The killer in SeaWorld’s midst
Captivating documentary ‘Blackfish’ uses the death of a trainer at the Florida attraction to examine the wisdom of keeping marine predators in captivity
Blackfish: “I never imagined I’d end up questioning SeaWorld’s practices and entire belief system,” says filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite
In 2010, Dawn Brancheau, an experienced 40-year-old trainer at Florida’s SeaWorld, was killed by the Orlando theme park’s star attraction, a 12,000lb bull orca named Tilikum. SeaWorld officials called it an accident and were keen to identify Dawn’s ponytail – a potential plaything for a killer whale, it was claimed – as a contributing factor.
The tragedy, which unfolded in front of visitors just after a performance of the park’s signature Dine with Shamu show, provides a springboard for director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s gripping new investigative documentary, Blackfish.
“I heard about the story when it was in the news and thought it was so tragic,” recalls the filmmaker. “I couldn’t imagine how a beloved trainer could end up being killed by a highly intelligent animal that she loved and who presumably loved her. That was my image of SeaWorld. I thought it was a happy place where killer whales were happy and would never be driven to kill.”
Watch the trailer - Blackfish
As soon as she started asking questions, Cowperthwaite, who had no previous history of animal activism and had no ambition to make an advocacy film, found herself shocked by what lay behind the glitzy theme-park facade.
“I’m a documentary filmmaker,” she says, “but I’m also a mom who took her kids to SeaWorld. I never imagined I’d end up making this kind of controversial film. I never imagined I’d end up questioning SeaWorld’s practices and entire belief system.”
Brancheau’s death, as the award-winning Blackfish reveals, was not an isolated occurrence. To date, Tilikum has been involved in the deaths of three people. The first incident dates back to 1991 when Tilikum and two female whales mauled and pulled a young trainer named Keltie Byrne to her death. Following Keltie’s death, Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld, Orlando, where, seven years later, the animal was involved in a second fatality. In July 1999, SeaWorld employees found the body of Daniel P Dukes (27) draped across Tilikum’s back, with multiple wounds.
SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, a publicly traded company since last year, has been quick to dismiss claims that its trainers were not “adequately informed about Tilikum”. Blackfish, though, presents various testimonies from former employees to the contrary.
“SeaWorld is claiming now that every trainer gets the quote-unquote ‘Tilly talk’ – that they explain that you do not want to be in the water with this animal; that the outcome is uncertain,” says Cowperthwaite. “However, if they had been open about the details of the previous cases, people would understand that they don’t even have to be in the water to be in danger. Tilikum has the ability to grab a trainer and pull them in much like he did with Dawn.”
Loving marine animals
Each of the SeaWorld trainers tells a similar story about their time at the park: they take the job at SeaWorld because they love marine animals, then, ultimately, they leave the job at SeaWorld because they love marine animals.
“I think that’s right,” says Blackfish’s director. “The experience makes you start to examine what it is to truly love an animal. You can love it up close and want to touch it and imagine that the animal is benefiting tremendously from your touch and your hugs. But with whales, once you learn how much space they need, you know they’re not benefiting from captivity. They swim a hundred miles a day in the wild. They are social animals who need their families, not you. You’re getting something out of the interaction that they will never get.”
Footage depicting the moments just before Dawn’s death – as with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Blackfish cuts away before the violence begins – sees Tilikum behaving petulantly as his bucket of fish gets close to the end. His visible strop soon turns to murderous rage.