“Blackfish” and why I’ll Never to go to SeaWorld Again


Fifteen years ago I sat in an open air auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio.  I was at SeaWorld.  Yes, that’s right, SeaWorld in Cleveland.  There is no “sea” surrounding the state of Ohio, yet SeaWorld had a park there {it closed in 2001}.  I was in Ohio for work, so on my day off, a co-worker and I decided to check the park out.  As we were watching the Shamu show, I had an “Ah-ha” moment.  I distinctly remember looking around at all the people clapping and cheering as the whales did their tricks and I thought how wrong it was.

It was wrong for several reasons.  I was in Cleveland.  A city on a lake.  No sea, just a lake.  Sea life do not live in lakes, they live in oceans {SeaWorld also has a park in San Antonio, Texas}. How did they get the whales and dolphins to Cleveland?  I wondered.  These majestic whales were living in what basically amounts to a backyard swimming pool to them.  They deserved better and in that moment, I vowed never to go to SeaWorld again.

My family had visited both the San Diego and Orlando parks when I was growing up.  I loved SeaWorld as a kid and got very wrapped up in the excitement.  Of course, once I had my own child, my vow of never returning was broken when she was 3-years-old.  I was conflicted knowing how wrong it was.  I wasn’t happy giving this park our money, yet I was enjoying the experience with my daughter because she was having so much fun.

But now, after watching “Blackfish,” I am once again disgusted with the practice of keeping these whales in captivity.  I will say this is one of the best documentaries I have seen not only for its compelling story telling, but also for laying out the evidence in a clear manner.  As is the case, there are two sides to every story and there are a few discrepancies, but overall, I feel the majority of what was presented was the truth.

“Blackfish” focuses on Tilikum, the largest whale in captivity weighing 12,000 pounds and currently residing in a small tank at SeaWorld Orlando.  On February 24, 2010,  Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in front of several park visitors.  Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite was interested in the reasons a captive whale would kill, and that was how “Blackfish” was born.

The film traces Tilikum’s roots from his being captured in 1982 off the coast of Iceland, to today.  Brancheau was the third person Tilikum killed, and when you learn about a killer whale’s natural habitat and family structure, you realize these animals are not meant to kill. The film talks to whale researchers, scientists, a former whale hunter, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration {OSHA} whale expert, as well as several former SeaWorld trainers.

SeaWorld declined to participate in the film, something I always find suspicious, and after a year of near silence are currently waging a PR campaign to debunk the film.  One can assume profits are taking a hit.  But, I’m not sure how you debunk scientific research such as killer whales living in the ocean versus living in captivity.  One thing that stood out to me was the whales traveling in pods.  These pods are their family and they consist of 5 to 50 whales.   Whales have a complex form of communication and there are different dialects {slightly different language} from one pod to another.

SeaWorld puts several different whales together and basically says, “okay, this is now your family,” and because of the different dialects, most times these whales can’t effectively communicate with each other.  Twelve minutes into “Blackfish” I was crying.  The former whale hunter talks about how they were specifically instructed to only take the baby whales because “shipping costs were cheaper.”  I was heartbroken and furious watching a baby whale being torn not only from its mother, but from its pod.  The mother and all of the other whales in the pod were in hysterics, screeching and crying.  It’s so hard to watch and made me realize what wretched creatures humans can be sometimes.

The other part of the film that stood out to me, were the trainers.  You could be selling popcorn and soda in the park one day, and training whales the next {I stole that from my friend Vanessa}.  But, it’s kind of true.  They didn’t need a degree in marine biology as one would imagine, they just needed to have an interest in the whales.  And that’s what they did, trained the whales to do tricks.  They were never taught about the whale’s natural habits, or the attacks on other trainers.

The trainers love the animals, and they love working with them.  In fact, several of the former trainers said the reason they stayed at SeaWorld was because they wanted to somehow protect the whales.  There truly is a bond between the whales and the trainers.  But, they are gigantic, wild animals who belong in the ocean with their pods, not bonding with humans.

Even though they bond with the trainers, there are risks working with them.  In trying to find the number of trainers hurt by killer whales at SeaWorld, I was only able to find this statistic from Wikipedia.  Nine trainer “incidents” were reported during shows at SeaWorld parks, but I couldn’t find a statistic on how many trainers had been hurt, whether in a show or not.  Four deaths by whales in captivity are reported {one trainer at Sea Land in Victoria, BC by Tilikum {prior to his life at SeaWorld}, one trainer at a SeaWorld affiliated park in the Canary Islands {SeaWorld denies involvement with the park, yet the trainer who was killed received training at SeaWorld}, one civilian who “wandered” into Tilikum’s tank in Orlando, and Brancheau}.    In each of the deaths, SeaWorld blamed the trainers for “trainer error” when they were killed.

Brancheau was originally blamed for wearing a ponytail which was “distracting” to the whale.  This theory was quickly disputed by park visitors who saw that the whale did not grab Brancheau by her ponytail.  SeaWorld then changed the story and said she slipped into the pool, but this has also been disputed.

One thing the film did not do, was talk to Brancheau’s family.   I was curious to know what the family thought of the documentary and SeaWorld.  They recently came out with a statement in part saying they support that the film is bringing to light ethical treatment of animals, but they don’t see the film as a tribute to Dawn because it is not Dawn’s story.  You can read the statement here.

SeaWorld was sued by OSHA who wants to ensure that trainers and whales are not in the water together during performances at the parks.  The judge agreed with OSHA.  SeaWorld is currently appealing this decision.  Why?  Trainers in the water with the whales equal more excitement, which sells more tickets, which means more profits for SeaWorld.  Who’s telling the truth, the documentary filmmaker who presents a compelling look at SeaWorld practices, or SeaWorld a corporation trying to protect their profits?

I’m not an animal activist or a corporate hater.  I am just human.  I am just a mom, and I know right from wrong.

“Blackfish” is currently available on DVD or streaming on Netflix.

For more information or to sign the online petition to free Tilikum to a seapen for rehab, please go to www.freetillynow.org.

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  1. Jennifer Nixon says

    Great blogpost, Angela. I just watched the film last night and I also found it extremely emotional and sad. I remember Tilikum from the Sealand of the Pacific here in Victoria. Both Dave and I recall how the whales there were kept in a pen about the size of a swimming pool. I have also seen orca in the wild – a truly majestic site – and the pens they are kept in at the parks (even by today’s slightly better standards) are a far cry from their natural habitat.

    I’m actually going to show this film to students in my global action class, as well as give them some articles/letters to present Seaworld’s view in an attempt to make it more balanced. It will be interesting to get perspectives from the 13-14 years old I teach. Thanks again for the inspiring blog post and also the link to the “Free Tilly” petition. Take care!

    Sent from my iPad


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