“Blackfish” will ruin your memories of childhood. Never again will you look back fondly on traveling to SeaWorld and watching the Shamu show, jealous of the kids in the splash zone. After watching the documentary you’ll more likely go down the black hole of the internet, reading the Outside Magazine feature that inspired the film and not stopping until you’ve done more research on killer whales than a fourth grader writing a science report. Of course your ire won’t be directed at the creatures in the pools that used to seem so giant at SeaWorld; instead, it will be targeted toward those running the parks and obscuring the truth from both the public and its employees.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish” begins with a recording of the disturbing 911 call after the 2010 deadly attack by Tilikum. The majestic orca was the star at Sea World Orlando before he attacked and killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. From there, the film rewinds to the ‘70s, revealing how the mammals were brought to SeaWorld and other marine parks. In what is only the first of the documentary’s many brutal scenes, “Blackfish” revisits the capture of several young calves at Penn Cove as they’re separated from their families. One of the divers who participated, John Crowe, reveals that it wasn’t only the animals who were traumatized as he forced the babies away from their mothers. The dive still sticks with the grizzled man decades later, and it has left its mark on Tilikum as well.
Before going to SeaWorld, Tilikum was held at Canadian park Sealand Of The Pacific, where he first attacked and killed someone. From there, he was taken to Orlando’s SeaWorld, where his trainers were misled about the incident at Sealand. Several incidents happened in Orlando, culminating in the death of his trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The truth behind the previous incidents was hidden from the trainers at SeaWorld but the park’s former employees are eager to share their thoughts, particularly given Brancheau’s esteem within the community and SeaWorld’s eagerness to blame her for her own death. They tell horrific stories of both the poor conditions the orcas were held in and the abuse heaped on Tilikum by the dominant females he was penned in with at the park. At 12,000 pounds, Tilikum outweighs the average killer whale by 4,000 pounds, but he is still bloodied by other orcas, adding to the stress and pain of captivity.
With a straightforward, compelling approach, “Blackfish” effectively pleads its case against SeaWorld and similar parks. It succeeds not just because of the gripping footage and troubling stories of the spectators and trainers close to the incidents, but also because it consults experts in the field who offer insights into killer whales’ biology and psychology. The film demonstrates that orca are complex creatures with tremendous capacity for emotions and connections. These bonds are shown in the deep connections and relationships with the trainers, as well as in the family units present in the wild. As detail after detail about their capture and captivity emerges, “Blackfish” establishes that the emotional pain animals like Tilikum experience in environments like SeaWorld are the primary reason for the park violence. While the film shows an orchestrated, patient attack on a seal, we’re told that no killer whale has ever harmed a human being in the wild.
There are few movies that can change the way you see the world in 83 minutes. If “Blackfish” is seen by enough people, it has the power to affect attendance at SeaWorld. It’s tough to imagine anyone still being able to enjoy the park after seeing Tilikum’s drooping dorsal fin, scars and the loss of human life. [B+]