Blackfish: a heartbreaking plea for a species’ freedom


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Orcus orcina, also known as the killer whale. While the name suggests violence, it relates instead to the Roman god of the underworld. Besides, the orca is more closely related to the snubfin dolphin than its blue, sperm, or baleen namesake.

The image we associate with them is that of the glossy creature, black and white, and graceful, streaking through the ocean, or maybe peering at us through the glass of a tank. In the latter case, it’s easy to forget that, Free Willy or not, the “killer” whale is still an apex predator; like the human being, it sits at the top of its respective food chain. As such, it’s hardly unforeseeable that problems might occur when we pen them up for our amusement.

Sermonizing aside, Blackfish makes a good case that a billion dollar corporation like SeaWorld, which benefits enormously from the captivity of killer whales, might have something of a vested interest in controlling the public perception of orca-human interaction. Case in point: the events surrounding Tilikum, a male killer whale – or bull – captured off the coast of Iceland at around three years of age, who’s been involved in the deaths of three human beings.

The 9/11 call in which a supervisor intones inexpressively about the “dead person at Seaworld” (though, in all fairness, shock could be a valid explanation) is juxtaposed with glossy commercials featuring the iconic creatures soaring majestically through the clouds. As testimony from a collection of former trainers reveals, however, the freedoms allowed a killer whale in captivity are heartbreakingly slight.

From their diverse and passionate accounts of how they became SeaWorld trainers to guilt they feel now over their involvement with the organization, these in-depth interviews go a long way towards drawing back the curtain on the SeaWorld brand, revealing the callous self-interest that motivates people to separate an emotionally complex creature from its mother (orcas otherwise remain with their parents for life) and the consequences of keeping them enclosed (the more dominant orcas often become aggressive and with nowhere for the others to escape…).

As someone’s who’s attended Seaworld, though not for many years, Blackfish was very much the destruction of an illusion, showing how the love and affection of the trainers is no panacea for the loneliness and possibly madness that killer whale captivity entails. Along with the outrage that should accompany the documentary’s revelations, there’s an elegiac feel to it; a real sadness.

For all its emotive weight, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite pieces together a fact-driven condemnation of SeaWorld’s apparent apathy and cover-ups. From an interview with one of the crew responsible for capturing killer whales out in Puget Sound, Washington, in the ’70s, herding them with dynamite then picking out the young ones to the attempt to portray the deaths of two trainers, Keltie Byrne and Dawn Brancheau, as being down to “trainer error” (the mutilated body of an intruder was also found in Tilikum’s tank one morning – his genitals had been eaten), the evidence is certainly damning.

It’s a mostly one-sided argument, but, for all the court transcripts and recordings, a single statistic stands out: in the wild, the dorsal fins of less than 1% of male orcas are collapsed, despite SeaWorld’s claim of one in four; in captivity, it seems almost all suffer from it, Tilikum included.

Presenting a black-and-white take on the case against killer whale captivity, this documentary is a plaintive call, though what for exactly is never made clear (perhaps simply understanding). While scenes of happy crowds cheering as a trainer is propelled through the water by their killer whale buddy may be alluring, Blackfish reminds us that a frail human body in a tank with a pent-up, 10,000-pound ocean predator is a recipe for disaster, to say nothing of the cost to the creature itself.


Here’s an interview with the director that delves more into her motivation for making the documentary

and here’s SeaWorld’s rebuttal to the film’s allegations and the crew of Blackfish‘s counter-rebuttal:

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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