The Film

“Blackfish” has been making a bigger splash than Shamu since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. The controversial film, directed by Gabriela Copwerthwaite, investigates the prolonged impact captivity has on performance orcas. The film mainly targets the SeaWorld Park’s in their investigation, accusing the multi-billion dollar corporation of lies, cover ups and inhumane practices that are putting both the orcas and their human trainers at risk.

“Blackfish” claims that the capture and breeding of killer whales in captivity is creating a psychosis that is not found in wild orcas. This psychosis is a result of a combination of factors: the small tanks the orcas are enclosed in, the forced interaction between orcas from different pods, an interaction that would never occur in the wild, the starvation of orcas as a training method and the separation of mother and calves. “Blackfish” details how killer whales in captivity are acting out aggressively as a result of this psychosis.

The film uses the 2010 fatal attack of trainer Dawn Brancheau as a main source of evidence for this psychosis. They contend that Tilikium, the orca responsible for the attack on Dawn, is aggressive and dangerous as a result of his captivity. Tilikium was taken from the wild in the 1980s, and he has been linked to two other fatal attacks prior to Brancheau’s death. “Blackfish” claims that SeaWorld was aware that Tilikium was a ticking time bomb, and that they put their employees in life threatening danger by failing to notify them of his documented aggression. They also used him as the main sperm donor for their breeding program, in spite of his troubled past.

“Blackfish” paints a picture of a whale’s life in captivity through exclusive interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, whale specialists and former whale hunters. The film also provides behind-the-scenes footage at SeaWorld parks and various 911 calls.

Perhaps the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes come from footage of baby orcas being captured from their pods in the wild. A former whale capturer admits in his interview that he still has nightmares from the sound of the orca pods wailing around the calf as it is captured. A former trainer also details the sound she and other SeaWorld workers observed from a mother orca after her baby calf was moved to a different park, cries the workers had never heard an orca make before. “It could not be described as anything but grief.”

A SeaWorld of Controversy

While the film has received high praise from critics, activists and viewers, it has also received a lot of backlash from viewers and SeaWorld employees that complain it is misleading propaganda.

SeaWorld chose not to publicly address the film’s claims when it was first released at Sundance. But after CNN picked up the film for wider release, and aired it on their station in October of 2013, buzz about the film began to grow. After numerous musical acts such as Willie Nelson, Barenaked Ladies, and Heart canceled their performances at SeaWorld’s “Beers, Brews & BBQ” Fest in response to “Blackfishs” allegations, it became clear that SeaWorld could no longer ignore the film without having a public relations nightmare on their hands.

In an open letter published to their website, SeaWorld denies the claims made in “Blackfish.” One excerpt reads:

“The truth is in our parks and people, and it’s time to set the record straight. The men and women of SeaWorld are true animal advocates. We are the 1500 scientists, researchers … educators and conservations who have dedicated our lives to the animals in our care as well as those in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned.”

The Oceanic Preservation Society published an open response to SeaWorld on their website, urging audiences to research topics “Blackfish” details and SeaWorld denies:

“SeaWorld can call Blackfish propaganda. This does not make the assertion true. We stand by the film and the truth it tells. We also stand by the brave whistleblowers featured in it.”

The Oceanic Preservation Society believes the truth is in the research of SeaWorld’s separation of mother and calves, the increased health risks and mortality rate of orcas in captivity, and the frequency of injuries both to trainers and orcas while these animals are in SeaWorld’s care.

SeaWorld was caught rigging an online poll from the Orlando Business Journal that asked “Has CNN’s ‘Blackfish’ documentary changed your perception of SeaWorld?” after 54 percent of votes were traced back to a single IP address, SeaWorld.com.

In January 2014, advocates of the documentary were upset when “Blackfish” didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Filmmaker Gabriela Copwerthwaite, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, speculated that the Academy’s decision was likely due to the fact that “Blackfish” didn’t use enough original footage. Cowperthwaite explained, “A lot of times, the documentaries that do well have a lot of original footage, and a lot of the footage in Blackfish is archival… I wanted this to be an airtight document.”

Dawn Brancheau’s family has condemned the film in a public statement made in January: “Dawn would not have remained a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt that the whales were not well cared for.”

Mark Simmons and Bridgett Pirtle, two trainers who are interviewed in the film, have also cited the film as deceiving. Simmons claims “Blackfish” blatantly lies and provides viewers with disinformation. Pirtle thinks that the film exploited a tragedy for their own agenda, however, after the death of her friend Dawn, Pirtle no longer thinks that orcas are fit for captivity and she wants SeaWorld to put an end to their breeding program.

In response to Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2012, OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) recommended that trainers no longer perform in tanks with orcas, citing it as a safety risk. This decision was upheld in court by Judge Ken Welsch, and SeaWorld has been appealing it since.

Just this past month, SeaWorld filed a lawsuit against OSHA. In a press release emailed out by SeaWorld following the suit, they stated: “Evidence compiled over this past year… suggests that Padgett, the OSHA compliance officer who led the inspection of SeaWorld Orlando following the death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau, may have acted with an agenda sympathetic to animal rights activism.”

A new bill in California known as the “Orca Welfare and Safety Act” proposes to make it illegal for performance orcas to be used in California. SeaWorld San Diego is the only park in California that would be affected.

Blackstone, the private equity firm that took SeaWorld public 11 months ago, has filed to sell another 15 million shares this week. It is believed that SeaWorld will buy most of these shares in a private transaction. Yet, SeaWorld denies any financial trouble. They have reported increased park attendance in the past few months, and have managed to book other musical talent for their “Beers, Brews and BBQ”, in spite of the controversy. Despite the animal abuse allegations discussed in “Blackfish,” SeaWorld continues to invest millions of dollars into marine animal research and rescue.

The Moral Dilemma

Amidst all this controversy, finger-pointing and accusations, an important conversation has been taking place, a conversation we have in large been ignoring until now. While animal activists have been protesting captivity for years, “Blackfish” has engaged a lot more people in the conversation. It seems that as our knowledge of mammals continues to develop, the lines we have drawn out are beginning to blur.

The moral dilemma “Blackfish” poses is this, “Can we still justify keeping complex, self-aware, emotionally driven mammals in captivity for our own entertainment, or should our new understanding of these captivating creatures make us change our current practices?”

Orcas establish emotional connections similar to humans.

Just 50 years ago, it was widely accepted that other mammals were not capable of thinking or feeling the same way that people do. We were taught that they were not self-aware, and that they acted purely on instinct rather than emotion. With this mindset, animals didn’t have the ability to be emotionally affected by captivity.

Fast-forward to now, and these beliefs have evolved quite a bit. We now have scientific evidence proving that some animals, killer whales included, do have emotional responses to their surroundings and that they can create emotional bonds with other creatures. SeaWorld has, after all, been capitalizing off of the orca’s emotional bonds with humans for years. “Blackfish” said that isn’t fair.

Whether “Blackfish’s” success will be able to put an end to captive orca practices remains to be seen, but don’t expect the conversation to wane any time soon. Gabriela Copwerthwaite has made it her mission to ensure that it doesn’t—and with a film as gripping as “Blackfish” as her evidence, it’s going to be hard to shut her up.