One of the most harrowing film sequences you are likely to
see this year is in “Blackfish,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s gripping documentary
on SeaWorld’s captivity of orca whales, and the lethal consequences that have
arisen from keeping this awesome species in cement pools for the enjoyment of
water park visitors. (The film airs on CNN October 24.)
In the sequence, we watch 2006 footage from a SeaWorld Shamu
show gone stomach-turningly wrong. Near the end of a “performance,” an 8,000-pound
killer whale drags its trainer to the depths of a tank and holds him there for
approximately a minute. The whale then brings the man back to the surface and,
moments later, drags him down again. The horror continues this way for minutes
— which feel like years.
The trainer in question, Ken Peters, we learn is both an
experienced orca trainer and deep-sea diver, a background that ultimately saves
his life as he refuses to panic, but instead pets the whale as it holds his
foot in a vice-like bite. He practices ventilation techniques during the few
seconds he’s brought to the surface, and eventually is released and able to
swim to safety. Thankfully, director Cowperthwaite edits this footage, and we
aren’t forced to watch it uncut.
Other trainers from SeaWorld haven’t been as lucky as Peters.
The focus of the film stems from the much-publicized death in 2010 of Dawn
Brancheau, a young woman who was drowned and mangled by a whale named Tilikum. Incredibly,
this wasn’t the first time Tilikum had attacked and killed a water park employee. So how
did this massive animal end up in yet another amusement venue, as the star of a show where he was in constant physical contact with his human trainers?
Cowperthwaite isn’t out to make “Jaws.” (She does include a couple of clips from 1977’s “Orca,” however.) There is no animal demonizing here. Instead, SeaWorld is in
the hot seat. Beginning with the history of orca captivity in the 1970s,
“Blackfish” traces how a species which, in the wild, has shown zero hostility
toward humans, could evolve into such a dangerous and unreliable predator in
The whales shouldn’t be in a water-park environment to
begin with, points out an OSHA employee interviewed for the film. (Following Brancheau’s
death, OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — took legal
action against SeaWorld, a case that ultimately ruled trainers must have a
barrier between themselves and the whales. SeaWorld is appealing the ruling.)
Aside from the obvious issue of cramped space, whale offspring are often
separated from their mothers and moved to different SeaWorld locations, while
males and females are forced to co-exist in too close proximity, resulting
in harmful and sometimes bloody whale-on-whale aggression.
The points are echoed by the slew of former SeaWorld
trainers Cowperthwaite interviews. These men and women — many of whom have
all-American good looks (read: blonde and tan), reminding us that the Shamu
show industry is an entertainment business like any other — claim there was
considerable effort on the part of SeaWorld to hush up and sweep away any
problems related to the highly bankable orca performances. Shamu shows are taped, but those revealing any violent whale behavior were not to be used — in
any cut — for SeaWorld promotional spots. Tilikum’s past track record, which
included the death of a young woman in Victoria, was not shared with SeaWorld
employees. Tour guides were given false information to relay to park visitors,
such as the average lifespan of a whale, and the occurrence of a collapsed
dorsal fin (seen almost exclusively in captive male orcas, such as Tilikum).
“Blackfish” is a prime example of investigative journalism
in the often tricky arena of single-issue, single-stance documentaries. It
undoubtedly is slickly made, and unafraid to use an emotionally tugging score
to accompany its begging-to-be-sensationalized subject. But Cowperthwaite strikes a fine balance
between edge-of-your-seat filmmaking — no one, after all, wants to see a dry
film about deadly killer whales — and thoughtful examination.
What she drags up from the murky bottom are larger points
about unnecessary tragedy, corporate ruthlessness, and that bizarre
intersection point between entertainment and our delusions of interconnectedness
with animals that, for all purposes, should remain magnificently and formidably
in the wild.
“Blackfish” airs October 24 on CNN.