According to the documentary Blackfish, there is no record of a killer whale attacking a human in the wild. They’re only killers in captivity, driven mad by being kept in tanks that are too small. Sometimes they attack each other. Sometimes they turn on their trainers.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite uses the death of Sea World lead trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled underwater and killed by a whale in 2010, as a framing device for this eye-opening expose on the abuse the animals suffer and the dangerous side effects that result. A retired fisherman, now deeply repentant of his former work, explains how the whales are captured (they take babies, not adults, who cry out when separated from their offspring). A slew of former trainers, many of them ex-Sea World employees, reveal how the parks’ managers and lawyers explain away every mauling and death by blaming them on human error.
Much like 2009’s Oscar-winning The Cove, which exposed the horrors of the Japanese dolphin fishing industry, Blackfish is intended to rattle and provoke in the hopes of bringing about change. Although they declined to be interviewed for the film, Sea World executives carpet-bombed critics with a detailed response via email last month, stating the movie is “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate.” But their claims have been widely debunked by a number of scientists and writers, as well as the filmmakers themselves.
Blackfish argues that killer whales have a sophisticated language and a sense of self and family — they even have a part in their brains that humans lack — which is why trainers develop such a strong attachment to them. But they are also unpredictable and aware; one whale attacked its trainer when it realized she was running out of fish rewards. The movie follows the life of a male named Tilikum, who was abused by other whales as a baby and grew up displaying unpredictable behavior. He was used by Sea World as a breeder, which made him worth millions of dollars. Today, 54 percent of Sea World’s whales have Tilikum’s genes, which is a terrifying thought.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
Screenwriters: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres.
Producer: Manuel Oteyza.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 83 minutes. Graphic descriptions of killer whale attacks and animal abuse. Opens Friday Aug. 2 in Miami: Aventura, South Beach, O Cinema Wynwood; in Palm Beach: Living Room.