Blackfish takes a behind the scenes look at Orca [or Killer Whale] shows at marine parks, chiefly those at SeaWorld. The film is framed around the lifespan of one whale, Tilikum. We follow Tilikum from his capture in the wild, through to the present day. Along the way we learn about an industry which shows shocking disregard for both animal welfare and staff safety. Review of Blackfish after the jump.
The film starts with the death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. Dawn was killed by Tilikum, an Orca (or Killer Whale) during a live show at the SeaWorld Florida marine park, in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers. Despite SeaWorld claiming the trainer was killed because the whale drowned her by pulling her under by her ponytail (effectively blaming Brancheau for having such a hairstyle), the truth was the whale was aggressive, and the Brancheau was the unlucky target of his frustration and anger.
In the waters off Iceland, Orcas were savagely hunted for entertainment purposes in the West. Tilikum was such a whale; taken from his mother at a young age and sent to a now defunct marine park in British Colombia. He grew to become the largest Orca in captivity, a star for the otherwise derelict-looking park. However after an “incident”, the park was closed and he was bought by SeaWorld. This is where the story gets particularly disturbing. Despite knowing that Tilikum had a violent past, the park bought him and failed to inform the trainers of his history. Through interviews with ex trainers, those who worked with Tilikum and footage from the parks, we come to learn that this is a very dangerous industry, where profits are given far great importance than safety and failing to fully inform turns out to be common practice.
Interviews with former trainers provide a shocking and candid look into what happens at the parks. Some of the interviewees have become so disgusted with the industry that they have vowed never to take their children to see such shows. They admit to having been naïve and following the company line despite often having doubts; but you can hardly blame them when it’s obvious they were so ill-informed by management. What shone through in these interviews was that while the trainers cared deeply about the animals, the company didn’t care about either of them. Whenever there was a chance to shift the blame or twist the facts, SeaWorld took it. Trying to blame Brancheau’s death on her hairstyle was disrespectful and completely unforgivable.
As well as trainer safety, we learn of the horrifying ordeal that the animals regularly go through. It is not natural for such creatures to be kept in such a confined space, and whales attack each other because they have nowhere to escape when they need to cool off. Footage showing the savage attacks they bestow on each other was extremely disturbing. Most upsetting of all was hearing the sound the mothers made when their children were separated from them, after being sold to other parks. The sound was soul-destroying and reinforces how important the family unit is to these incredibly intelligent and emotional creatures. An MRI scan of an Orca’s brain showed they experience “highly elaborated emotional lives”. Just imagine their pain.
Blackfish both shocks and educates, and it ensures that you’ll never, ever want to visit SeaWorld.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Writer(s): Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres
Runtime: 90 minutes
Blackfish plays at the Sydney Film Festival at the following times:
Friday 7 June, 8:45pm
Saturday 8 June, 12:30pm