I don’t think I have ever watched a more moving documentary. Blackfish caused a momentous stir when it was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013; bent on dispelling myths perpetrated by theme parks using orcas and other cetaceans to make money and disrupting public acceptance of this cruel industry branded as entertainment.
Told from a very different, much more harrowing perspective than the one generically presented by large sea-themed parks, Blackfish exposes mistreatment and ignorance of the needs of beautiful, sentient orcas. It tells us of their devastating losses; loss of freedom, loss of family, loss of an emotionally binding social structure. It demonstrates the ill-effects of boredom at being kept in tiny concrete, barren tanks; their emotional suffering, their aggression, self harm and depression. It introduces us to the reality of the lives of captive cetaceans; pool-transmitted infections, overwhelming psychosis and premature death.
The 83 minute documentary by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes an in-depth look at the life of Tilikum, a bull orca who was the largest killer whale in captivity and was involved in three human fatalities.
Tilikum may have been directly involved in the deaths of three people but the blame for these deaths is laid firmly at the feet of the industry which perpetrated the capture and confinement of wild orcas for the purpose of profit. It also brings into focus the issues around SeaWorld’s intensive breeding programme and the fact that many of their orcas never experience a natural life in the wild, forced to be born, live a miserable life and to die prematurely in small tanks.
Bearing witness to the pain of the orcas you meet during Blackfish’s journey through the history of entertainment aquariums, you see first hand footage of communal grief as their family units in the wild are torn apart when their young are abducted from their pods. It lays bare the absolute devastation of captive orca mothers who cry out in anguish and utter sorrow for their calves which are forcibly removed from their side and sold on, or redistributed, to other parks miles away, never to be seen again. It investigates and questions the confining of non-familial orcas in the same tanks, showing how the language patterns and behaviours of each sub-species of orca are very specific to the pod it was born into and that the result is fighting, aggression and bullying. It asks why ‘trainer error’ is blamed for attacks and deaths at these theme parks.
SeaWorld considers Blackfish to be propaganda and continues to tell its Truth about Blackfish on its website.
In an Open Letter BACK to SeaWorld published on The Orca Project Amy Costanzo refutes the theme park’s attempt to ‘set the record straight’ by revisiting each claim and putting forward a stronger argument against them, outright calling them liars and citing respected journalists and authorities in support of her beliefs. The final line of her postscript warns SeaWorld to stop “blatantly lying” and asserts:
“Anything you say in favour of captivity, we will find facts and evidence to refute”
Back to Tilikum, who’s sad life offers such potent reasons for the move to release captive killer whales back into a natural habitat or at least an off-shore sanctuary. Tilikum was a young bull orca when captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. He was estimated to be around two years old. His first year in captivity was spent in a tank in a zoo in Reykjavik before being transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, an entertainment aquarium in Vancouver Island, Canada.
Orcas naturally follow a matriarchal social structure. As a young male, Tilikum was the lowest of the pecking order, beneath the two older female orcas already in the tank he was to call home at the Sealand of the Pacific park. Not only was he a lower rank, he vocalised a different language and behaved differently to the females. Tilikum was bullied mercilessly by the females and spent much of his time isolated in a small medical pool to where the two females often chased him.
It was during his time at Sealand of the Pacific that Tilikum was involved in the first fatality associated with him, when a young trainer, Keltie Byrne, fell into the pool with the three orcas and was dragged, submerged and drowned in an horrific tragedy in February of 1991. It is not clear which of the killer whales initiated the attack, all three took part.
Less than a year later, January 1992, Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld in Orlando Florida where he eventually became the supreme star of the extremely lucrative, blaringly loud, high energy, aqua-acrobatic Shamu Stadium performances. But at what cost?
In July of 1999, Daniel P Dukes was found dead in Tilikum’s tank. He wasn’t just floating, he was being paraded by the huge bull orca, draped across the killer whale’s back. Dukes had stayed behind after the park had closed for the night and for some unfathomable reason had decided to swim with Tilikum. His body showed signs of extreme violence caused by Tilikum although the autopsy declared the cause of death was that Dukes had drowned.
SeaWorld Orlando was also the scene of the most shocking of the three fatalities associated with Tilikum. Witnessed by Dine with Shamu guests and members of the training team, the death of SeaWorld veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 was caused when Tilikum pulled her into the water, purportedly by her ponytail and drowned her; severing her spinal column, fracturing her ribs and jawbone and ripping the scalp from her head. Brancheau was blamed for her own death by SeaWorld.
Despite all of these deaths, (and the deaths and injuries of many other trainers working with different captive orcas), Tilikum was retained at SeaWorld Orlando and was back performing his high-octane acrobatics by March 2011. Worse than this, he was still being bred from.
To put these deaths into context, there have been no human deaths by wild orcas ever reported.
Blackfish builds on a growing collective of voices who have, over the years, spoken out against SeaWorld’s profiteering on the misery of these majestic, highly evolved and sentient apex predators. After Brancheau’s death in 2010, SeaWorld announced that trainers would no longer have direct physical contact with orcas. Long-time activist; Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee, famously penned an objection on behalf of PETA calling Tilikum “SeaWorld’s Chief Sperm Bank”, questioning how SeaWorld trainers could be ‘hands off’ if they needed to manually extract his semen to continue a breeding programme based on artificial insemination. Although Tilikum sired 21 calves for SeaWorld, less than half survived him.
Lee later requested his band’s rock music be banned from the Shamu Rocks orca shows and other SeaWorld performances alluding to it being cruel to play heavy metal for animals to thrash about to. Animal lover Lee sent his note via People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, it said;
“I am writing to ask you not to play any Mötley Crüe songs at any of SeaWorld’s parks during this sad show. Although we like to torture our human fans who willingly come to our shows, we don’t want to be a part of making innocent animals’ lives hellish”.
The momentum of public backlash grew after Blackfish premiered, a subsequent petition led to many successful music names pulling out of SeaWorld’s 2014 Bands, Brew and BBQ event in association with Busch Gardens. Many celebrity names have spoken out or boycotted the parks, but the biggest impact has been from the ticket-buying public, who have very much voted with their feet as their newly-gained knowledge meant they could not be touched by the plight of captive orcas and hypocritically support the industry through attendance at the shows. What was once considered wholesome family fun has been highlighted as sinister and unrelenting exploitation of the very animal the industry claims to celebrate.
SeaWorld’s massive marketing machine has been running at full tilt to try and defend their aggressive, invasive, breeding programme as beneficial for the species. They continue to bill their shows as educational, raising awareness of an otherwise mysterious mammal. At every turn there are more questions being asked than answered and it is clear that a lot more work needs to be done in favour of orcas being released to their natural wild habitats and not kept circling mindlessly in tiny concrete tanks. SeaWorld has proposed new tanks and new environments in response to widespread criticism, however, at just 350ft long and 50ft deep, they come up way too short for a wild orca who will swim up to 100 miles every day and dive up to 1000 feet.
Tilikum and several other high profile orcas have been subjects of many passionate campaigns, over many years, to free them back into the wild. Tilikum’s supporters hoped to see him released back into Icelandic waters after his 3 decades of captivity. Sadly, Tilikum died in his tiny tank on January 6th 2017. He was an extraordinary orca, majestic at 6.9m long and weighing 5,700kgs. Tilikum’s pectoral fins were 2.1m long and his collapsed dorsal fin would most likely have stood 2m proud if Tilikum had been allowed to live out his life naturally, in the wild. We wouldn’t have likely known as much about him, but he would have been free to swim in long straight lines at speeds of up to 35mph and dive deeply, eat fresh live fish or hunt marine mammals and mate naturally. He would have enjoyed communicating and interacting with his pod in his distinct dialect. Tilikum would most likely have swum beside his mother for his whole life…if he’d been left in the waters off the coast of Iceland.
Want to find out more? Start here on your journey to expand your knowledge on the subject of captivity, orcas and global campaigns. www.emptythetanks.org www.peta.org www.defenders.org/orca uk.whales.org www.bluevoice.org www.wdcs.org theorcaproject.wordpress.com