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This important documentary was recently released on DVD as well as being shown on CNN, so I am re-publishing this review. The movie has helped a growing movement on behalf of killer whales and against SeaWorld -- which resulted in a concerted attempt to get the SeaWorld float out of this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. The ouster was not successful, but there was traction gained.

The non-fiction feature Blackfish currently in theaters is in many ways a sterling example of summer counter-programming: a success at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter, it now provides a quiet voice of seriousness, an exposé on a serious subject, amidst the usual superheroes and monsters at the multiplex in the hot weather months. It begins, however, rather like a famous summer monster movie, with the mystery of a young woman’s gruesome, watery death, and like that blockbuster, proceeds to pile on clues of just how she died and how many others like her there might actually be. The template I’m referring to is the 1975 thriller Jaws, which together with Star Wars, launched the gargantuan juggernaut of costly, loud, franchise-heavy action pix which dominate the out-of-school season -- so there is a poetic irony in a documentary cousin emerging from the depths to challenge that paradigm. The irony pales in comparison to the tragedy, however;  the genesis  for the making of Blackfish was an actual death, that of 20-something Dawn Brancheau, an accomplished swimmer and trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, who was mauled and dismembered in 2010.

The culprit in Blackfish is not a wild rogue shark but a tame orca or ‘killer whale’, a large male named Tilikum who Dawn knew very well. While much of the file footage in the documentary shows positive, intimate interactions between humans and these giant marine mammals, there is still a very ominous slow build of suspense and horror. Some of the segments feel (unintentionally, perhaps) like the July 4th beach scene in Spielberg’s movie -- a sense of impending doom arises as documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite scrutinizes, in forensic detail, old footage of trainers’ key interactions with killer whales who’d been involved in violent incidents. We soon realize that it is not at all unusual for orcas to attack marine park staff, even with highly athletic trainers who follow protocol to the letter and who, in addition, adore the animals they train.

Ultimately, Blackfish is about more than just one kind of monster. Like the resort-town business leaders in Jaws, there are irresponsible figures in Blackfish ignoring all the evidence of a serious problem  – and prioritizing profit over life itself. Only in this case, they’re not fictitious, but real, and not just a few bad apples, but an entire corporate structure with an institutionalized pattern of lying to their employees and to the public. The documentary shows that SeaWorld’s public statements after the death or injury of its trainers tended to blame the trainers themselves, while maintaining a culture of internal secrecy. For example, a former trainer complains that when she was hired, SeaWorld already knew there had been dozens of incidents of whales attacking trainers, yet this was not disclosed to her. Indeed, it would seem that if SeaWorld really believed their arguments of ‘trainer error’, then they’d go out of their way to show their staff the footage leading up to the ‘accidents’ -- and to painstakingly review exactly what fatal errors their staff ought to take care to prevent. They did the opposite.

Much like the Robert Greenwald documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, this documentary accumulates its accusations of carelessness, corner-cutting, and duplicity on the part of a big corporation until the evidence seems overwhelming. Cowperthwaite builds the case incrementally, conservatively -- she consults marine mammal experts as well as a large number of former trainers, but stays away from potentially incendiary advocates like animal rights leaders. She interviews one apologist  for  SeaWorld as well. And in publicity for the film, she maintains that she tried very hard to obtain interviews with spokespeople from the company -- however, they weren’t willing to participate in the documentary. They waited instead until it was about to open, then sent a letter to film critics calling the documentary dishonest, misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.

It is clear that SeaWorld was not doing its employees any favors sending them into the water with its orcas, but the movie also examines the effects, on the killer whales themselves, of captivity and of training to perform what are essentially circus tricks. The film does not want to make us fear killer whales as a species, the way Jaws made us afraid of sharks, and it points out that there are no reported incidents of orcas attacking humans in the wild. It is more about how they got to be this way, how their misery grew so intense that they felt the need to be violent.

Though other orcas are discussed, Blackfish focuses in particular on Tilikum’s story, as the most complete and the most horrific. Cowperthwaite has been able to unearth a fairly rich biography about Tilikum: from his childhood abduction on the ocean, through his apparent interest in learning and his joy at interacting with people, to his series of fatal assaults on humans. Blackfish becomes a study in the creation of orca psychopathology.

The grief orca families feel when ripped apart, the sensory deprivation the naturally far-ranging animals endure when shut up at night, and many other stressors are eloquently expressed. Experts weigh in on orcas’ advanced intelligence, complex social needs, and how different their normal behavior is in the wild from that seen in a tank; trainer testimony is provided attesting that in these marine parks the animals have been deprived of food or collectively punished if just one among them got a trick wrong; and visual evidence is supplied that whale-on-whale violence, a rare occurrence in the wild, is commonplace when these mammoth beasts are confined together in close quarters.  (One element of captivity that is overlooked, however, is how sonar bouncing back from the tank walls is a form of aural torture.)

Very intriguing scientific information is interwoven into the narrative. The discovery that orcas have an extra part of the brain that we don’t, a part that processes emotion, is fascinating. So is the description of killer whale cultures in the wild and how distinct they are from each other, even down to having completely different languages. Throwing animals from disparate families together, as is the norm in marine parks, is likened to throwing people from different nations together without interpreters. (You could also add that it’s like throwing them together in jail.)

Part of the documentary re-enacts  SeaWorld’s hearings at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over violations of safety law. A federal judge rejected SeaWorld’s position that it should be exempt from these laws; he ruled that a barrier must separate the trainers from the killer whales at all times for the workers’ protection.

This would, however, put an end to a major component of SeaWorld’s activities and the entertainment that they’ve been marketing for years -- so they’ve fought strenuously against the ruling. If the ban holds despite SeaWorld’s attempts to circumvent it, perhaps fewer trainers will be injured. That is hugely important.

Unfortunately, it won’t mean that life for the many orcas SeaWorld owns around the world will improve. The fact that trainers have been killed and injured is just the warning signal that something is very wrong – they are, if you will, the canaries in the gold mine. Blackfish never forgets that.

One particularly striking revelation of the film is how SeaWorld spreads blatant disinformation about the animals it houses -- despite the company’s pretences at fulfilling an educational function.  In order to make what they are doing look less terrible, SeaWorld lies to its staff about orca biology and sends them out in turn to lie to the public. This pertains to the most basic facts about orcas’ life expectancy (SeaWorld won’t admit that it’s less than half the length in captivity than it is in the wild) and about persistent signs of ill-health (because drooping dorsal fins on the animals’ backs are so common at the marine parks, the corporation promulgates the idea that it’s normal for dorsals to droop in the wild -- though others interviewed in the film state categorically this is untrue.)

In short, Blackfish depicts how SeaWorld betrays orca whales by kidnapping them, holding them captive, and mistreating them in the name of entertainment; how they betray their staff by endangering and misleading them, while abjuring accountability; and how they even betray the public, systematically deceiving them about the animals for whom they are supposed to be ambassadors.

The young swimming champs the corporation hires are seen in Blackfish starting out full of energy and enthusiasm, genuinely excited to be working at what they believe to be a fun and noble job where they will get to bond with special creatures. The trainers Cowperthwaite interviewed believed what SeaWorld told them in the early days, believed that killer whales actually enjoyed being in the tanks and performing, believed that this work elevated the stature of the species in the public eye. Many of these trainers now sound as if they are heartbroken -- and as if they came to that opinion in part by watching the orcas’ own broken hearts.

One of the saddest takeaways from a documentary full of lingering sadnesses is how SeaWorld exploits and abuses the positive feelings that many people have towards these impressive, mysterious leviathans. When I saw the film, a toddler sitting next to me had come to see it with his family and ecologist older sister. The little boy was obviously a fan of killer whales, clutching a stuffed orca toy in his arms the whole movie. His mother told me they had just been to SeaWorld two weeks before.  Obviously, it was hard for this small child to process all that cognitive dissonance. What he was a powerful symbol for, however, was another of SeaWorld’s offenses: that they take the fascination, awe and love for animals which children entrust them with and turn it all into dross.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (21+ / 0-)

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” --Margaret Mead

    by Jennifer A Epps on Fri Aug 23, 2013 at 11:33:30 AM PDT

  •  Wow (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Powell, chimene

    I've never been to Sea World, and it did always feels kinda off to me, but this is just stunning.

    Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

    by moviemeister76 on Fri Aug 23, 2013 at 11:47:08 AM PDT

  •  I highly recommend this movie (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Powell, skohayes, chimene, wenchacha

    I saw Blackfish earlier this week. It is well made, moving and powerful.

    Another issue brought up by Blackfish is that in spite of Tilikum having a violent past (having killed a trainer in Vancouver, BC before being purchased by Sea World), Tilikum has been the primary stud for breading Orcas for Sea World. They documented that about half of Sea World's Orcas are direct descendents of Tilikum.

    "Jesus don't like killing, no matter what the reasons for." - John Prine

    by JoeEngineer on Fri Aug 23, 2013 at 11:59:36 AM PDT

  •  It's educational! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elmo, skohayes, chimene

    My in-laws are teachers. When their daughter was young, they took her to Sea World. I guess I opined that it's a shame the orcas are kept in such an unnatural environment. They said, no, it's important for children to see these animals in order to save the animals, or something.

    I hope we're done with the idea that taking large sea animals from the ocean is good for them, especially for the very intelligent mammals.

    The whole story of Tilikum is so sad and infuriating at the same time.

    •  See them in the wild! (5+ / 0-)

      You can go to the San Juan Islands of Washington State. You can see the resident orcas in season right from the shore on the west side of San Juan island.

      We did this last May, and it was absolutely the most thrilling wildlife watching experience of my life. And our tourist dollars went into supporting small businesses in a blue state, rather than to a multinational conglomerate owned by Blackstone Group.

      •  Did you notice if their dorsal fins drooped? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I would appreciate confirmation that they do not in the wild.

        The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right. Mark Twain

        by BlueMississippi on Fri Aug 23, 2013 at 05:36:57 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  No, none of them we saw (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          wenchacha, BlueMississippi, 417els

          And we saw, altogether in our week, perhaps thirty total, both in the superpod of transients and the residents we sighted on another day (the residents and the transients don't mix).

          It's extremely rare to see that in a wild orca.

          We went out on a wildlife watching boat and the naturalist on board was fantastic! You can tell the gender of adult orcas by the shape of that dorsal fin: females will have a curved one, while the males find will be straighter. Young uns have the curved fin until around puberty, when the young males will get a growth spurt and the dorsal fin will begin to shoot straight up (heh).

          The naturalists can identify individual orcas by their saddle patch markings and other identifying characteristcs (like scrapes or notches).  The pod of resident orcas we saw was J pod, also known as Granny's pod (orcas are matrilineal societies).

          If you ever have a way to go and see them, do! I waited about 15 years before it was possible for us, and the trip was everything I imagined and more.

          The San Juan islands do get crowded (and more expensive) in the peak months of June, July and August, but May and September as the shoulder months are good for wildlife watching and free of crowds. We went last May.

          There's a state park on the west side of San Juan island where you can watch orcas from the shore. When we were there, they passed by only about 30 feet from shore. You could hear them exhale. Incredible.

          We had multiple bald eagle sightings, saw river otters, deer, fox (and fox kits), California quail in our yard....oh, it was wonderful. We're dreaming about going back again next spring.

          •  Thank you so much! (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            elmo, BlueMississippi

            I am on my way to Seattle this week with my husband. Our daughter has been working with the Washington Conservation Corps in the Olympic National Park. I'm feeling the squeeze of the trip, but I would love to go on a whale watch for orcas and the like.

            My daughter told us that one day she flew back to Port Townsend with a group in a small plane. Looking down, she saw a large pod of orcas in the Puget Sound. It sounded thrilling.

            I hadn't realized that orcas were snatched away fro Puget Sound to become part of the Sea World circus, but I'm sure it was easy to do so in that area. The film shows a diagram of how the whales with no young split off, to divert the boats following the pod. Mothers and young took off another direction, but were eventually foiled by the planes that gave their location to the men in boats.

            Reading about San Juan Island, I learned about the place on the island where you can see them from shore. I may yet see if we can do this.

            The priority is to see our girl after a year-and-a-half separation. Orcas are a close second.

  •  Saw it last weekend and recommend it. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elmo, jfromga, chimene, wenchacha

    Cinematically, it's no Cove -- but it's a very important story that needs to be heard.

    I grew up in San Diego, but never much enjoyed Sea World (despite many, many visits).

    When Kandu bled out in front of a horrified crowd in 1989 -- attended by her distraught infant and captured on film (enjoy!), I knew I'd never go back, not even to take my children there. (Kandu was rammed by another female orca during a dominance dispute.)

    The treatment of orcas is by no means the only ethical issue at such aquatic animal parks.

  •  whenever animals (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    hannah, chimene, wenchacha

    and especially highly social animals, are removed from normal interactions, deprived of sufficient room to move and live out their biological imperatives, etc.,   they have behavioral problems.

    It happens with the elephants, it happens with horses, I believe it happens with people.  We need to find ways to introduce these anmals so people appreciate the need to preserve their habitats and protect the wilderness in general, but we need to stop killing the animals mentally and emotionally, as well as physically, to do this.

  •  You've expressed it very well (0+ / 0-)

    I haven't seen the movie yet, but have read about it, and your review does the best job of all of them at describing what the movie is about. I feel bad that I went to Sea World and enjoyed the show. Won't go again. These animals should be set free.

    •  Don't blame yourself (0+ / 0-)

      You didn't know.  

      I hope people don't use this as a blame game ("You went to Sea World?  Gaaaasp!  You suck!") People don't like feeling bad about what they've done, so sometimes they'll believe the soft lies rather than the hard truth.  I think that's how it works with declawing:  people would rather believe that it's just a harmless way to prevent scratching, because that's what moneyed interests tell them AND they hate feeling they inflicted torture on their beloved pets. I prefer the non-confrontational "hey, did you know that declawing's actually amputation?"  Same with Sea World: "hey, I sure feel sorry for those poor orcas.  You wouldn't believe what they've been through."  Then people come around to the "oh, that's terrible.  I'll never go there again and tell my friends" on their own.  If that makes sense.  

  •  Thanks for the diary (0+ / 0-)

    I've seen clips, but I'm waiting until it's on TV or on DVD.  I know I'll find it too overwhelming in a theater.

    I do wonder if it was a good idea to bring a toddler, though.  The violence seems like too much for a toddler to take.  I think I'd prefer something more like "I know, honey, I love them too, but I found out they're not happy in those little tanks.  Would you like to see them out where they live in their home someday?"  And then in the meantime, I'd let him "adopt" a wild orca or buy him books or get him DVDs about orcas living the way they're supposed to. He can find out the gruesome details later.

    I hate the way Sea World lies to kids.

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