I own a Shamu doll from when my family visited SeaWorld in San Antonio when I was a little kid. I can remember standing next to the massive swimming pool where Shamu performed, jittery with anticipation for Shamu to send a wave over the pool walls to drench the crowd.
On September 9, Sioux Falls’ independent film society, Cinema Falls, screened director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s new, Oscar-buzz-worthy documentary, Blackfish. The documentary presents the story of Tilikum, the largest male orca in captivity, whose involvement in the deaths of three people underlines questionable SeaWorld administrative practices. Blackfish simultaneously highlights the causes of orca aggressiveness in captivity and the serene beauty of the whales in the wild.
Tilikum’s story is both haunting and heart wrenching. His story as a SeaWorld entertainer and breeder begins when whalers abducted him from his family off the coast of Iceland in 1983. One whaler recalls hearing grief in Tilikum’s cries as he was lifted out of the open water. Away from his family, Tilikum was often the victim of violence within the captive whale community when he was growing up.
Blackfish cites scientific research that orcas have brains with advanced emotional centers, and might even develop some sort of psychosis due to their small confines and the separation from their family.
The film shows footage of one orca with blood streaming out of a deep gash in its side due to another whale’s aggression. The film also accounts for instances of whales in captivity killing one another in aggressive acts. SeaWorld claims the whales are in their families, but the assemblages pieced together are too often less than friendly to one another. Furthermore, the film claims no records exist of orcas in the wild being so violent to one another.
Former SeaWorld trainers share experiences of wonder working with orcas for the first time. Many of them entered the industry out of love and curiosity for the animals. SeaWorld hired the trainers to interact with these incredible, 4,000-pound orcas, and the orcas normally perform. Orca jumps. Orca poses. Orca dances. A part of the problem is that the routine never changes, and, even after working hours, the orcas must stay in their small confines.
The film focuses on Dawn Brancheau, a beautiful and intelligent SeaWorld trainer that died due to an “accident” with Tilikum. The film convincingly costance where a whale repeatedly dragged a trainer to the bottom of a pool and where one trainer is body-smashed between two orcas. The footage is hard to watch, but seems to underline a reason why orcas are called killer whales, and evidence suggests SeaWorld is trying to cover up.
Recorded footage of training sessions and successful shows bring evidence of the fun and adventurous spirit that exists in the SeaWorld trainers’ world. Some of the trainers admit to not actually knowing a lot about orcas as animals, but their personalities captivated audiences nonetheless, and their perspective is useful for the direction of the film.
Blackfish lacks an honest response from SeaWorld. However, it becomes clear numerous times that SeaWorld chose not to participate in Cowperthwaite’s investigation.
The documentary effectively highlights the awe-inspiring power of orcas as large, intelligent aquatic animals. I wouldn’t mind seeing an orca family in the wild, but, as the owner of a Shamu doll, I don’t know if I can ever go to a SeaWorld again.