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Review: Killer Whale Doc 'Blackfish' Exposes the Deadly Side of SeaWorld

by Beth Hanna
October 23, 2013 1:41 PM
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One of the most harrowing film sequences you are likely to see this year is in “Blackfish,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s gripping documentary on SeaWorld’s captivity of orca whales, and the lethal consequences that have arisen from keeping this awesome species in cement pools for the enjoyment of water park visitors. (The film airs on CNN October 24.)

In the sequence, we watch 2006 footage from a SeaWorld Shamu show gone stomach-turningly wrong. Near the end of a “performance,” an 8,000-pound killer whale drags its trainer to the depths of a tank and holds him there for approximately a minute. The whale then brings the man back to the surface and, moments later, drags him down again. The horror continues this way for minutes -- which feel like years.

The trainer in question, Ken Peters, we learn is both an experienced orca trainer and deep-sea diver, a background that ultimately saves his life as he refuses to panic, but instead pets the whale as it holds his foot in a vice-like bite. He practices ventilation techniques during the few seconds he’s brought to the surface, and eventually is released and able to swim to safety. Thankfully, director Cowperthwaite edits this footage, and we aren’t forced to watch it uncut.

Other trainers from SeaWorld haven’t been as lucky as Peters. The focus of the film stems from the much-publicized death in 2010 of Dawn Brancheau, a young woman who was drowned and mangled by a whale named Tilikum. Incredibly, this wasn’t the first time Tilikum had attacked and killed a water park employee. So how did this massive animal end up in yet another amusement venue, as the star of a show where he was in constant physical contact with his human trainers?

Cowperthwaite isn’t out to make “Jaws.” (She does include a couple of clips from 1977's “Orca,” however.) There is no animal demonizing here. Instead, SeaWorld is in the hot seat. Beginning with the history of orca captivity in the 1970s, “Blackfish” traces how a species which, in the wild, has shown zero hostility toward humans, could evolve into such a dangerous and unreliable predator in close quarters.


  • Brian | October 23, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    Just for the record, ORCA (1977), directed by Michael Anderson, produced by Dino de Laurentiis and starring Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling, with music by Ennio Morricone, did not demonize killer whales. The killer whale was the GOOD GUY in that film. The humans were the bad guys. It was the anti-JAWS.

  • Beth Hanna | October 23, 2013 4:30 PM

    Thanks for your comment, Brian. I changed the wording. The "Orca" clips Cowperthwaite uses in "Blackfish," and where she places them, seemed to suggest the whale was a demonized killer/eating machine, a la "Jaws."

  • Nyssa | July 18, 2013 10:31 AMReply

    This needs to be edited, Tilikum was never used in water work at Seaworld. You ask the question why was he used in routines where trainers would "swim with him, ride atop him, and balance on the end of his nose..." This never happened. They had protocol specific to Tilikum, because of his history, that prohibited trainers being in the water with him. The trainers however were not fully informed as to why these rules were in place.

  • Beth Hanna | July 18, 2013 11:46 AM

    @Nyssa -- Thanks. Fixed.

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