'Blackfish' - Documentary Exposes the Shittiness of SeaWorld
The hauntingly brutal nonfiction film Blackfish focuses on those leaping, frolicking, seemingly happy-go-lucky (even dolphin-esque) whales in captivity in places like SeaWorld, where every so often they’ll crunch down on a foot or arm and drag someone under until he or she drowns. And then you glimpse something wrong — something monstrous and unnatural — in this picture. And once you do, you won’t be the same.
The film begins in 2010, when esteemed 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a whale named Tilikum before a horrified Orlando SeaWorld crowd. The incident was generally viewed as a freak accident. The first wave of reports said that Brancheau had slipped and fallen into the water, the next (the version SeaWorld still stands by) that Tilikum had gone for Brancheau’s inappropriately dangling ponytail.
But this was — by all credible accounts — a savage attack. Tilikum had killed before, once at a place called SeaLand in Vancouver, once (possibly) at SeaWorld in Orlando. (The problem is that no one could prove what had actually happened to a disturbed man who’d snuck into SeaWorld after hours and was found in the morning on Tilikum’s back, naked and dead.) The big fella remains at SeaWorld, by most definitions psychotic but a source of million-dollar sperm to make more orcas for more lucrative fish shows. What’s an aquatic theme park without a killer whale?
This is one of those docs during which audiences gasp and cry out — or just cry — at regular intervals. Sometimes we cry for the humans, sometimes for the whales. After the prologue that alludes to Brancheau’s fate (we must wait more than an hour to hear the full story), director Gabriella Cowperthwaite cuts to a burly, bushy old guy who took part in a 1970 expedition to steal baby whales from their mothers to supply the burgeoning fish-show industry. The man is an ex-mercenary who claims to have toppled presidents. But what he can’t forget are those whales.
Orcas, you see, don’t part so easily with their children. Cowperthwaite animates what happened while a researcher narrates. The males attempted to divert the human predators while the females and children swam the other way. A brilliant diversion — spoiled by a spotter plane that relayed the whereabouts of mothers and children.
Whales are complicated, intelligent, highly emotional beings. They stick by their mothers for life in family pods. A mother who loses a child will make the kind of sound that transcends species. You hear that sound in Blackfish. You will never forget it.
Tilikum was one of those young ones snatched from his mother.
Former Orlando SeaWorld trainers recall the anguish of mothers losing children (SeaWorld would ship babies to other parks), the excruciating solitary confinement of orcas like Tilikum, and even how males’ dorsal fins, erect in the wild, would sadly go limp and curl over in captivity.
Those ex-trainers are riveting subjects, chiseled and eloquent. And traumatized. Editor Eli Espres will cut back and forth from their tearful recollections to footage of their younger selves, smiling and spouting their insipidly hearty SeaWorld spiels. I loved listening to curly-haired Samantha Berg (now living at the opposite end of the U.S. — in Alaska), Dean Gummersall (especially cretinous as a SeaWorld spokesman in his early days, now appropriately and likably embarrassed), John Jett, and especially the weathered, sardonic Dr. David Duffus. But I shouldn’t single anyone out—they’re all compelling. They all came to love those whales, even Tilikum, driven mad by isolation and regular attacks by the tag-team torture of formidable mama whales. There was no place else for him to swim.
The movie unfolds like a thriller. We see trainers seconds away from their deaths — which are not, mercifully, shown. But the near-deaths are shown and are awful enough. Top trainer Ken Edwards is repeatedly pulled under by a whale (not Tilikum) that will not let him go. It went on for twelve agonizing minutes.
SeaWorld officials declined to be interviewed for Blackfish, but there are transcripts from an OSHA hearing (wittily animated) suggesting that the company’s Kelly Clark lied about her connection to a park in Spain’s Canary Islands where a young trainer was torn apart. The whales came from SeaWorld.
For the record, SeaWorld has sent a letter to critics calling the movie’s allegations “inaccurate and misleading.” In the space of a minute, I’d spotted two places in which it totally mischaracterized the information in Blackfish and one in which it contradicted several of its employees (who were filmed surreptitiously spouting the company line). SeaWorld conceded nothing, nada — I’m surprised it didn’t dispute the movie’s 83-minute running time. Writer David Kirby, who isn’t in the film but wrote a book called Death at SeaWorld, issued a point-by-point refutation and called the letter “one of the clumsiest, most ill-advised acts of corporate crisis-management in decades ... Think New Coke.”
Blackfish doesn’t get into the subject of dolphins in captivity. That’s another can of fish. But you can extrapolate. It would be heartening beyond words if all cetaceans were someday gone from parks like SeaWorld. But that won’t happen without a hell of a fight. And trainers who go on record decrying what they’ve seen will likely be blackballed.
It’s true that the number of whales in captivity isn’t huge. But they’ve now become the mightiest symbols of our cultural hubris — of our inability to manage creatures we have the power to capture and imprison. It’s a metaphor for the ages.
I saw the previews to this and it was kind of shocking. I'm sure SeaWorld is doing everything it can to make sure people don't see it.
I'm curious -- why is it called "Blackfish" if whales are mammals?
The Cove is horrible. And by that I mean what it documents, not the actual film itself.
It sounds very interesting OP but it also sounds too heartbreaking for me to watch. I'm not good with stuff like that.
I agree with the biologist in the article at R2. Captivity may have served a purpose at one point but it is no longer necessary.
The cove was horrifying! I still see the blood and have nightmares!
Two things to keep in mind about cetaceans. One, these are animals that in the wild have a range of literally thousands of square miles. No matter how big a tank one can build, keeping them in captivity is like keeping a human in a tiny cell for life. And two, they have self awareness. They are not stupid, they KNOW what is happening to them.
And r8, they are all so beautiful in the wild
R9 You are so right. A few years ago a bunch of us went to Sanibel Island. They have this big speed boat there that takes people out and the dolphins ride and leap in the wake. It was amazing! For one thing, you get to a lot closer to them than if you were sitting in some big arena. We got to see a mama dolphin swim and do jumps with a baby dolphin. It was far more enjoyable than watching them do stupid tricks and jump through hoops. They were having as much fun as we were, and when it was over, they got to swim off and be what they are meant to be, wild animals.
Careful, OP. the tl:dr troll is out there in all her twitterized glory.
Thanks, though. Interesting.
SeaWorld is a creepy organization all around. I've been to the one in San Diego - the exhibits seemed ok, but the shows were just horrible: full of phony patriotism and a lot of Up With People type cheering. It wouldn't surprise me at all if SeaWorld's owners were arch conservatives.
what's a tl dr?
too long: didn't read
tl;dr is when confused, dim bulbs feel overwhelmed when they see they may have to read something that is longer than four sentences.
Guess who usually feels overly taxed by such a proposition?
Hargrove is on Bill Maher tonight and he is hot as fuck.
Leave those sea creatures where they belong. They're not pets, they're not toys, they're not supposed to be hugged or ridden on. Christalmighty, I'm surprised incidents like this don't happen more often?
R17, that picture of him doesn't do justice to how hot he looked on Maher's show last night.
Here he is on Overtime (although he never got a chance to speak) . . .
Sorry - maybe you have to be an HBO subscriber. I'm sure Overtime will show up on Youtube soon.
Now I'm in the mood for Sushi.
The last time I met up with family at Sea World in Florida I chose not to attend the killer whale show and waited outside for them. It is painful to watch them knowing how sentient these animals are.
Hargrove is gay for those who did not know.
The guy on Real Time came off as a bit of an idiot.
Blackfish is going to be shown on CNN October 24th and various times. Please watch it. Even if you can suppose that Seaworld has only good intentions towards these animals, it is important to know that there is no way that a captive environment for an Orca, that can normally swim 70 or more miles per day, can ever come close to replicating their natural environment. And Orca and Dolphins are part of a very structured family and social structure and even in the wild, when separated from that due to an accident or something, they don't thrive on being alone. But the forced social structure at Parks like Seaworld don't work well, because Orca primarily live and socialize only with family and they don't live compatibly with Orca from other social structures.
Please watch the film and if you like it, read "A Death at Seaworld" and writings on the subject by journalist Tim Zimmerman.
Blackfish even has some eye candy in the form of John Hargrove. You can see a video of him performing aerial stunts at Seaworld on youtube. He is gorgeous and he offers one of several insider viewpoints on Seaworld and orca captivity in the film.
Thanks for the tip, R30. I'll be sure to watch it on CNN.
R32, your reply would have been brilliant if R13's post wasn't three months old, already answered three months ago, and if we hadn't already seen that lmgtfy link show up a thousand times. Just fuck off.
I see R33 doesn't know how to use Google either.
The plight of these animals in captivity is very sad. They are prisoners, who have committed no crime, but are sentenced to a watery prison for profit and entertainment. The premise that the marine parks help us study them may have made some sense 30 years or so ago, but we have exhausted what we can learn from them in captivity. To use that argument would be like saying it is valid to get a good assessment of human behavior by only studying those who are incarcerated. A person in a 9x9 cell will not give you much useful data, and nor will an Orca in a tank on the scale of a bathtub for their body.
I urge you to not pay money to go to these captivity parks, and if you have even a slight interest in helping these animals, watch The Cove ( with a big box of tissues) and watch Blackfish, Read A Death at Seaworld and Tim Zimmerman's article about Tilikum.
Blackfish is on CNN this Thursday. If you have ever been to a marine park, or are considering a trip to one, I urge you to watch this. Using animals for entertainment purposes is "old school". Hopeflly we will soon arrive to the conclusion that outside of conservation efforts, research into the animals and effects of environmental pollution, etc, and preservation of endangered species, we should be working to reduce the number of animals kept in cages, or in environments that don't even attempt to mimic the natural environment. For cetaceans, captivity will never be adequate because these animals naturally cover up to 100 miles per day and no captive environment will substitute for that.
if interested, this is on TONIGHT, CNN at 9 Eastern time. I think it repeats again at 11
I'm not an animal rights-type, but even I would never support Seaworld. I think it's ridiculous to make these creatures do tricks as if they aren't impressive and majestic enough just doing what they'd naturally do. I don't know how any moron says they want to work there because they love whales; that's like someone wanting to become a rodeo clown because they claim to love bulls.
So fucking sad. Fuck all these bastards.
Separating a baby whale from its mother is just about the most evil thing you could do.
The descriptions of the mother screaming for her baby was heartbreaking.
Jack Hanna is an asshat.
Take off your fucking Hat Jack
And shut your mouth because you sound ridiculous
I wanna know who drew the short straw to jack off Tillikum. That was quite a scene. Orca porn.
Okay, I had my DVR set to record this but it only recorded for one hour even though it says the documentary is 80 min?? What's up with that? Should I just rent it from Netflix? I don't want to watch one hour and be left hanging.
I hate people.
Fuck you Fuck you Seaworld!!!!!!!!
Seeing monkeys in zoos is just as heartbreaking. These are highly aware and emotional creatures. Keeping them caged is fascistic.
Don't those people including Jack Hanna who are supporting Sea World ("and by the way, I don't work at Sea World") know how stupid they sound, especially to an audience that just watched BLACKFISH?
"The trainers aren't in danger....oh, and if they were they want to be there anyway - like Indy car drivers.... If it wasn't for Sea World millions of people wouldn't be able to see the whales up close and we wouldn't know anything about them...."
Seaworld attendance is gonna plummet
Let's hope so.
What worries me about this is, what if radiation in the Pacific causes sea life there to go extinct? There are dozens of stories about fish washing up dead recently. Diseased seals in Alaska and Canada. Recently, some type of very large, deep sea fish was found washing ashore dead. What if some idiot decides to dump these animals back into the equivalent of the sea holocaust? They'll die along with all the others.
I'm no fan of Sea World either, but people are in such denial over the deaths of sea life in the Pacific, they pretend it's not happening. Where will they go if Sea World closes? Can they fend for themselves? Is the a water sanctuary in the ocean?
Wish I'd caught this on CNN yesterday. I'm going to Netflix it.
SeaWorld makes me mad because there really are other ways to introduce the public to marine life. A place like Monterey Bay Aquarium, in contrast, is actually doing something about conservation and education and looks at species in context. Check out Saving Otter 501 which was recently on Nature. Sorry.. getting off topic.
The bottom line is SeaWorld needs to be shut down.
Anyone have insight as to why whales do sometimes beach themselves, especially in groups? What is going on there?
Tilikum is a serial killer.
And the guy he killed - first he took stripped him and bit off his dick.
An extra "took" in that post....sorry.
And after reading a bit more - it seems he didn't bite off the entire dick, just one ball....
Thank you for pointing this documentary out, OP. They totally should close SeaWorld. White trash fraus and their broods can go to Disneyland instead.
Sea World is kind of like freak shows in the old days- people back then didn't understand why it was wrong to display human beings as freaks, but they do now.
It shouldn't be that hard to understand why it's wrong to kidnap incredibly intelligent animals, separate them from friends and family for the rest of their lives, and keep them imprisoned for life.
The "freak show" era is long over, why can't we understand that it's not okay to have animal freak shows either?
This is an horrific story. I feel the same way about keeping birds in cages. The need to fly is innate in birds. Even one that has never been out of a cage will suffer because its natural behavior is being stifled.
We can be cruel, selfish bastards!
Just watched this. Powerful and sad. SeaWorld should be shut down.
On a superficial note, one of the former trainers, Jeffrey Ventre, is a hot daddy.
How did they keep the video of the most recent fatality from going viral? Everyone there must have had a camera running.
R68 there is one video on youtube that is the moments leading up to the death. I guess no one else did have a camera running, and SeaWorld has managed to keep their internal video from leaking.
Blackfish Convinces Musical Acts to Cancel SeaWorld Performances
Heart, Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies have all canceled.
I was in San Diego last month with some friends and we did the Zoo, the Safari Park, and some things in Balboa Park, but I bailed when they went to Sea World. And the ironic thing is that one of them is an uber-animal-lover type. (I didn't see the movie, but the previews were enough to prevent me from ever going to Sea World again.)