Starring: Samantha Berg, John Hargrove, Dave Duffus
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story”)
Written by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story”) and Eli B. Despres (“City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story”)
Like many who were born and raised in San Antonio, I spent a large portion of my childhood at SeaWorld. Its charm was always irresistible. Everywhere you looked there was a form of sea life that was completely unique and special – the humor of the sea lion shows; the highflying acrobatics of the dolphins; and, of course, the lovable penguins. The true spectacle, however, are the killer whales. The sight of an animal so large, yet so graceful is truly something to behold as it flies through the air and close enough to splash water on those patrons brave enough to sit in the “Splash Zone.”
Ah, yes, the pageantry of SeaWorld is so immense and captivating, it’s easy to forget how truly defiant of nature it really is. How many of SeaWorld’s visitors stop to think about how incredible it is to be in the 100 degree heat in a landlocked South Texas theme park, watching an enormous mammal far from its home, doing tricks for adoring crowds day after day? Surely these whales didn’t take a wrong turn only to wind up at SeaWorld via the River Walk, so how did this majestic show come to be? In “Blackfish,” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite implores viewers to take a closer look at the park that has entertained millions for years and give viewers the full story of how these creatures became reluctant performers.
A key element of the film is the story of how the whales came into SeaWorld’s possession. Cowperthwaite makes use of an impressive amount of footage dating back to 1970 of the capture and transportation of whales to show how the park was able to find the stars of its shows. What makes the footage really hit home is interviews with one of the remorseful captors as well as with experts in the field who explain the natural habitat and how orcas embrace the family unit. While the current conditions at SeaWorld are vastly improved over the initial SeaLand of the Pacific Park in Canada, “Blackfish” effectively shows that the space is still confined compared to the vast seas these animals are plucked from.
“Blackfish” is also largely about Tilikum, the stud of the SeaWorld whale population and the largest orca in captivity. While known for his gargantuan size, he is perhaps best known as the whale responsible for the deaths of three people over the span of 22 years. Showing his prison-like holding space in his younger days and his isolated, yet more open space currently at SeaWorld, there is plenty of footage documenting Tilikum’s treatment throughout his life, including his tendency to lunge after trainers. The case of special note was the death of senior trainer (and noted safety stickler) Dawn Brancheau, who was brutally killed in an incident with Tilikum in 2010. Through old news footage, absurd court transcripts, and statements on television from SeaWorld officials themselves, Cowperthwaite shows how SeaWorld instantly blamed Brancheau for her own death with explanations that were unfounded, at best.
If there is a message that experts and ex-trainers alike try to get across in “Blackfish,” it is not only how smart, evolved and capable of feeling emotion killer whales are, but how they are relatively friendly creatures that have never been known to be aggressive towards humans in the wild. The psychological damage of being torn from their families and held in captivity, Cowperthwaite suggests, could be the reason for their attacks on trainers. While it’s a topic that Cowperthwaite could have spent a little more time on, “Blackfish,” in its finest moments, is still a stirring indictment of the practices and ethics of SeaWorld. While agenda driven, Cowperthwaite is able to sidestep manipulative emotion wringing by presenting actual recordings, educational knowledge from experts, and fantastic interviews with former SeaWorld trainers who are now speaking out against whale training practices. It might not make you cancel that trip to SeaWorld this weekend, but “Blackfish” is well-packaged, exceedingly informative, and worth watching just to get a behind the scenes look at how these whales and animals are transformed from mammals enjoying life in the open ocean to a source of entertainment for the price of admission.