This was originally posted in March 2014. I wanted to repost this now because I just saw a SeaWorld Commercial that was trying to tell us how wrong we were about them. Barf.
I am going to start off this review and say that I was never a Free Willy fan. I know that was a mid 1990s classic, but even at the age of 7, while it had good intentions; I knew it was trying to manipulate me into feelings without giving me any facts or information. I do however, love zoos and aquariums, I have gone to them all of my life and have countless magnets and a ranking system of them (San Diego Zoo and Georgia Aquarium are my #1s). I respect these institutions because they offer a dose of education alongside their animal gawking. So when I heard about Blackfish and their uncovering of Sea World’s practices, I was intrigued. We’re talking about animals in captivity and a multibillion dollar corporation, wouldn’t they treat their animals right? Nope.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a 12-year documentary veteran who has worked with Discovery and National Geographic, directed Blackfish. Cowperthwaite’s Sundance Grand Jury Nominee tells the story of Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity. He currently lives in SeaWorld Orlando and has sired 21 calves. Tilikum is also involved in three deaths while living in captivity since the age of 2. The film is structured in a way that it starts with the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, before diving into the history of how these whales got into captivity, and finally ending with the aftermath of Brancheau’s death and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requiring trainers to not get in the water with the whales.
I will be honest, this film is only 83 minutes long and it is rough. Cowperthwaite doesn’t pull any punches, describing the deaths and injuries of many SeaWorld trainers in grave detail. People are bitten, crushed, dragged, and drowned. The effect is a queasy feeling that settles in about 30 minutes in and it doesn’t ease. I felt this growing sense of dread and bewilderment. If there are so many injuries and deaths of these trainers, why is SeaWorld not trying to protect their product?
Through interviews with former SeaWorld and the defunct SeaLand trainers, the whale hunters who captured Tilikum, and family members of fallen trainers, you get the picture. There is a haze of smoke and mirrors. Things are “accidents” caused by “trainer error”. SeaWorld goes as far to immediately blame the humans in these attacks because if it comes out that the orcas are to blame then they will lose revenue. That is what it all comes down to, the almighty dollar.
Yet when I finished the film, I felt sympathy not only for the trainers, but the orcas. These massive animals are swimming in pools that are like the size of a bathtub for 30 years of their lives. The effects on them from a psychological standpoint is barely known but what the whale researchers and scientists in the film can glean is that putting an orca in captivity is the last thing you want to do. These are social creatures that stay with their families their entire life and to break them up and put them in small tanks is just asking for them to go insane
It’s depressing and I hope that SeaWorld shuts down soon, because this is inhumane, to the workers and the orcas.
If you want to read the article that started Cowperthwaite’s journey into this history and learn more about the ongoing fight that was pushed in the spotlight by Blackfish, here is some reading:
- The article that started it all.
- The Wikipedia Article of Killer Whale Attacks on humans.
- SeaWorld new ads to go against Blackfish.
UP NEXT: Concussion written and directed by Stacie Passon