Blackfish is a documentary film that tells the story of Tilikum—the now infamous orca, or killer whale, who dragged, shook and eventually drowned SeaWorld of Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite uses interviews with former SeaWorld trainers and employees, scientists, news reports, court testimony, victims’ friends and family, as well as eyewitness accounts of other human-whale incidents to paint a sad and dark picture of the marine park industry. The film, titled after the Native American moniker for orcas, depicts how trainers were misled about Tilikum’s history—he killed two other people before Ms. Brancheau—and about other orca attacks on trainers. It clearly shows how SeaWorld deceives the public with claims that orcas live longer in captivity (they don’t), that flopping dorsal fins are normal (they aren’t), and that the parks’ animals are in families (they are artificially grouped for convenience and may well be stressed and harmed by it).
Blackfish reveals how animals have been obtained from the wild—one interview with a former captor is particularly emotional as he describes how the remaining wild orcas would hover close and vocalize to young animals who had been recently trapped and removed from the pod. Trainers tell similar stories about captive mother orcas grieving and wailing after a youngster had been removed and sent to another park. The film shows how, despite several close calls and even deaths caused by captive orcas—including one of a young Spanish trainer rammed and crushed by a SeaWorld orca just two months before Ms. Brancheau’s death—SeaWorld failed to protect its employees, putting profits before safety. The investigation of the Brancheau incident by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is covered in the film, with details on how the agency successfully sued SeaWorld for failing to protect its workers. Trainers now are not allowed to get into the water during shows with orcas. SeaWorld has appealed. Again, bottom line appears to be everything. Blackfish shows just how low that bottom line can go.