It is easy to understand the allure of killer whales. These magnificent creatures not only look beautiful, they evince a splendid power when they’re gliding through the water, the males in particular having an arresting dorsal fin that can be up to six feet in height.
Aquatic theme parks such as SeaWorld have made millions from our desire to see these whales at close range, not to mention depicting their trainers as some of the luckiest people on earth — who wouldn’t want to be able to train and bond with such an impressive animal? Until recently, no one gave much thought to how the whales might have felt about that relationship; they were usually portrayed as friendly, clever pets who enjoyed showing how high they could leap, how much water they could splash on the audience when they flapped a pectoral fin, or how nimbly they could skid across the stage to hold up their tail proudly at the end of the show.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s compelling new documentary “Blackfish” shows the other side of our troubled history with the killer whale. The film, currently on the film festival circuit (you can see it next at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 1; the film will open nationwide in July), revolves around the story of Tilikum, a male orca that has been involved in the deaths of three people (two of them trainers), most recently SeaWorld veteran Dawn Brancheau, who was killed in 2010.
But Tilikum is only a part of the story. “Blackfish” also takes a broader look at the “animal entertainment” industry, beginning with a 1970 expedition in Puget Sound to capture killer whales for different theme parks. Seven whales were caught, but five whales were also inadvertently killed at the same time; their bodies were weighted down with rocks to cover up their deaths, but when they were later discovered, it led to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Cowperthwaite interviews a crusty old sea dog involved in the 1970 expedition, who still tears up when recounting how the female whales “cried” when separated from their offspring.
The hiding of the bodies actually set a precedent, for “Blackfish” exposes how much of the animal entertainment industry is involved in various cover-ups. Employees at the theme parks blithely spin falsehoods to customers, claiming that killers whales live longer in captivity (they don’t) and that the floppy dorsal fin on the males is a result of “old age” (it’s actually because the pens they live in are too small). Cowperthwaite interviews several former SeaWorld employees who freely admit to spinning whatever party line they were told to; “I was naïve,” says one.
More disturbing are the cover-ups that involve killer whale attacks. They’ve been routinely described as isolated incidents, that were either not attacks (the animal was only “playing”) or due to some fault of the trainer. When Tilikum was sent from Sealand in Victoria, B.C. to SeaWorld Orlando, some trainers weren’t even told he was involved in the death of trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991 at the facility; those that did know were told it was the female orcas in the pen, and not Tilikum, who killed Byrne (“Blackfish” has interviews with two women who witnessed the Sealand attack and say it was definitely Tilikum). And when Tilikum killed Brancheau, it was said the whale had grabbed on to her ponytail, “in play,” when footage of the incident shows him clearly grabbing on her arm.
Cowperthwaite, through the Freedom of Information Act, was able to secure much startling footage of killer whale attacks; nothing overly graphic (no blood), but disturbing all the same. Such as when one trainer is repeatedly dragged to the bottom of the pool by a whale (there’s also no audio provided for the attacks). Which prompts a provocative question: why do killer whales attack?
It’s a tricky question; since we can’t read a killer whale’s mind, we can’t say for certain why they attack. “Blackfish” argues that they attack out of the frustration in living a life that’s unnatural to them, starved of food (if not outright mistreated) to perform on command, and separated from the family that nurtured them (experts in the film attest to the fact that the whales’ brains do make them capable of sophisticated thought). It’s also telling that killer whale attacks on humans happen when the whales are in captivity — not in the wild.
“Blackfish” mainly points at SeaWorld, at least in part because a number of the interviewees are former employees, but killer whales are held in captivity around the world. The question the film poses is: should we be capturing these animals purely for the pleasure we derive in seeing them on display? Is the price we pay worth it? For not only do the whales live an unhappy life in captivity, more than one human life has been lost in overseeing them. The “Blackfish” participants would clearly like to see all whales back in the sea, where they belong. And certainly this thought provoking film, like the best documentaries, will get you to think about the subject in a way you may not have previously considered.