Blackfish (2013)

Blackfish (2013) movie poster

director Gabriela Cowperthwaite
viewed: 08/25/2013 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

I’d taken the kids to documentaries a couple times before (Project Nim (2011) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)), and I thought that they would be interested in a documentary about orcas in captivity.  But it wasn’t until Clara told me that another friend of hers had seen Blackfish that I realized I wasn’t being all that radical in taking children to a movie about the tragic consequences of a particular male orca who has been involved with the deaths of three humans.

I’d read an article from Outside Magazine about the event of the most recent death, “The Killer in the Pool” by Tim Zimmerman, which was written closer to death.  The killer whale in question is named Tilikum, captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 at the age of three.  In his first long-term home, Tilikum was in Sealand of the Pacific with two female orcas in especially closed confines at night and brutalized often by the dominant females.  When a trainer slipped into the water, the orcas grabbed her and played with her, dragging her under and beating her about until she died.  There were conflicting reports about which of the whales were the most aggressive in the attack, but in the wake of it, the park closed and Tilikum was sold to Sea World.

Being an adult bull, Tilikum’s sperm is worth its weight in gold to the chain of theme parks that have built their empire on the presence of performing orcas.  And the real question for the film Blackfish isn’t just about Tilikum but about all captive killer whales anywhere in the world.

Orcas are long-lived highly intelligent, highly social animals, with large brains highly developed for emotion.  In the wild, the orcas that are born to social pods never leave them, staying with their mothers throughout their long lives.  The taking of a baby from its mother is as traumatic as imaginable and can be seen in the film in clips of captive mother orcas crying out when their babies are separated from them for distribution to other parks.  The wailing is visceral.  It transcends our ability to “understand” these creatures’ communications.

It all supports the idea of trauma that has affected Tilikum throughout his long-tortured captive life and how such experience could lead him to develop psychoses.

It’s not really that different from similar poaching of baby elephants from their mothers, another large, intelligent, highly social animal that has been trained to perform for human entertainment.  While circus animal exhibition has become more and more diminished over years that hopefully have led to understand that these animals are best appreciated for what they are naturally and not what they can be made to do, it certainly raises questions about the continued practice of keeping killer whales in captivity.

The kids both thought that the film Blackfish was “sad”, which indeed it is.  It’s pretty compelling and well-made.  Though Gabriela Cowperthwaite interviews a lot of disillusioned ex-trainers, no one from SeaWorld would be interviewed for the movie.  It’s the challenge of a film like this to try and show “the other side” as it were because anyone smart enough on “the other side” knows that there is no winning in trying to argue your points.  Maybe you don’t have a leg to stand on to being with.  But I am definitely of the mind that orcas should not be kept in captivity.

As a child I once went to SeaWorld Orlando.  Killer whales are remarkable animals, utterly beautiful.  But ones to appreciate in their natural world.

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