On 24 February, 2010, experienced SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a male orca called Tilikum during a live show. Initially, the details of the incident were unclear, with early reports that the trainer had slipped and fallen into the tank – or that the whale had grabbed the 40-year-old trainer’s ponytail – both later contradicted by video footage and eyewitness testimony. The tragedy served as starting point for Blackfish (2013) director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, shocked by how something so horrible could happen in a place which had a reputation for family fun and loving bonds between animals and trainers.
Sadly, Cowperthwaite’s investigation led her into making a much more complex story of animal exploitation and systemic failure, which has seen SeaWorld ignore time and again the dangers associated with using captive whales and porpoises for public entertainment. Far from being a one-off freak accident, Brancheau’s death was actually one in a long line of whale attacks on trainers. Tilikum himself has form, being involved in two previous fatalities. Following an increasingly rich stream of issue-based documentaries – which include Rob Stewart’s Sharkwater (2006) Louie Psihoyos’ 2009 doc The Cove and – Blackfish is a quietly devastating j’accuse aimed at corporate negligence and immense greed.
For the most part avoiding door-stepping or demonising the villainous US corp., Cowperthwaite instead builds up a compelling weight of testimony from whale experts and ex-SeaWorld trainers, as well as archive footage that contradicts the friendly schmaltz of the amusement park chain’s advertising. The trainers are all motivated out of love for these magnificent marine mammals and a wish to work with the orcas, but their knowledge of the animals is rudimentary at best and usually involves repeating the propaganda which SeaWorld promotes. For example, arguing that the lifespan of a whale in captivity is longer than in the wild when the opposite is true by a substantial margin.
Retracing the history of Tilikum from capture through to his current psychologically-damaged state, we see that at every stage there is exploitation and cruelty, motivated by the huge revenues that he creates, both in ticket sales and as a sperm donor. This is put beside what we know of orcas in the wild, their hugely complex social interactions and the freedom they enjoy. SeaWorld’s reaction to Blackfish thus far has been to offer a handful of bland ripostes. It will be interesting to see how far this strategy gets them in the light of what is a sober yet compelling and articulate critique.
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