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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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The whales shouldn’t be in a water-park environment to begin with, points out an OSHA employee interviewed for the film. (Following Brancheau’s death, OSHA -- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- took legal action against SeaWorld, a case that ultimately ruled trainers must have a barrier between themselves and the whales. SeaWorld is appealing the ruling.) Aside from the obvious issue of cramped space, whale offspring are often separated from their mothers and moved to different SeaWorld locations, while males and females are forced to co-exist in too close proximity, resulting in harmful and sometimes bloody whale-on-whale aggression.

The points are echoed by the slew of former SeaWorld trainers Cowperthwaite interviews. These men and women -- many of whom have all-American good looks (read: blonde and tan), reminding us that the Shamu show industry is an entertainment business like any other -- claim there was considerable effort on the part of SeaWorld to hush up and sweep away any problems related to the highly bankable orca performances. Shamu shows are taped, but those revealing any violent whale behavior were not to be used -- in any cut -- for SeaWorld promotional spots. Tilikum’s past track record, which included the death of a young woman in Victoria, was not shared with SeaWorld employees. Tour guides were given false information to relay to park visitors, such as the average lifespan of a whale, and the occurrence of a collapsed dorsal fin (seen almost exclusively in captive male orcas, such as Tilikum).

“Blackfish” is a prime example of investigative journalism in the often tricky arena of single-issue, single-stance documentaries. It undoubtedly is slickly made, and unafraid to use an emotionally tugging score to accompany its begging-to-be-sensationalized subject. But Cowperthwaite strikes a fine balance between edge-of-your-seat filmmaking -- no one, after all, wants to see a dry film about deadly killer whales -- and thoughtful examination.

What she drags up from the murky bottom are larger points about unnecessary tragedy, corporate ruthlessness, and that bizarre intersection point between entertainment and our delusions of interconnectedness with animals that, for all purposes, should remain magnificently and formidably in the wild.

"Blackfish" airs October 24 on CNN. 


  • 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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