Good Luck Going To Sea World Ever Again [Blackfish Review]

The documentary Blackfish, which takes its title from the Canadian Aboriginal term for orcas, chronicles the 2010 tragic death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by the troubled killer whale Tilikum. I remember the official story being that Tilikum, distracted by Dawn’s ponytail, pulled her underwater until she drawned but I didn’t follow the situation through to the end. It turns out that Sea World’s official account of the tragedy may not exactly be true. In fact, it’s a complete spin job blaming “trainer error” to make sure water park customers still see the orcas as safe, cuddly creatures worth purchasing in plush doll form. Unfortunately, they’re called killer whales for a reason. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary traces Tilikum from his brutal capture, to his inhumane treatment at a second-rate water park in Canada – where he was forced to spend the majority of his time floating in a small tank in complete darkness – and finally to Sea World. The incident in 2010 was hardly an isolated incident. Tilikum had a history of lashing out, whether out of frustration, aggression or psychosis no one can officially say. What can be shown is that Sea World was well aware of his history but put him on display anyway (and used his semen to breed a high percentage of their whales – due to international law against hunting them, the gene pool is drying up). According to former trainers (all but one of whom are now activists against orca captivity), no one was informed of Tilikum’s prior issues. The financial benefits outweighed their own personal safety. Blackfish makes the compelling case that not only is housing these animals in small tanks for human amusement wrong, but the organizations doing so continue regardless of the real dangers involved. Killer whale assaults on park trainers are a common occurrence. It should be noted, as the film does, that there isn’t a single report of a killer whale attacking humans in their natural habitat. In the wild, orcas are remarkably intelligent, highly social, emotional mammals with specific cultural constructs and possibly different languages. Snatching them from the water and cramming them into small tank causes a myriad of problems. Raking (where one literally rakes their teeth across the other), confused social orders, sun burns, diseases, etc. make performing at water parks a miserable experience for them. So much so that the average orca lives to be around 30-years-old in captivity, and despite what Sea World may say, in the wild they can live up to 100 years. I wondered when I was younger why the male killer whales I saw at Sea World had collapsed dorsel fins when pictures of them in the ocean always yielded erect ones. Science doesn’t know exactly but damned if it isn’t the perfect metaphor for the orcas’ broken spirit. Much of the live footage in Blackfish is devastating. If you’re not moved by a mother killer whale screaming in pain, desperately trying to communicate with its young as it’s being stolen or moved, it’s time to hit up the Wizard for a heart. The mark of a good documentary is its point-of-view and the knowledge, or at least the impression, that it’s playing fair with its facts. Showing video of Tilikum gushing blood after a female orca raked him is powerful in and of itself, but is Blackfish bending the truth to fit a preordained agenda? That doesn’t seem to be the case. The only real argument for maintaining the water park status quo is financial – Sea World makes too much damn money to knock it off. That this is the issue here is pretty straightforward and obvious because even if Tilikum pulled Brancheau – one of the best trainers around – underwater by her ponytail (he didn’t, he dragged her underwater by her arm, swallowing it whole and mauling her to death in the process) isn’t...