Blackfish – Review
Released: July 26, 2013
Reviewed by: Nikki Baughan
While it may be a documentary, Blackfish plays out like a crime thriller—and a fascinating one at that. The ‘blackfish’ of the title is beautiful orca (or killer whale) Tilikum, who has spent virtually his whole life in captivity at the world famous SeaWorld aquatic park. While Tilikum may wow spectators on a daily basis, behind the scenes he has injured or killed several people—and he is not the only captive whale guilty of such crimes. As filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite delves into the story behind these brutal attacks, complete with extensive research and a surprising amount of archive and interview footage, so emerges a captivating and heartbreaking study of man’s delicate relationship with nature.
The catalyst for both Cowperthwaite initial interest in this subject and the narrative of the film is the tragic death of highly experienced SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau was mauled to death by Tilikum in 2010; although the full, horrific details are held back for later revelation, the news bulletins and reactions of Dawn’s colleagues to her death open proceedings. It’s telling that a great many of those interviewed are not only unaware of the full facts of the case, but also completely in the dark about other victims who have suffered the same fate. Sure enough, we learn that SeaWorld spends plenty of time and money attempting to hide these incidents, along with other unsavoury truths about their business.
Some of these emerging truths are genuinely appalling, even for those under no illusion about the profit-making priorities of these tourist attractions. While SeaWorld asserts that conservation is key, conflicting revelations come thick and fast; the separation of baby whales from their mothers; the minimal training required for employees; the lying to victims’ families (one woman was told her fiancé has suffered only mild injuries, when in fact he lay in the local mortuary); the too-small enclosures where frustrated whales fight amongst themselves; the low life expectancy and collapsed dorsal fins that are only seen on captive whales (SeaWorld tells visitors that it’s a common occurrence throughout the species)… the list goes on. The film’s assessment is clear; these killer whales live up to their names only when they are driven mad by the treatment inflicted upon them.
And there is plenty of context to support this theory We hear from natural history experts, who assert that killer whales are passive animals in the wild, and from legal experts, who talk us through the myriad court cases that have been bought against SeaWorld by the likes of PETA. There’s much video and CCTV footage highlighting the whales’ poor treatment and erratic behaviour—the warning signs are there from the outset, even if they are pointedly ignored—and plenty of testimonies from ex-trainers and employees, who seem keen to blow the whistle whether out of guilt or social responsibility.
It’s all smartly and dynamically edited together by Cowperthwaite, who understands that the story tells itself, and that, by the end, there’s no doubt about the motives behind Tilikum’s horrifying crime. The fact that SeaWorld refused to comment—although there is footage of legal representative towing the company line—speaks volumes, and that Tilikum, and others like him, are still performing in front of hundreds of people on daily basis is perhaps the most shocking revelation of all.