HotDocs13: Blackfish (2013)


You’ll probably rethink taking the family to an aquatic animal theme park after watching Blackfish. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s incendiary documentary lays out the case against SeaWorld, arguing that it is inhumane to keep killer wales (orcas) in captivity, while also demonstrating that the profitable company has a history of misinformation and suppression about incidents at their parks.

In 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a veteran trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, was killed in an incident with Tilikum, a large male killer whale. Through a series of interviews with former trainers and experts and an extensive use of archival video, Cowperthwaite exposes the considerable history of violent incidents at aquatic animal entertainment facilities. Many of these incidents stems from such facilities’ denial that captivity has an adverse effect on killer whales, making them frustrated, unhealthy, and violent.

In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, we meet a remorseful old seaman who recounts his involvement in an expedition in the 1970s to capture young orcas off the coast of Washington State. I have to admit, I’d barely thought about how exactly these theme park whales were initially acquired, and the facts are hardly pleasant. Suppressing tears, the seaman explains how they isolated a few cows with their young, took the calves, and sunk the dead by filling them up with rocks. The rest of the anxious pod watched on from a distance, visibly distressed.

Most of Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, who has been at the centre of so many of these incidents. Basically, when locked in the equivalent of a bathroom for a human, killer whales understandably become frustrated with each other and their trainers. We see appalling footage of other whales’ teeth marks all along Tilikum’s flesh. After Tilikum killed a trainer at Sealand in Victoria, SeaWorld purchased the whale, suppressed the story, and has used him as a stud ever since. Despite repeated incidents at SeaWorld—most prominently the death of Brancheau—a good portion of the orcas in captivity share this notorious whale’s genes.

After seeing Blackfish, the conclusion that captivity has an adverse effect on killer whales seems indisputable. We see the teeth marks, the floppy dorsal fins. We're told the numbers. Scientists say an orca in the wild can live at least a human’s lifespan, whereas we see footage of a SeaWorld guide explaining how long killer whales live—about 25 to 30 years—but that they live a few years longer in captivity.

The film is less direct, however, about its stance towards the human fatalities and the fate of Tilikum. To be clear, the film is in no way uncaring towards the humans attacked and killed by captive killer whales. But how should we feel? Should such fatalities simply be expected? And what of the whales? Are they like wild tigers, or human slaves? What should happen to Tilikum, who has now killed three human beings? Although one of the ex-trainers who answered questions after the screening explained some of his thoughts on such difficult matters, the film, in its desire to be a broadly convincing exposé, avoids directly engaging with such hard questions. For what it’s trying to do, though, that’s probably fair.

7 out of 10

Blackfish (USA, 2013)

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.