Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Running Time: 83 mins
Release date: July 26
Humans often use the vast intelligence gap that exists between themselves and other species as an excuse for their subjugation of creatures great and small, but such reasoning holds little water in the case of the killer whale. The idea of confining these complex apex predators in tanks and expecting them to perform like circus animals just so hordes of higher primates with too much time on their hands can be entertained is a counterintuitive one—of that there is little doubt. But as director Gabriela Cowperthwaite shows, the practice can also have devastating consequences.
Blackfish is a documentary that investigates the events surrounding the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in Florida in 2010. The experienced 40-year-old was dragged into the water by one of the orcas during a performance and met a grisly end—her autopsy report revealed that she had been scalped, her left arm was torn off and that she suffered a lacerated liver, broken ribs and dislocated knee. Eager to avoid any suggestion of random aggressiveness on the animal’s part, Brancheau’s employers insisted that she had brought everything on herself by not acting in accordance with established protocol. Those who knew her best disputed such claims, prompting Cowperthwaite to take a closer look at the treatment of orcas in captivity and whether the act of violence that claimed Brancheau’s life was indeed a once-off occurrence.
Cowperthwaite’s investigation soon focuses on Tilikum, the orca responsible for Brancheau’s death. Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland in the early 1980s while still a calf, and spent some time at SeaLand in British Columbia before eventually being moved to SeaWorld. His life has not been a pleasant one, and he has been involved in more than one human fatality. Blackfish seeks to establish if there is a link between the way Tilikum has been treated and his violent behaviour, talking to former trainers, neuroscientists, behavioural experts, whale captors and witnesses to his ferocity.
The evidence, as presented, is damning. Orcas live in highly complex social structures, and to capture a young calf in the wild and throw him in a tank where he is greeted with hostility from resident matriarchs seems unnecessarily cruel. Eight former trainers are interviewed, none of whom work in the industry any longer. And there is a strong element of deception on behalf of those running these places in that they seem determined to write off any mishaps as accidents. To admit that the mammals’ captivity is impacting on their psychological state and resulting in unpredictable behaviour would invite attention from the federal government, so human shortcomings are routinely cited as reasons for unsavoury incidents involving orcas.
Questions are repeatedly asked of SeaWorld, and its release has brought the company negative publicity. But Cowperthwaite does not examine the history of the theme park or who its owners are, so they remain faceless. Government officials and politicians do not feature either, so it is difficult to gauge what the political climate is in relation to the issue of killer whales in captivity. And no attempt is made to talk to the paying customers who enjoy the shows at SeaWorld—which is surprising for a documentary that clearly frowns on the whole concept.
Blackfish won’t blow anyone’s mind, but Dawn Brancheau’s story—and that of the orca Tilikum—needed to be told. Cowperthwaite cannot be faulted for that.