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February 10, 2014

Blackfish

by Anne Paddock

I used to be one of those mothers who took her kids to SeaWorld but I won’t be a grandmother who takes her grandchildren to SeaWorld, the Miami Seaquarium, or any park that holds orca whales in captivity. Years ago, I would watch the seal, dolphin, and whale shows at the SeaWorld in Orlando, laughing at the big tail splash and the human-like learned behaviors but never gave a thought to what the lives of those animals were really like, especially the orca whales. The audience sees crystal blue water, healthy looking animals, and trainers who appear to love them, so not much thought is given to what life is like for a 20-foot 12,000 pound animal who is meant to swim a hundred miles a day in vast open waters but, instead swims in a tank day after day, year after year.

In the recently released (2013) movie, Blackfish, director Gabriella Cowperthwaite focuses on the captivity of killer whales and in particular, an orca known as Tilikum who lives in a tank at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland when he was two years old. Placed in Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Tilikum performed in shows at the theme park until 1991, when a trainer slipped into the whale pool and was forcibly drowned by Tilikum much to the horror of the audience.Shortly after the incident, the park closed (1992) and Tilikum was sold and transported to SeaWorld in Orlando where he has been ever since.

In February, 2010, 40-year old senior trainer Dawn Brancheau (pictured below with Tilikum) was pulled into the water by Tilikum during a show and died. Although SeaWorld and the press reported that Brancheau was pulled into the water by her ponytail, Brancheau was actually pulled into the water by her left arm which was severed along with one of her legs below the knee and part of her scalp, all of which is reported in the movie and documented in the autopsy report.800px-Tilikum_&_Dawn

Blackfish is a controversial movie with critics calling the documentary one-sided. The filmmakers take a strong position: killer whales should be left in the wild – and, whether or not you support that conclusion, the movie does effectively tell the truth of what captivity does to orcas, the extent of “accidents/incidents” and deaths at parks that keep orcas, how the orcas are caught in the wild, and the false information that SeaWorld employees have disseminated to its employees and the public. SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film and although they denounced the film as one-sided, they have not sued the filmmaker.

blackfishTilikum is a cash cow in both his contribution (semen) to further the orca whale population in captivity (he has sired 21 calves) and in his popularity with audiences. So, SeaWorld has nothing to gain by setting him free. But, what struck me most about this film is just how cruel and indifferent SeaWorld is to the pain and suffering of a mother whale when her calf is taken from her, and how easy it seems to blame a trainer for her own death.

Orca whales are beautiful majestic animals with both supporters and critics of the film agreeing these highly intelligent  massive animals are wondrous, affectionate, social, but also unpredictable in captivity, which has led to dozens of incidents and several deaths – all of which could have been avoided if humans left orcas in their natural habitat.

I-Tunes is currently renting the film for 99 cents. Rotten Tomatoes – the film review site – gave the film a 98% rating – a rare exceptionally high score. To watch the trailer, click here.

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