Killer whales, or orcas, are so powerful that they can hunt down a great white shark for supper. Yet these apex predators are also playful and intuitive, and research indicates that they are not only highly intelligent and intensely social, but may be even more emotionally evolved than humans. They live in extended families called pods, and offspring remain with their mothers throughout their life spans—unless they are captured for sale to a marine park, where they will be traumatized, confined to “bathtub” size concrete pools, and made to perform like circus animals. That’s what happened to Tilikum, a 6-ton, 22-foot-long male that in 2010 deliberately killed a top trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando. Tilikum’s story is the center of Blackfish, a documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite that explores the inhumanity of using these sentient creatures as the star attraction for the multi-billion-dollar marine mammal entertainment industry.
Low-key, low-budget, and on-target in every scene (Cowperthwaite’s resume includes National Geographic specials and the Animal Planet series), Blackfish opens with astonishing footage of an orca and a trainer doing underwater-to-air acrobatics that is chillingly accompanied by an audiotape of the 911 call from SeaWorld for the emergency situation of trainer Dawn Brancheau (she is later shown riding an orca like a trick pony in the water stadium). Brancheau wasn’t the first trainer to be killed by an orca, and even more shocking is that she wasn’t the first trainer to be killed by Tilikum. Tili had killed an employee at Sea Land in Canada before being sold to SeaWorld.
Worth millions as a breeding stud, Tili was still allowed to perform for the public even after killing a second person, a fact that was fraudulently downplayed. And then followed the grisly death of Brancheau, which resulted in an OSHA court ruling that sea parks could no longer allow trainers to interact with the whales in the water. (SeaWorld appealed the decision and lost. Two months ago it was fined for violating the ruling).
Yet Blackfish—a Native American name for orcas—is not just about a crazed killer whale, and it goes beyond the deceit that SeaWorld, the gold standard in sea parks, uses to convince the public, and its own trainers, that these gentle giants actually thrive in captivity (they do not, as their flopped-over dorsal fins, a sign of pathology, make obvious). Through interviews with former trainers and whale experts it exposes the cruelty that is done to the animals for audience dollars, and their inherent unsuitability, aside from sheer size, for captivity. It’s their very intelligence and responsiveness that predispose them to becoming psychotic under harsh conditions, such as the boredom and aggravation of being crowded into shallow pools (in the ocean they roam up to 100 miles a day).
In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, an orca seems to be toying with his trainer, repeatedly pulling him underwater just long enough to almost drown him. Park captives are also unnaturally aggressive toward each other—sometimes fatally. Yet despite the many incidents of serious injury done to trainers, there isn’t single instance of an orca killing a human in the wild.
In 50 years’ time, says one expert, people will look back at the captivity of killer whales as barbaric. As Blackfish wrenchingly illustrates, that time needs to be now.