Blackfish

Reviewed by: Julie Bélanger

Blackfish \ Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Official trailer

If you grew up watching the Flipper television series in the 1960s or 90s, you probably developed an affinity for charismatic marine mammals. You may have also begged your parents to take you to a marine amusement park to see dolphins and whales “in real life.” This feature documentary shatters any remaining childhood illusions you might have that orcas are happy performing tricks and splashing tourists. It turns out Free Willy just scratched the surface of the wrongs that captive orcas endure.

Blackfish opens with a call to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, reporting the death of a SeaWorld employee. On February 24, 2010, senior trainer Dawn Brancheau was dismembered and scalped by a bull orca named Tilikum during a performance. The attack shocked spectators, the nation and  Brancheau's fellow trainers. However, the untimely death was not an isolated incident.

Tilikum was captured in 1983 at the age of two in the North Atlantic and sold to Sealand of the Pacific, a public aquarium in Victoria, British Columbia. While he was generally well-behaved, Tilikum and and the other orcas were deprived of food as a training strategy. Bulls typically stay at the fringe of the pod in the wild, and the frustrated female whales raked Tilikum with their teeth, leaving both physical and psychological scars. He could not escape because from 5 pm to 7 am the orcas were kept in a floating steel box that was 20 feet across and 30 feet deep — hardly enough space considering that Tilikum was already 11.5 feet long by the age of two. This abuse and lack of stimulus “probably lead to what I think is a psychosis,” explains Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research. “If he was on a hair-trigger, he’d kill.”

Tilikum was eventually sold to SeaWorld after Sealand of the Pacific abruptly closed in February 1991, when trainer Keltie Lee Byrne fell into the pool and was kept underwater and killed by one of the orcas. While there was no official investigation, eyewitnesses claim it was Tilikum, recognizable by his collapsed dorsal fin. Tragically, Tilikum was kept in similar conditions and the abuse and human injury did not end. In July 1999, he was linked to another death.

Director Cowperthwaite reveals how SeaWorld misrepresents the reality of keeping whales in captivity to save face and sell more Shamu dolls. She also includes highlights of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s lawsuit following Brancheau’s death. And she uses interviews with various experts to explain that orcas are highly intelligent, social and self-aware creatures, and that their mistreatment is akin to human suffering. Blackfish makes for a heart-wrenching watch, but luckily the solution is simple: stay away from SeaWorld.

Reviewer Information

Julie is an urban planning graduate student at the University of Waterloo, focusing on sustainable transportation.

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