Gabriella Cowperthwaite was inspired to make Blackfish following the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 – the latest in what appears to be a shockingly long list of trainers who have been attacked by captive whales. Her killer was Tilikum, an enormous, beautiful orca who is the star of SeaWorld Orlando’s Shamu show. Dawn wasn’t his first victim, she was his third.
Cowperthwaite tells her story as if Tilikum was a human serial killer, damaged and dangerous. Taken from his mother as a child and kept in a small dark tank in Sealand, Canada, it’s no surprise he grew up angry. Whales, we learn, have much more developed emotions than we do – so you can only imagine how they react to captivity. Tilikum certainly didn’t handle it well – when Sealand closed (after Tilikum killed his first trainer) SeaWorld stepped in, planning to use him purely as a stud. He’s now the proud father of most of SeaWorld’s orcas. SeaWorld kept quiet about his past, even to their vulnerable trainers – young people who had dreamed of working with the whales and didn’t like to ask too many questions.
The footage of Tilikum on the attack is shocking, but nothing that hasn’t been seen before on news coverage. What’s new is the testimony from the Shamu show trainers, disillusioned by the way they were encouraged to treat the animals and furious that SeaWorld never revealed the extent of Tilikum’s past history. SeaWorld are currently fighting America’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration who think it’s a bit mad to continue to let trainers swim with killer whales, but SeaWorld doesn’t seem to think three deaths are enough. Set against the profits from their parks, the lives of the people who work for them seem to represent small change. SeaWorld chose not to take part in the film so it’s hard to get a handle on what they were thinking.
What’s also new – and quite unexpected given SeaWorld’s repeated boasts about its conservation achievements – are the stories about how the orca are treated. Nobody ever really thought they did those tricks for fun, but we now know they do them because if one of them doesn’t, none of them eat. Then they turn on the one who lost them their dinner. One of the scenes where I lost it most was seeing a calf taken away from its mother after learning how close their family bonds are in the wild. Utterly heartbreaking.
This is without doubt an important and solidly made documentary, and one which could well have an impact in the same way that The Cove did – indeed, SeaWorld have given up hoping it will pass unnoticed and gone into damage limitation mode. It’s done particularly well in Florida, pleasingly – actually I think they should show it on all flights into Orlando. Let’s see how many people can put their consciences aside and cheer on the Shamu show after they’ve seen this.
I hear SeaWorld when they talk about saving manatees – I don’t deny they’ve done great work here. But whales are not meant to be in captivity – this isn’t conservation, it’s cruelty pure and simple. Cowperthwaite has raised an issue that we’ve all been turning a blind eye to, it’s time to change that.