Movie Review: BLACKFISH (2013)

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The blackfish referenced in this documentary’s title is named Tilikum. He was arguably the world’s best known killer whale, or orca, and he resided at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he’d been captive and on display at the theme park for more than two decades, and was regularly featured in SeaWorld’s animal shows at Shamu Stadium.

Tilikum 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.

In the documentary, Blackfish, 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 orcas record of two previous attacks on humans that had resulted in their deaths.

Branceaus 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 animals 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.

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 was a big earner for the park — not only because he was a draw for audiences, but also because his sperm was 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 theyre 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 cant be released to the wild. So, finding the right place for Tilikum to reside long term is a concern. As long as hes 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 youre not already an animal rights activist, this film may well convince you to become one. And, youll 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
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Forbidden Lies

Film Details:

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
US Theatrical Release Date: July 19, 2013 (limited)
Running Time: 83 mins.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing content.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
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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