At a very young age, I fell in love with killer whales. Sounds oxymoronic, right? But killer whales, also known as orca whales, are historically friendly, gentle and loving creatures that live with their families for the entirety of their lives. When in the wild, they have blissfully swum alongside humans, with no whale-human violence ever reported in the wild. But I stress the word “wild.”
Magnolia Pictures’ documentary “Blackfish” takes a grimmer look into the lives of present-day killer whales, noting that these wild, gentle creatures can turn violent towards humans when kept in captivity. The documentary depends on eyewitness accounts from fishermen who captured the whales and former SeaWorld whale trainers, as well as real-life footage of killer whale attacks, sparing the audience only some of the gore.
Even the gore that is included, however, is not the point. Even while creating a vivid representation of how killer whales can live up to their name, “Blackfish” does not focus solely on how dangerous these creatures in captivity can become. Rather, the film identifies why these animals lash out so aggressively at their human trainers. The true villains in “Blackfish” are not the animals themselves, but the organizations that would prefer dead trainers to losing whale entertainment revenue.
Tilikum, the “Blackfish” protagonist, is a prime example of a gentle animal turned killer by captivity, as portrayed by the film. “Blackfish” follows Tilikum from his capture in Iceland to his short time spent in a small carnival-like aquarium where he killed a young female trainer. Tilikum is later documented during his time in SeaWorld where a man wandered into his tank and met his death, and finally when a female veteran trainer was horrifically murdered while performing with him.
The documentary explores the abuse Tilikum faced from other whales, showing the scars covering his body, as well as his abuse in captivity, displaying the small pen where he was left for hours at a time. Tilikum is the film’s tragic tale, as trainers who previously worked with Tilikum explain that they pitied the whale, whose brain shows that he experienced similar emotions to those of a human, and that SeaWorld kept this extraordinarily large male whale mostly as a breeding animal, in order to literally birth more revenue.
While other entertainment organizations are addressed, SeaWorld comes out as the most prominent whale dealer. Despite years of insisting trainers are safe in the whale tanks as they perform impressive jumps and dives, “Blackfish” displays just the opposite. The documentary incorporates a scene where a veteran trainer is repeatedly dragged underwater by the whale he was, only moments ago, performing with. It even includes stomach-turning footage of a well-loved trainer’s final few minutes with Tilikum before being killed by the whale she had worked with for years. The documentary even includes her gruesome autopsy. It becomes very clear, after seeing this footage, that SeaWorld is not telling the whole truth. SeaWorld declined to contribute or comment in the film.
Though the documentary was released in U.S. theaters in July 2013, its popularity grew recently when it was added to Netflix’s Instant Play. It has also been shown repeatedly throughout the year on CNN. As the film gains popularity, SeaWorld takes more hits in its stocks and ticket sales. While SeaWorld insists the decline was a result of weather changes and poor holiday timing, it seems plausible that the continued downward spiral is a result of the film. Large bands, including the Barenaked Ladies, have announced that they will no longer play at the venue, saying the film contributed to their decision to cancel the February tour date.
While the buzz surrounding “Blackfish” has reached a new height this month, this is not the first time the public has piped up in opposition to orca whale captivity. The 1993 film, “Free Willy,” which launched my love with this endearing creature, spurred a flurry of concern for the massive, family-focused whale. Keiko, the whale who played Willy in the movie, was released into the wild via the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation and lived for five years in the wild before his death. However, this movement occurred in a time before social media and online petitions.
Many have now demanded a boycott of SeaWorld, some even calling for the release of all whales currently held in captivity. I doubt that this is the end of the battle to save the killer whales, but “Blackfish” certainly gave them a good start.