Blackfish (2013) is a documentary that’s left an indelible impact on the world. It’s also landed SeaWorld in a lot of bother, with the argument set to rage for years to come over orcas held in captivity.
The film is utterly tragic and you’ll need to go in braced for a rough time of it. It makes an extremely strong case for ending the captivity of orcas by companies such as SeaWorld, which has led to a global shift towards freeing the creatures into the wild.
With plummeting sales figures and endless public negativity, the company has now admitted Blackfish is a game changer. We could be entering into a new era of conservation, all due to one film which cost $76,000 to make and initially opened in only five cinemas.
Blackfish focuses on the story of Dawn Brancheau and the orca Tilikum to highlight how captivity at places such as SeaWorld is inhumane. Brancheau, a highly experienced orca trainer, was killed by Tilikum in February 2010.
The documentary states the orca had been driven mad by his confined conditions and goes on to pursue the history of Tilikum and the company that acquired him.
After the dramatic opening, it follows Tilikum’s early years (he was captured out at sea) and how in subsequent captivity he has been involved in several human fatalities.
Additionally, it becomes apparent incidents with captive orcas at SeaWorld were happening regularly – for decades. More or less every single one of them was covered up in the company’s attempt to block any public or media knowledge of the incidents.
This leads to some truly unsettling moments, several of which were caught on camera. And you can (referring to that ever believable source Wikipedia *ahem*) read a full list of trainer-Orca incidents.
There’s a particularly eerie, drawn-out incident with SeaWorld trainer Ken Peters in 2006, which is enough to make even the most hardened criminal wet their pants.
Consequently, in what is a very moving film, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite makes a conservation plea to end the captivity of orcas and other marine animals. It’s a rather fine piece of work.
It’s essentially a counterpart to the Oscar-winning The Cove from 2009 (which we’ll cover soon enough), forming two films which are helping to shape society in an era where the oceans are under colossal strain due to human demands.
To look at things objectively, let’s consider SeaWorld’s opinion. It has, of course, attempted to counter the storm of negativity and plunging sales it’s faced since 2013.
On its SeaWorld Cares website, it claims Blackfish is propaganda. The company even created a list of 69 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Believe Blackfish, although the very first point it raises is somewhat fatuous.
The report does, however, correct orca researcher Howard Garrett’s false claim:
"To this day, there’s no record of an orca doing any harm to any human in the wild".
Whilst there’s no record of any deaths, there are several recorded instances of attacks on humans in the wild. This includes attempted attacks, some of which are detailed by Apsley-Cherry Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World (1922).
Another line of defence from SeaWorld is it thumps millions of pounds of conservationism money to help orcas in the wild. It stated:
"SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research."
Its verdict on Blackfish is pretty clear-cut:
"All of the falsehoods and misleading techniques in Blackfish are employed in the service of the film’s obvious bias, one that is best revealed near the end of Blackfish by a neuroscientist with no known expertise in killer whales. She claims that all killer whales in captivity are “emotionally destroyed,” and “ticking time bombs.” These are not the words of science, and indeed, there is not a shred of scientific support for them. Rather, they are the words of animal rights activists whose agenda the film’s many falsehoods were designed to advance. They reveal “Blackfish” not as an objective documentary, but as propaganda."
Whilst the company raises some good points, ultimately we have to remember it’s sole purpose is to make a lot of money by keeping big fish in small tanks for entertainment purposes.
At the top of the ladder is CEO Joel Manby, with one eye firmly on profit margins. Whilst the company can throw its legal minds behind its defence, ultimately its business purpose is dangerously anachronistic. With a huge array of fatal, and near fatal, incidents, this is one form of entertainment the public can really do without.
To make matters worse, SeaWorld also clearly has a bug up its backside about animal rights activists, whom it rants about with barely restrained contempt in many of its rebuttals. This form of belligerence would be funny but for the dire circumstances involved.
Whatever your opinion regarding the raging debate, the problem for SeaWord is it refused to appear in Blackfish.
It was a fatuous and obstinate decision that could help signal the end of the company in its current form. Many millions of people have watched the film and already made up their minds, with SeaWorld now lacking any ability to influence their decision.
Whilst we humans get on our high horse about it all, there remains the large orcas trapped in small tanks doing circus tricks for humans. It’s all rather odious, not least due to the damage this kind of captivity does to an orca’s wellbeing.
It was reported in 2016 Tilikum’s health had deteriorated and the 34-year-old orca was near death – unfortunately, in January 2017 he did indeed succumb to his illness and lifelong containment.
But big business moves on. For SeaWorld, the trainers are no longer allowed to swim with the orcas during the performances. This was a dramatic move by the company and a clear signal its business dealings are heading in a new direction.
As a result, Blackfish shows us how culture can well and truly shape the world through intelligence, creativity, and compassion. We just need more people to catch onto that.