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'Blackfish': A Killer Tale Of Killer Whales

Samantha Jacobs |
September 18, 2013 | 11:53 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

"Blackfish" discusses the controversial history of killer whales used for entertainment (Blackfishmovie.com).
"Blackfish" discusses the controversial history of killer whales used for entertainment (Blackfishmovie.com).
Warning: if you have precious childhood memories of family vacations to San Diego to visit Shamu at SeaWorld, proceed with caution.

"Blackfish" is a documentary that follows the controversial history of killer whales being used as entertainers in water amusement parks, and it specifically researches the multiple attacks on trainers by the whales. The star of this documentary is one whale named Tilikum, who may better be known by his stage name: Shamu. 

This documentary is aggressive and disturbing from beginning to end. The start of the film is almost reminiscent of "Zero Dark Thirty," for the screen is pitch black yet there is a chilling recording of a 9-1-1 call being played. The call describes an emergency of a whale attack at SeaWorld. 

In 2010, 40-year old trainer Dawn Brancheau died due to blunt force trauma and drowning while performing a show with Tilikum. Since this tragedy, the history of whale/trainer accidents has been in the spotlight, and "Blackfish" leaves no stone unturned in its research.

While the documentary does show some footage of SeaWorld accidents, the purpose of the film is not to scare the audience. In fact, the film really appeals to audience pathos. Footage is shown of Orca whales being kidnapped from their natural habitat for the initial startup of water theme parks forty years ago, and it is already blatant how morally and legally wrong the treatment of these whales is from the very beginning. 

As the film progresses, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite focuses on the 12,000-pound Tilikum. Through interviews, court cases and factual information, she timelines Tilikum’s descent from superstar to the literal killer whale who became responsible for the deaths for trainers. Though Tilikum may be the most controversial of the show whales, Cowperthwaite uses his story as one that is representative of every Orca whale in captivity at SeaWorld, or a similar venue.

Through interviews with former whale trainers, as well as professional whale experts, the message that these whales cannot be fully blamed for their violence is relayed to the audience. The interviewees make it clear that whales were not meant to be held in captivity. CNN anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell was used in a news clip in the film, and her words sum up much of what trainers have been saying in defense of whales. In her clip she asks, “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?” Experts go on the record in the film saying that Orca whales are not inherently vicious or violent creatures while in their natural habitat, at least not toward humans or each other. But when they are taken from their natural setting, order is disrupted. Hierarchies are jumbled and bullying between the whales occurs. Through clips we see bleeding whales that have been subjected to attacks from their own kind while forced to live together in captivity. Tilikum himself was a victim of attacks from many of the female whales. He was brutally attacked and his trainers describe the sort of depression that he descended into as a result of the interpersonal whale dynamics. They claim that the living situation he was forced into led to an unfortunate psychosis.

The result of these testimonies is a feeling of sympathy and sadness for these whales. So as tales are recounted of other attacks on trainers by these Orcas, blame is placed more on the organization of SeaWorld than these whales. The audience has been made to feel sadness for the victims of these attacks from the start of the film, but the filmmakers also point much blame at SeaWorld. Interviews from former trainers further solidifies the point that SeaWorld is an evil corporation. They are shown denying and ignoring care for these whales that should be crucial for their physical and mental health, and instead using business tactics to increase fiscal revenue, in complete disregard to moral standards. 

These allegations, plus intermixed clips and tales of SeaWorld lying about trainer attacks and separating baby whales from their mothers is meant to stir emotions of sadness and anger from the audience. And though SeaWorld even issued a very specific point-by-point repudiation of some of "Blackfish’s" claims, the documentary included this negation in their closing credits, and fired back with a firm rebuttal of their own. As audiences lost some fond childhood memories, SeaWorld is going to lose a lot more than that because of "Blackfish."

Reach Staff Reporter Samantha Jacobs here.



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