Blackfish / by Irene Mendez Cruz

            When it comes to Orcas in captivity, one of the strongest reference in the collective memory would have to be, the movie Free Willy, released in 1993, as it transcended generations of children and families. It’s a symbolical David and Goliath metaphor, a fight between animal rights and colossal greedy corporations. Despite the ‘disneyfication’ of Killer Whales and the simplistic “bad vs. good” scenario, it greatly contributed to raising awareness on animals in captivity. Because the film was such a success, more than 7 million dollars were collected through donations to build, ‘Keiko’, the real Orca behind ‘Willy’, a more suitable rehabilitation pool, in the hope of releasing him back into the wild once his health improved (Jennie Lew Tugend 2011).

If Willy’s “happy ending” and Keiko’s “happier ending” are either fictional or unique, the way they were captured and imprisoned by humans for most of their lives is the story of every killer whale in any artificial park.  However, some stories around whales in captivity are even more dramatic. Twenty years after Free Willy, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, premiered a critical and non-fictional documentary called ‘Blackfish’ in July 2013. The documentary mainly focuses on the story of Tilikum, an Orca owned by SeaWorld, who is involved in the death of several trainers, including the senior trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Blackfish raises questions about the ethics behind holding large marine mammals in captivity to please audiences. Although it only focuses on the case of Tilikum, the largest captive killer whale in the world, it spotlights the harsh realities and the living conditions of all captive animals. It criticises SeaWorld for not recognising their share of responsibility for Tilikum’s aggressive behaviour and minimising Dawn’s death. It was neither the trainer’s fault, nor an accident that started as a game for the Orca. According to the film, it is the frustrating captive living conditions that lead Orcas to display aggressive behaviour.

Killer whales (Orcinus spp.), also called Orcas or Blackfish, belong to the oceanic dolphin family. Despite its shocking name that comes from the fact that they have been seen in the wild attacking baleen whales, there are no records of Orcas killing humans in the wild. The same about captive Orcas cannot be affirmed. (Parsons 2013, p.167) Keeping them in confined, small tanks is depriving them from the exercise they need for their wellbeing (SeaWorld of Hurt 2015). Also, Orcas are known for being one of the most highly social and intelligent mammals on earth after humans, elephants and some primates. Orcas would normally spend their entire lives with their family in a pod (Parsons 2013, p.169). Although language is assumed to be a unique characteristic of the human race, it has been determined that every pod of killer whales has their own dialect, culture and way of life (National Geographic n.d.). Not only the capturing methods are traumatising for the Orcas, often ending in the death of several adults just to get one calf, uprooting them from their family causes invaluable damage. Putting them in a pool with animals that don’t share the same dialect condemns them to spend their whole lives as “outsiders” suffering from violent and mutual attacks.

According to Blackfish’s perspective it is partly that rough start in life, a lack of exercises and the confined living conditions that has lead captive orcas to frustration and aggressive behaviour.

The logic behind any animals held captive, protected from predators and fed regularly is that it is suppose to lengthen its life expectancy. However, studies have shown that in captivity, the majority of the animals suffer from premature death and serious signs of psychological distress, never witness in the wild. To this day, most orcas that have died in sea parks were under 30, whereas in the wild, females can reach up to 90 years old and males up to 60 (Parsons 2013, p.170). Blackfish denounces the entertainment industry’s line of conduct as their main concerns seems to be monetary instead of focussing on the animals’ or trainer’s welfare. Despite Tilikum’s early signs of aggressiveness, SeaWorld carried on exploiting him for shows and his semen. A breeding program is the ultimate activity that gives any park legitimacy when it comes to finding finance or in front of the public and medias. However, "in a reputable breeding program, rule number one is you certainly would not breed an animal that has shown a history of aggression toward humans. », says former trainer, Samantha Berg (Welsh 2013).

Acting as a wake up call for the public, this documentary has played the role of a darker and more serious successor of Free Willy, raising Tilikum as the symbol of captivity excesses. Since its release, in July 2013, it has had a considerable negative impact on SeaWorld’s reputation as well as on its attendance, which has dropped from 5% to 14% (New York Post 2014). Furthermore, SeaWorld’ stock has sunk of 50%, from 38,32 in July 2013 to 15,77 in December 2014 forcing them to cut the expenses by $50 million(Yahoo Finance 2015). Some of their partners have decided to put a firm end to their agreements, such as the brand Panama Jack, who ended their “Official Sun care partnership”(Sentinel 2014). In a desperate attempt to put an end to their public-relation scandal and reassure their investors, they started the year with a new CEO. They are trying to get around bad press by highlighting through their website their care programs and great investment of $10 million "focused on threats to killer whales in the wild" (Woodyard 2015). SeaWorld claims that they act in the best interest of their animals so they are willing to enlarge their killer whales’ pool. It seems a bit derisory giving that a proposition of law is currently being written. The Orca Welfare and Safety act, commonly known as the “California bill” might completely forbid Orca shows and breeding programs in the future.

SeaWorld denied any allegation of mistreatment on their animals but the numbers suggest otherwise.  Indeed, the captivity of Orcas started in 1961 and to date at least 148 were taken from the wild of which 126 are now dead, at least 44 of them in SeaWorld. Orcas are found all over the world, however Orcas are listed under CITES appendix II: « species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled » (Parsons 2013). Indeed, they are still severely threatened by fisheries, captures for aquatic themed parks, boat strikes, noise and high levels of water pollution. Blackfish aims at shaming SeaWorld for their historic share of responsibility (Stanley M. Minasian 2011) to what the organisation replies that they have never infringed any law. Not infringing the law doesn’t mean not finding ways to get around the law, and outsource their demand to other countries (e.g. Canada, Russia, Japan, China).

In conclusion, althougha top predator in the ocean, humans appear to beone of the main causes of mortality among wild killer whales, which makes us wonder, who is the true deliberate « killer ».

Even though the film, doesn’t give a solution to Tilikum’s situation, it strongly implies that holding orcas in captivity should be forbidden in the future. Director Cowperthwaite left the proposal of concrete and alternative solutions to the public or the activists associations. For instance, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), demanded the immediate creation of a large coastal ocean sanctuary and replacement of real life encounters by virtual interactive ones. Considered by the park’s managers as “extremists”, SeaWorld did not give in to PETA’s demands, and has even plans to expand outside the USA, in the Middle East and Asia (Woodyard 2015).

SeaWorld representatives are not the only ones outraged by Blackfish perspective’ on the industry. Former trainers, who were interviewed for the movie, denounce a manipulation of the footage and of their trust. It is the case of Bridgette M. Pirtle, who describes it as “a piece of cinematic propaganda, [where the] truth has been twisted and coerced to perpetuate a radical message [through] frivolous accusations and fabricated stories craftily edited together » (Pirtle 2014).  The group of former trainers « Voices of the orcas », only accepted to contribute to the movie because they thought it was going to be « more respectable to the memory of Dawn, more understanding of the unique lives of killer whale trainers” (Davis 2014).

It looks like anti-blackfish proclaimers cry conspiracy and put themselves in the victim’s positions, sometimes even blaming the public. Indeed, some claim that, the polemic raised by the film through the Internet is not helping the cause of killer whales in the wild. On the contrary SeaWorld is actively commuted to the cause by inspiring generations of kids and families to protect the natural kingdom. Animal rights’ activist, Chris Sosa also said “the way that the average humans harms animals is not through visiting SeaWorld. A customer could visit SeaWorld every day the park is open for a year and not match the direct negative impact they have on animals during one day of grocery shopping.” (Washington Times 2014). Although SeaWorld blames PETA for their radical solutions and shocking campaigns, they displace the feeling of guilt and responsibility to the consumers.

SeaWorld claims that director Cowperthwaite was only seeking for sensationalism and capitalising on the account of Dawn Brancheau’s dramatic death. For instance, the choice of the film’s poster was not trivial: a black and white orca against a dark background with the caption “Never captures what you can’t control”. In the mind of the public, it links with the cinematographic genre of ‘thrillers’ or ‘horror movies’. In fact, the first scene of the movie is the 911 call announcing Brancheau’s death with this sentence “a whale has eaten one of the trainers”. In the collective memory, it reminds us of the daunting film “Jaws”.

SeaWorld also claims that the film miseducates the public, as it is full of incoherencies. For instance, Blackfish declares that Tilikum’s genes are not suitable for breeding programs because of his history of aggression but that it is his captive environment that led to such behaviour. The argument of “nature vs. nurture” seems to be handled ambiguously depending on what their arguments are (Davis 2014). Blackfish is also accused of using anthropomorphism, playing on the public’s empathy and misleadingly applying human emotions to Tilikum. One could counter argue that trainers do the same when they assert that they share a real connection and a possible friendship with the animal, when the orcas are just having a Pavlovian response and executing tasks in order to get food as a reward.  

Blackfish detractors consider that the ultimate message spread by the film would be to free all the whales, which according to SeaWorld’s experts is an impossible and irresponsible thing to do. Keiko’s case would be the proof of that. However, even though Keiko was never truly released in the wild, at least for several weeks, Keiko was successfully freed in the ocean, which contributed to the improvement of his quality of life (Jennie Lew Tugend 2011). According to SeaWorld, their whales provide a unique opportunity for scientists to study the animals from up-close whereas the study of wild populations is too difficult as killer whales spend much of their time underwater (SeaWorld 2014). One might argue that the quality of the data collected on wild populations would be far more precious. As for the educational benefit, « zoos convince spectators that people are the imperial species – that we are entitled to trap animals, remove them from their worlds, simply because we are able to do so by virtue of our ingenuity” (Malamud 1998). It is not of a good educational value.

It is undeniable that Blackfish had a significant negative impact on SeaWorld’s reputation, and for the first time since “Free Willy”, it is seriously compromising the industry of marine mammal’s themed parks. They might have been the only option in the 1970’s as a family activity and the cheapest way to approach such mesmerizing animals, but today it is no longer acceptable. Rather than teaching children to respect nature, Orcas’ shows are acts of symbolical violence (concept from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu), pure displays of human dominance over nature.

In the light of what we know the recent mortal accidents, SeaWorld must put their methods into question. For instance, they could work hand in hand with experts around the world to create sanctuaries, where captive killer whales could be rehabilitated and retire. Nonetheless, sanctuaries should be considered as a « form of restitution to the animals », never as « a full remedy for the wrongs that have been done to them by denying them their freedom » (Emmerman in Gruen 2014). Rather than capturing non-native species and putting them thousands of miles away from their rightful habitat, I believe people should get their awareness raised on local fauna and flora. Other alternatives, such as whale watching in the wild are more respectful of the animals but they still cause disturbances and therefore must obey to certain morals and animal ethics. I believe wildlife documentaries are far more efficient to raise awareness.