Anyone who has ever enjoyed an afternoon of animal entertainment at SeaWorld or a similar attraction will come away from the documentary Blackfish with a new perspective. After watching footage that documents the effects of captivity on killer whales, it’s hard not to think of the words, “animal cruelty.” The documentary film reveals a behind-the-scenes world where this powerful and majestic species is deprived of food and subjected to other inhumane conditions.
The name often used for this whale species, orca, is based on its scientific name, Orcinus orca. The term “killer whale” arose from the fact that orcas are known to hunt other whale species. The name, blackfish, comes from the Tlingit Indian tribe of Alaska.
Blackfish is a documentary that focuses on how captivity affects killer whales and drives them to kill and injure humans. Created and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film focuses much of its story on the whale Tilikum, who has been involved in the deaths of three humans. In his July 19, 2013 article for FilmSchoolRejects.com titled, “Blackfish review: beauty and terror arise from the chlorinated depths,” Rob Hunter described the impact of the film.
According to Hunter, “The film’s most powerful weapon though remains video recordings of incidents over the years involving Tilikum as well as other whales. Most, if not all of the footage has been available online, but that doesn’t lessen their impact.”
The film includes haunting footage that depicts the capture of baby whales. In his July 19, 2013 post for Vulture.com titled, “Edelstein: the killer whales in captivity documentary blackfish is brutal, haunting, and necessary,” David Edelstein described the moment.
“Whales are complicated, intelligent, highly emotional beings. They stick by their mothers for life in family pods. A mother who loses a child will make the kind of sound that transcends species. You hear that sound in Blackfish. You will never forget it,” Edelstein said.
He also reminds us that Tilikum was one such young whale snatched from his mother and his family pod.
A history of violence
There are no documented cases of orcas killing humans in the wild. The situation is much different, however, in captivity. Incidents of whales in captivity killing or injuring humans include:
- February 1991, SeaLand of the Pacific: part-time trainer and University of Victoria marine biology student Keltie Bryne drowned after falling into the orca pool where she was dragged underwater by the orcas. It took several hours before her body could be recovered from the pool.
- November 2006, San Diego SeaWorld: trainer Ken Peters was repeatedly dragged and held underwater by an orca named Kasatka. Peters survived his ordeal, but you can watch how this orca whale incident unfolded in a YouTube video submitted by Wish Wishic. Footage was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
- December 2009, Tenerife, Spain: trainer Alexis Martinez is killed by an orca named Keto at the Loro Parque attraction.
- February 2010, SeaWorld Orlando: the orca, Tilikum, leapt from his tank, grasped trainer Dawn Branchau in his jaws and pulled her into the water. Branchau’s official cause of death was “multiple traumatic injuries and drowning.”
Why orcas attack humans
Why is it that a species without a history of violence against humans suddenly turns into a killer of men? According to Michael McCarthy, the answer is captivity-related stress. In his February 26, 2010 article for The Independent titled, “Should we be keeping animals such as killer whales in captivity?” Mccarthy explains his findings, “They are very social in the wild, they live in closely cooperating social groups with maybe 10 to 20 members. . . ending up in SeaWorld is the orca equivalent of you or me being imprisoned by a lunatic in a cupboard under the stairs.”
McCarthy claims that orcas, whose life-span typically averages 50 years or more, tends to fall to four years when subjected to captivity. He bases his finding on statistics provided by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), which has tracked the 136 killer whales that have been captured from the wild and held in captivity since 1961.
Blackfish opened in the U.S. on July 19, 2013. The film is rated PG13.
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Have you ever attended a whale performance at a theme park? How do you feel about keeping animals in captivity?