewitnesses confirmed that Tilikum had pulled the woman into the water – “You could tell by his floppy fin.” At the time, they were never asked about what they saw.

With SeaLand closed, SeaWorld Orlando eagerly took in Tilikum as a breeder. And here is where the testimonies of the former trainers come in. They loved him. He seemed easy to work with, eager to please. But again, this was not his home, his pod. The female whales at SeaWorld savaged him regularly, to the point where his trainers were disheartened to see him covered in cuts from their teeth. In 1999, a corpse was discovered draped across Tilikum’s back – a young man who had apparently hidden in the park after closing. SeaWorld claimed no witnesses, no video footage – odd for a place with cameras everywhere. The former trainers started questioning the party line, which they themselves spouted at performances. Did the orcas really perform because they wanted to? Did keeping them in captivity improve their lives?

SeaWorld distorts truths to serve its ends, masquerading as a pillar for conservation when it’s primarily a profit-driven entertainment enterprise. Cowperthwaite shows footage of SeaWorld tour guides lying, saying that killer whales in the wild live up to 30 years. Marine science puts that number closer to 50-80 years on average. One SeaWorld employee also says 30% of males have the floppy dorsal fin that Tilikum has. “Less than 1% of male orcas in the wild have the floppy dorsal fin,” counters a former trainer. In the wild, orcas have large family units that stay together their whole lives and essentially speak their own dialect. At SeaWorld, when a calf becomes disruptive or possibly a bigger profit elsewhere, it’s separated from its mother, who wails inconsolably afterwards.

After Dawn’s death – which SeaWorld said was her fault – Tilikum was only brought on for brief times during shows. At most other times, he was alone in his tank.

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Blackfish had a tremendous effect after its cable run started, and shares of SeaWorld have tumbled since. The company has also changed its expansion plans – no giant tank for San Diego, for example – but, ominously, might be preparing for a move to Asia, Russia, and the Middle East.

Here’s hoping for more successful documentaries to remind humans that we’re sharing this planet, and that good sharing, as we teach our kids in the sandbox, leads to happier experiences for all.

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TL;DR: A passionate and well-crafted film. Highly, highly recommended. 

This post brought to you by Jeff Beal’s original soundtrack, which is perfection. Here’s the main Blackfish theme on YouTube.