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Sundance Review: ‘Blackfish’ Ensures You’ll Never Go to SeaWorld Again

Sundance Review: 'Blackfish' Ensures You'll Never Go to SeaWorld Again

Nobody from SeaWorld agreed to an interview for “Blackfish,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s searing take on the theme park’s mistreatment of killer whales and the dozens of deaths that have resulted from it. Instead, the majority of its subjects are ex-SeaWorld trainers frustrated by the negligence they witnessed up close and willing to speak out. Nevertheless, based on the evidence on display in “Blackfish,” Cowperthwaite’s case against SeaWorld would change little with an opposing point of view. The movie makes a strong case against the captivity of killer whales under sub-circus conditions, but the stance is made even more horrifying because so little has changed in the history of the organization. “Blackfish” is less balanced investigation than full-on takedown of a broken system.

Cowperthwaite’s framing device is the February 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was ripped to shreds by the notorious Tilikum, a whale responsible for two other deaths along with other human injuries since getting captured in the early 1980s. However, “Blackfish” tracks countless other incidents across several decades of orca whale training, all of which coalesce into a stinging assertion that SeaWorld both relies on animal abuse and carelessly puts its employees in constant danger.

It’s one thing to hear disgruntled former employees and activists complain, but “Blackfish” draws much of its disturbing power from a plethora of video documentation showing various attacks. In every case, the aggressive whales initially strike their naive caretakers as well-adjusted beings. “I liked to think the relationship was about more than fish,” says one former trainer. It’s that presumed two-way bond that enables trainers to justify their work; the ongoing contrast between footage of grinning young trainers hopping about with whales and the tearful reminiscences they provide for the camera provides a devastating critique of the aquatic animal business.

Cowperthwaite threads recollections and archival footage together into an engrossing overview. However, because “Blackfish” barely exists in the present moment — aside from an epilogue, the story begins and ends with the 2010 tragedy — the limitation prevents it from injecting its story with the immediacy that the filmmaker clearly strives to obtain. Still, “Blackfish” forms an effective case against the entire institution of SeaWorld by placing it in a terrifying historical context.

Flashing back to 1970, the movie tracks the initial Washington state attack in which SeaWorld hired fishermen to illegally kidnap infant orcas from their mothers. This well-documented event takes on particular gravitas in a contemporary account provided by one of the fishermen from the hunt, a man wrecked by guilt as he recalls his order to hide the accidental deaths of several whales by loading their carcasses with rocks. His candid admission stands in for the lack of similarly forthcoming SeaWorld bureaucrats.

As a work of journalism, “Blackfish” delivers a pretty damning condemnation: No clandestine maneuver on SeaWorld’s part could possibly discount the destructive impact of orca captivity proven herein. The documentary’s title, a reference to a Native American name for the animals, points to the majestic, reverential authority they assert in the wild, a freedom drained when they get stuck in claustrophobic tanks. “Try spending most of your life in a bathtub,” someone says. “See if it doesn’t make you a little psychotic.”

The pile-up of anecdotes and rants make SeaWorld’s entire operation look criminal. However, “Blackfish” often repeats the same assertions in its various cases of deadly incidents, deadening the argument by its final third. But even when it has already established the main line of attack, the movie retains its accusatory tone with good reason.

To justify the ex-trainers’ profound empathy for the orcas, Cowperthwaite includes scientific proof of their intelligence, including a brain scan that demonstrates their “highly elaborate emotional lives.” The evidence piles up in the fragments of images and factoids, including the distressing bent fins that afflict many captive whales and the assertion that no known incidents of attacks against humans have been recorded in the wild.

Because it involves the abuse of intelligent sea animals, the easiest point of comparison in the documentary arena is the dolphin slaughter documentary “The Cove,” but a more relevant precedent of recent memory is “Project Nim,” where an ill-fated attempt to domesticate chimps leads to the realization that you can’t tame nature. “Blackfish” hails from that same school of thought, making the unsettling case that SeaWorld’s live acts of entertainment are in fact a expensively veiled form of torture.

Criticwire grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering in competition at Sundance, “Blackfish” is sure to stir up controversy and a response from SeaWorld. Its news hook guarantees it can generate widespread conversation and stands to perform well in theaters with a distributor capable of playing up that discussion.

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Blackfish is a joke. It dwells on the past and gives a biased look at captivity. After its 15 minutes of fame are over and all the pc people see it and update their facebook statuses to join the cause they will forget about it and go back to their happy lives and the same few angry peta activists will continue their ridiculous fight while 12 million people continue to visit seaworld as they do yearly now. Lmao at this film.

Justin Case

"Flashing back to 1970", wow that's 43 years ago. I have so many questions, let's begin. Why does it matter if there is no fatally documented wild attack? Can you find one for tigers? How many people have tigers killed in zoos? Are whales more important than tigers? Is a death or two in 50 years really that bad? Is it still captivity if the animals were born there? Should dog breeders be arrested? Should people be allowed to have pets? If I release my dog into the wild and he dies am I responsible? Is it still captivity if he comes back on his own free will? Can you prove without a doubt that insects such as ants, or bees are less intelligent than dolphins? Do you lose sleep killing 15,000 animals when there is an ant-hill on your lawn? Didn't think so…


There is some video of the death of Sumar at SeaWorld San Diego on YouTube:

"Killer Whale Dies at SeaWorld – Raw Video – September 7, 2010"

Lisa Pagano, Graham WA

Glad you gave this movie an A. I was starting to think your writing was going wrong. This is just the surface, more will come and people will change. Keep up your good writing, please be on the whale's side!


Hi there. Just recently found out about Blackfish and just read the assertions from Sea World. I see a very complicated problem here. First, it is not natural for animals to be in captivity, and anyone who believes that are just in denial. Secondly there are rules that must be upheld or the parks shut down. On the flip side, however, education and up close and personal experiences that the parks and zoos provide help us become aware of the beauty of not just whales but all animals. The oceans and forests are being depleted and destroyed by the human race and very soon the only place to see these animals will be at a zoo or an aquarium. I, for one, at that point, will be very happy that the parks and zoos have spent all these years trying to understand and execute the proper housing of these animals. Because, they will survive the human raping of the natural world. My view on Tilikum is that he should be retired. He is obviously sick of the entertainment industry, and I can't say I blame him! The deaths that have preceded and the deaths that are sure to will follow are tragic on every level. Let's not allow the abusive tendencies of a few (animal or people) darken the beauty of human/animal interaction. I'm sure there are a lot of captive animals who really bond with their trainers and caretakers. Of course it would be better to have these experiences in the wild, but not all of us can. I went to SeaWorld when I was 18, and out of that experience, cetaceans became my favorite animals in the whole animal kingdom. The respect and knowledge I gained from that experience has lasted a life time. I went behind the scenes on that trip and saw the hospital section where they house all the sick animals. I got up close and personal with a Beluga whale. She came over to the edge of her hospital tank and rubbed up against me, she watched me curious. There was no anger or feeling of being trapped in her eyes. I'm saying here that she was loved by her people and she returned that love to a complete stranger she had never seen before. It was amazing. To summarize, I wish we didn't have to have these animals in captivity or any others for that matter, and I feel that if there is abuse it should be aggressively addressed. But, I also feel that in the future, when there are no wild animals anywhere, it will give hope and imagination to the coming generations who will have no animal experiences outside of a park. For the animals, well, who wants to live in a pool? But, rather that then not exist at all. Again, I want to reiterate that I do not agree with animal captivity, but I cannot ignore the value of what they are trying to do.


what does tilikum get out of this?


This documentary is full of misleading lies with an agenda. It's obvious when it follows the opinions of former trainers which have been let go by SeaWorld.


Can't wait to see the film and show it to my students and family. We all hope in our lifetime to see captivity and forced performances of cetaceans banned forever.

Laura Hillman

Any one who thinks Sea World does not still have thier hands in the captive industry pie is an idiot. They are called loop holes…most enviromental and animal protection laws have them if not all of them. Really people get your heads out of the sand.

Annelies Haussler

End the cruelty! There is no difference between the exploitation of orcas and other marine mammals for banal human entertainment and throwing captive humans into an arena with wild animals (only this time, it is we who are the "animals").

I am never, ever, ever going to set foot in another aquarium again. Good-bye, Sea World. You've done enough damage.

Lifeforce Foundation

The debate continues about the orca (killer whale) known as Tillikum that contributed to a third human death. This time a trainer at Sea World. In 1991 he and two others caused the death of a trainer at the now defunct Sealand of the Pacific, Victoria, Canada. As with other orcas and dolphins imprisoned in aquarium tanks there is an extreme history of physical and psychological abuse. In this case, during evenings Tillikum and two females were lock up in a steel pen called the "holding module". It measured only approximately 25' x 30' . And it was only 12' deep. Nootka IV was sent to SeaWorld Florida. She died after 12 years of captivity. Haida and son Ky were sent to SeaWorld Texas. Haida died after 19 years of captivity. In the wild, females can live over 90 years. There are many injuries at SeaWorlds and other aquariums – some very serious. Many are not made public and settled out out of court. In 2004 Tillikum's son Ky attacked a trainer. Lifeforce is calling for an inquest into the recent death.
Watch: Tillikum: A Time for Change

Alfredo Kuba


I am a plaintiff in a law suit against Sea World (Shit World) for violating my and others like myself constitutional rights of free speech. Sea World has been doing this for over 22 years now but it will come to an end soon.

Alfredo Kuba

Stripped of their dignities, robbed of their freedom, families and everything that it is natural to them and coerced to do demeaning acts on command. All for greed and to amuse otherwise unintelligent people.


where can i watch "Blackfish" in full?


You can have a glimpse of live in captivity from the point of view of a dolphin (remember, orcas are the largest species in the dolphin family), in my blog entry "Captive"


For those of you saying that this is a dangerous profession that should be banned because it's dangerous. If this is your reasoning, please tell me why we don't ban NASCAR or football, or any other dangerous activity/sport for that matter?


It's interesting reading about Seaworld knowing that they demanded one of their Orcas back from Marineland in Ontario, Canada because they didn't like how it was being kept. Given that Seaworld has a really dark history of animal abuse, I'm not sure if this speaks well(ish)of Seaworld or extremely bad about Marineland. Maybe a little of one and a lot of the other.

Currently, Marineland keeps it's one solitary Orca in a swimming pool. At least the US has rules that they can't be kept in solitary confinement.

I look forward to the day, hopefully in my lifetime, that places like this don't exist anymore and we simply leave ocean and zoo animals where they belong – in the wild.

Christine Craft

Free Tilly!


Amanda | January 21, 2013 12:55 PM Except Seaworld hasn't captured any wild orcas for over 20 years so…there goes your argument…
Actually Amanda, Sea World's 'Loro Parque' in Tenerife have a young wild caught orca called Morgan which they refuse to return to the wild, despite court cases by activists. The only reason they haven't captured any for display in America is the public outcry that would follow there.


How it happened..cant believe….just check


Who's rich? SeaWorld execs. Jim Atchison, CEO made $395,000 last year. James Heaney, CFO made $825,000. Daniel Brown, COO $537,000. Anybody can borrow a Nature DVD from the library, but these guys are convincing you they have a monopoly on "nature" and laughing all the way to the bank.


thats another thing Kirby is a one sided person. the book didint really focus well it was all over the Place. if you ging to talk about seaworld do it right, opening both sides of the arguement Keeping Those who never worked at seaworld out of it. Naomi Rose has nothing to do with seaworld company. Why add her crappy story in? Things like this should be left alone. only a few wild born orcas left and i can assure you they will be there until their deaths in old age and with their current pod. Movies like this and books like D@SW dont do anything people will continue to go to parks and share it with their children. because unlike you, we arent rich here.


Nope, Still going to seaworld, This movie is nothing but another profit builder for the anticap community who continues to drag out the death of Ms. Brancheau for nothing but profit. I hope seaworld sues the pants off you guys for slander

Paul Carry

This is absolutely disgusting! Making money of a person's death and using it against the thing she loved the most. I hope that this movie will flop pathetically just like it deserves to. I wouldn't even think about buying a ticket!

Steve Joven

Really… I think there are more important things going on in the world. Good luck with your tree hugging. I hope this film flops.

john wright

Disgusting, Fascist so called animal activists. So only rich,elitists get to see the worlds animal wonders. Disagree and support zoos and aquariums and wear the wrong type of clothing gets you harassed to no end. Most responsible corporations treat the animals better than some countries treat their citizens. Hopefully the radical activists will remain marginalized and continue to be recognized as nut jobs by the majority of people.


Perhaps most distressing is the fact that one of the orcas captured in the 1970s–Lolita (known also as Tokitae) has spent over 40 years in captivity in Florida, living the life of a slave to entertain people. Her family still survives as part of the federally endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population in the Pacific Northwest, of which less than 100 individuals remain. She lives and performs in the smallest tank in the US–smaller than is currently legal for killer whales. She has been kept away from killer whales for most of her life ever since her wild-caught companion killed himself by bashing his head against the concrete wall of the tank–incredibly sad for a social animal to be kept from others of their species. There is a well-thought-out plan for her retirement to a sea pen where her family lives, and scientists fully support the plan, but the marine park will not let her go, even for a million dollar offer. It's so hard to think of her dying there when her family members are free. There are whales over 90 years old in the population and there is a good chance she could eventually be released from the sea pen successfully. If not, at least she would have room to swim and breathe fresh cool air and feel the rain and hear her native language spoken.

Dyan Kane

I am an animal rights advocate, currently focussed on the issue of the Taiji Japan daily dolphin and pilot whale slaughter, and Taiji 's capture of dolphins for Seaquarims such as Seaworld (sold for $150,000 per dolphin, to the billion dollar per year industry.) If we animal advocates are resourceful, we can all use the evidence in this film alone to finally drive the nail in the coffin and end the tragedy of dolphins and whales in captivity for entertainment and profit, for the very same species (humans) that tore them from their natural and mysterious life in our dying oceans.


Thank goodness this film has come out. Kudos to those standing up against captivity. So many people are afraid to speak out against seaworld who think because they have so much money they can hide their dirty laundry with a few dollars more. Not this time eh?


I have spent years organizing protests outside of SeaWorld and I always sickened by how little the public really knows about this greedy corrupt company. Once you educate them they are horrified by what is going on there and vow to never go again. Most people don't know the facts and this film couldn't have come at a better time to educate the people on the dark side of marine captivity. I hope Seaworld and other marine parks will quickly become a thing of the past.


The trainer killed by Tilikum in 2010 was the third person this whale killed: Keltie Lee Byrne in 1991 and Daniel Dukes in 1999. Three people killed by one whale seems like a lot to me! And there have been plenty of other non-fatal accidents settled out of court by SeaWorld and subject to gag orders. I recommend Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby for an in depth look at how the public display industry fails whales and people.


@Braulio Mendez : They're not talking about humans, they're talking about orcas. Dozens and even more orcas have died in captivity and will continue to die if more are captured or if they're bred in captivity. I recommend you read the first sentence again.

Braulio Mendez

Dozens of deaths? I thought there were only three.


“This well-documented event takes on particular gravitas in a contemporary account provided by one of the fishermen from the hunt, a man wrecked by guilt as he recalls his order to hide the accidental deaths of several whales by loading their carcasses with rocks”
I don’t agree, look at: – Gerry

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