Three years ago, Tilikum, a captive orca at SeaWorld Orlando, killed whale trainer Dawn Brancheau by dragging her under the water and battering her to death. The killing happened in front of a large crowd of patrons who quickly realized that the whale decided to throw away the script and start telling an entirely different story. Ms. Brancheau was in fact the third victim of Tilikum, whose own tragic story encapsulates why we at The HSUS don’t think orcas belong in captive settings.
Now “Blackfish,” a new documentary from Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, may roil the waters further, especially if you are an executive at SeaWorld. The documentary takes a serious look at the events that led up to the tragedy and the role SeaWorld continues to play in trying to whitewash the story and to drive the corporate narrative that this multi-billion-dollar company is on the side of the whales.
Tilikum in a scene from “Blackfish,” a Magnolia Pictures release.
The HSUS long ago sounded the alarm about the dangers of keeping these whales in captivity, including hazards for the trainers, shortened life spans for the orcas, and repeated breeding failures of female captive orcas. David Kirby, in his authoritative book, “Death at SeaWorld,” documented these problems and many more. The book featured The HSUS’ long-time marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose, who has been a critic of keeping orcas in captivity at amusement parks for 20 years.
“Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite brings to the big screen many of the same issues that Kirby did in his book. She interviews former SeaWorld trainers – the people who have first-hand experience of SeaWorld practices and insider knowledge about Tilikum’s history – as her story-telling device.
SeaWorld’s response to the film was that “[Blackfish] appears to repeat the same unfounded allegations made many times over the last several years by animal rights activists.”
You can go see the film and judge for yourself.
But let me close this tease about the movie by noting that orcas are remarkable animals – the largest and most powerful predators in the world. Therein lies the thrill for millions of people throughout the world who buy tickets from SeaWorld to get a close-up view of these creatures and their acrobatics. We understand the appeal, since we at The HSUS agree that it is magical to see them up close. But we remind would-be patrons that there is a price to patronizing these circus acts for orcas: SeaWorld leaders will continue to keep these animals in captive settings insufficient for their physical, social and behavioral needs.
“Blackfish” opens in theaters July 19, and it may prove to be a powerful cinematic tool in awakening the public to the side of the story that SeaWorld doesn’t want to have play out in the United States.
Watch the trailer for the movie here: