The executives at SeaWorld must be spitting nails and circling up a wagon of lawyers upon the release of the excoriating documentary Blackfish.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s penetrating and sad look inside the training and treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld and other marine parks delivers such sharp blows to the industry that it would be cruel and unusual should anyone who sees the film actually ever visit one again.
The film opens with an introduction to Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at the SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. who was killed in February of 2010 in front of a full house of park visitors. While the filmmaker spares viewers the entire footage captured by amateur videographers in the audience, we do see her interacting with the star orca whale named Tilikum during that show and right up to the point before her frozen smile turns to screams of terror. She was dragged under the water and, as the autopsy report explains, suffered numerous limb dislocations and internal injuries. Plus, as heard in the 911 call, “He swallowed her arm.”
As horrifying as Brancheau’s killing was, the film reveals that it was not the first death of a whale trainer at a sea park, nor the first involving Tilikum, who was taken from his mother when he was two years old and 11-and-a-half feet long. A brief subplot documents (via the regretful culprits) the horrific process by which sea parks replenish their whale population. Babies are kidnapped from their mothers, who are later heard issuing high-pitched cries that some marine biologists define as grief.
Cowperthwaite also interviews over a dozen former trainers who are often kept out of the loop about incidents where their colleagues in parks all over the world were injured or attacked. They rue their implicit guilt over the SeaWorld scripts they were made to regurgitate that were misleading if not outright false. Yet one ex-trainer doesn’t share his former co-workers’ discomfort. Despite having the same information, he utters without a trace of irony, "What if there were no SeaWorld?" The answers are all on screen.
Blackfish| Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite | 1 hour 30 minutes | Showing at Tivoli Cinemas