It’s not often that a nature documentary has the power to move viewers to tears as well as fill a screen with audible, sickened gasps. But then again, it’s not often that you get a film like Blackfish. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary follows the story of Tilikum, SeaWorld Orlando’s largest Orca, who has been linked to the deaths of three individuals, as well as exploring in more general terms what leads captive whales to commit deliberate attacks on humans.
Photo: The Telegraph
The film’s title refers to the name which Native Americans gave to the Orcas, an animal which for them held a great spiritual significance. Unsurprisingly, human interest in these beautiful creatures continues to this day; Blackfish hardly needs the delightful footage of an Orca pod interacting with a dinghy full of children and their pet dog to convince viewers that these are sensitive, intelligent and emotional mammals. The film stresses that, in the wild, there have been no verifiable instances of Orcas attacking humans. It is only in captivity that a problem arises. Since marine zoo-life parks such as SeaWorld first appeared in the 1970’s, there have been around twenty-five known attacks towards humans by captive Orcas, several of which have been fatal. Blackfish reveals the despicable conditions in which SeaWorld and other such parks keep their whales, confining three or more orcas into the equivalent of a human bathtub. It’s really no surprise that in such close proximity, the animals fight and even kill each other, some rather harrowing footage of which is shown in the film.
Cowperthwaite herself has identified the death of Dawn Brancheau, an experienced SeaWorld trainer killed by Tilikum in 2010, as the trigger for making Blackfish. Brancheau’s death is the focal point of the documentary, along with SeaWorld’s dishonesty surrounding the incident. The official story was that Brancheau tripped and fell into Tilikum’s pool, who then seized her by the ponytail. In SeaWorld’s version of events, Brancheau was to blame. However, eyewitness testimony from the incident has proved this to be false. Though Blackfish has been likened to a psychological thriller, it is not Tilikum, or any other Orca, who is the guilty party. Neither, however, is Brancheau. The overwhelming impression that one gains from this film is that the individuals who work with the animals have formed great attachments with them and care deeply about their wellbeing. Rather, Blackfish is deeply critical of organisations such as SeaWorld as a whole; their desire to increase sales clearly blinding them to the frequent immorality of their actions.
Unsurprisingly, Blackfish hardly makes for light viewing. The film features a multitude of emotional interviews; interviewees include witnesses to the first death Tilikum was linked to, ex-SeaWorld trainers, current SeaWorld staff spewing ridiculous, bare-faced lies to the general public and a leaky-eyed shipman who was involved in the capture of wild Orcas for the entertainment industry. Blackfish is certainly big on grown men crying but it is always used effectively and sincerely. Who wouldn’t feel like crying after they’d just separated a screaming mother Orca from her calf, killing three innocent whales in the process? Blackfish draws attention to some harrowing incidents which SeaWorld and others have desperately tried to hush up; nothing ruins the illusion of a happy family of captive whales quite like the death and injury of many Orcas and humans. Anyone who still wishes to visit SeaWorld after seeing Blackfish is either horrifically cruel or fell asleep for the duration of the documentary. This is a must-see for anyone with even a passing interest in animal rights. At present, SeaWorld have declined many invitations to give their opinion on Tilikum and other captive Orca attacks; one can only hope that the impact of Blackfish forces them to do some serious explaining.