BLACKFISH – Documentary Retroview (2013)

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blackfishposterartThe blackfish referenced in this documentary’s title is actually named Tilikum. He is arguably the world’s best known killer whale, or orca, and he currently resides at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Tilikum, who has been captive and on display at the theme park for more than two decades, is regularly featured in SeaWorld’s animal shows at Shamu Stadium. He is responsible for the deaths of three human beings, including Dawn Branceau, a highly skilled and experienced whale trainer who was one of the SeaWorld staffers working most closely with Tilikum until her death in February, 2010.

Archival Footage Provides Behind the Scenes Reality Check

In the documentary, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite uses archival footage — and please note that some of the images are quite grim and terrifying — to chronicle events leading up to and including the terrible attack by Tilikum on Dawn Branceau, and her tragic death.

The film focuses on Dawn Beanceau’s story, noting that neither she nor the other trainers who worked with Tilikum had been advised about the orca’s record of two previous attacks on humans that had resulted in their deaths.

Branceau’s death stunned the water park workers and the local community. Investigations of the incident were inconclusive about exactly what had happened to cause Tilikum to attack, and audience members who witnessed the attack were apparently unaware that what was happening was not part of the trained animal’s performance.

Essentially, Tilikum dragged Branceau into the water from the trainers’ platform at the edge of the show tank, then dove and swam around the tank without releasing her.

Branceau drowned. Her back was broken. Her body had numerous wounds and bruises.

Universal Shock and Response

Naturally, everyone who worked with Branceau and Tilikum was stunned by the incident — and all the more so because Branceau and Tilikum had seemingly had a consistently good trainer-to-animal relationship.

Following Branceau’s death, the theme park defended its interests — and Tilikum — by suggesting that Branceau had been negligent on the day of the fatal accident.

SeaWorld temporarily retired Tilikum — and isolated him in a small holding tank — during the investigation of the accident, but the theme park put him back to work as a performer in 2011. Tilikum is a big earner for the park — not only because he’s a draw for audiences, but also because his sperm is sold for the artificial insemination of captive female orcas.

What Caused Tilikum to Attack?

The official investigation of the incident was inconclusive. However, filmmaker Cowperthwaite includes on camera interviews with Branceau’s SeaWorld whale trainer colleagues and other experts who speak about the severe stress levels that are experienced by orcas and other sentient sea mammals who are kept in captivity.

For reasons of logistical convenience, SeaWorld and similar water theme parks frequently keep captive whales in undersized tanks and other holding areas that are much too small for their comfort, physical well being and mental health.

The orcas are also kept physically isolated from each other, which is particularly cruel because the whales are highly social creatures who normally live in family units and as part of extended communities, and have extremely sophisticated communications with each other.

The small holding tanks also are a hindrance to their instinctual use of sound as a means of determining location. The closed in walls of the tanks amplify sound and the strong reverberations can be very disorienting.

Animal Psychosis

All of these egregious conditions can — and often do — compound each other to produce symptoms of psychosis in captive whales who endure these hideous surroundings for year after year, some of them for their entire lives.

Advocating For Animal Rights

By focusing on the story of Dawn Branceau and Tilikum, filmmaker Cowperthwaite addresses the wider issue of the treatment of whales — and, by extension all wild animals — in captivity and presents a convincing treatise on the need for stricter laws to establish and protect animal rights, particularly pertaining to orcas, other whales, dolphins and other obviously sentient sea creatures who are kept in captivity and on display for the purpose of entertaining human beings.

Experts interviewed in the documentary clearly speak of the egregious conditions in which captive whales are kept by water theme parks that claim to be protecting them while, all the while, exploiting them mercilessly.

In the film, whales are shown being held captive in tanks that are obviously too small for them. The majestic creatures are clearly in discomfort. They are seen perpetually swimming back and forth (in the same way that captive land animals or imprisoned human beings pace back and forth in their cages) in a behavior pattern that indicates severe stress. One expert points out that this kind of containment produces psychosis in the creatures, and that when they’re moved to larger quarters, their behavior is erratic, angry and can be quite aggressive.

Statistics are presented. Another interviewed expert states unequivocally that killer whales, or orcas, have never been known to attack or kill a human being in the wild.

But orcas raised in captivity can’t be released to the wild. So, finding the right place for Tilikum to reside long term is a concern. As long as he’s at SeaWorld or another theme park, he will suffer stressful conditions. There is, it seems, no happy ending for Tilikum — or for this finely made, very moving and quite provocative documentary. If you’re not already an animal rights activist, this film may well convince you to become one. And, you’ll certainly have second thoughts about making SeaWorld your vacation destination.

If You Like This Film, You May Also Like:

The Cove
The Whale
At The End of the World
Born to Be Wild
Water Wars: When Drought, Flood and Greed Collide
Arctic Tale
Winged Migration

Film Details:

Title: Blackfish
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
US Theatrical Release Date: July 19, 2013 (limited)
Running Time: 83 mins.
Location: SeaWorld, Orlando, Florida and elsewhere
Language: English
Production Country: USA
Production Company: Diamond Docs
Distribution Company: Magnolia Pictures
Official Website
Official Trailer

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  • Grim_Chickn

    Great review!! Just one correction. Tilikum, sadly died on January 6, 2017, SeaWorld announced that The cause of death was bacterial infection.

  • Angie

    I like this documentary.
    Watch Blackfish online