As readers of the blog will know, killer whales in captivity are a subject close to my heart and my articles ‘Tilikum’s Tale’ and ‘Death at SeaWorld’ are probably my two most linked and visited, even though the first is at least a couple of years old now. It just goes to show that this is a subject that is certainly going to keep getting people’s attention for some time to come.
I was very lucky to be able to attend the European premier of ‘Blackfish’, a new documentary that opened at the Sundance London Film Festival on Thursday. Produced and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a self-confessed mum who took her kids to SeaWorld, but also a documentary film maker who won’t leave a story alone, she presents a perfect blend of emotion-led first hand stories and make-up-your-own-mind sequences that left me stunned by their raw beauty and power.
I have been waiting for this film for over a year, but even then, my expectations were exceeded on every level. The truth is told with a delicacy that is hard to fight, although I’m sure SeaWorld will try. The result is a message as graceful and as powerful as the animals at its centre.
I don’t want to give too many details of the film away, as I really want to encourage you to see it when it is released here in July. Please make every effort to do so, you won’t be disappointed. But if you are familiar with the book by David Kirby, then many aspects of the story will not be new to you and there are just a couple of things that I want to mention and underline.
One of the biggest emotional hit-points was the story of Katina, a female Orca who was separated from her calf, who is taken to another SeaWorld facility at the age of 4. As is explained in the book and the documentary, in the wild killer whales usually form a lifetime inseparable bond. As it became clear that the high pitched screaming sound the mother whale is constantly making is in fact a long distance searching call, the sobs and gasps of the audience could be heard clearly. What was shocking in the book is so instantly disturbing and moving to experience visually.
Kasatka, a female who has repeatedly had calves removed from her at early stages also has a history of taking her frustration out on her trainers. The now gone viral footage of her attack on trainer Ken Peters is shockingly portrayed in the film and is all the proof you need that these animals are their own boss.
As has now become known, Tilikum has in all likelihood killed three people, two of whom were trainers. Many former trainers are interviewed in the documentary and their stories and reflections are heart-wrenching to say the least. I think that their bravery in coming forward and telling the truth is something that makes them real heroes and could lead to real change, but more importantly, I think their need to tell the story is born out of an injustice SeaWorld inflicted on their slaughtered trainer, Dawn Brancheau, when they blamed her for her own death. Maybe SeaWorld have grown too used to being able to twist the facts when they know the subjects of the falsehood can’t defend themselves, but to blame Dawn is clearly something that has produced a far greater outcry amongst her loyal friends and former colleagues than the previous deaths.
From what I’ve seen and read, it becomes less and less likely that Dawn was grabbed by her ‘over long’ ponytail as SeaWorld first suggested. Given Tilikum’s proximity to Dawn moments before the incident, it seems much more likely that he grabbed her by the arm as the eye-witnesses claim.
The breakfast with Shamu show prior to the incident and Dawn’s death make up the end chapter of the documentary and I would do it an injustice to go into details about it, but as former trainers lend their eye and expertise to what happened almost frame by frame, it becomes clear that Tilikum responds to what SeaWorld call ‘negative reinforcement’ during the show. Tilikum is the largest killer whale in captivity, almost by half. I’m not sure how confident I would feel in trying to exert my dominance over a 12,000lb 23 foot male killer whale, and I’m pretty sure I’d be put right not long after I’d tried in any case. We have no explanation why SeaWorld think it’s okay to try. I hope this film is successful, I hope the former-trainers who came forward are championed, supported and vindicated where necessary and I hope that killer whales in captivity become a thing of the past.
Gabriela explains that she would love to see this film brought to schools and to children, and again I really hope she is successful in doing so. It is just one of those films that needs to be seen.
If you are thinking of going to SeaWorld, maybe watch this film first with your children and then ask them if they still want to go. Ask yourself if you do. Then ask Google if there is a whale watching tour operation you could go on instead. Nothing compares to seeing these animals in the wild, and their natural behaviours are far more exhilarating. The animals live nearly three times as long in the wild, the males have full dorsal fins as tall as a man and you’ll never go to a marine park like SeaWorld again. Believe me, I know!
Thank you Sundance for bringing Blackfish to the UK and thank you Gabriela for making it and doing the story such justice.