Millions of tourists flock to SeaWorld each year to enjoy marine exhibits, lay hands on happily squealing dolphins and cheer as massive Orcas perform aquatic acrobatics at their famed Shamu shows. Orcas and their trainers seem a perfect team, showing the beautiful relationships that humans can cultivate with animals.
That’s what most tourists see when they pay the price of admission. Over the years, a few unlucky arenas full of children and marine enthusiasts have gotten a more brutal, and perhaps more honest, look at that relationships when performing animals revolt, maiming or killing their trainers.
As it turns out, spending your days swimming in a small pool, waving your flippers at a crowd and hauling humans around a tank may not be so rewarding. What happens when a multi-ton animal has had enough? Tilikum, SeaWorld Orlando’s 12,000-pound Orca who lived in captivity since the age of three, killed three people.
Is Tilikum a bloodthirsty beast biding his time until the next kill? Or is he a wild animal driven to near psychosis by his living conditions?
No matter how you answer that question, you may be interested to know that Tilikum is still swimming circles in his Orlando pen, performing in the occasional show.
Why? He’s worth too much to euthanize.
Blackfish is a stunning, troubling documentary about Tilikum and other killer whales that have lived and performed in captivity. Think of it as an outrageously depressing version of Free Willy. The film argues that a combination of ignorance and willful cruelty has made these sensitive and intelligent animals dangerous to themselves and others.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (City Lax) exposes both mercenary practices that have led to the deaths of several whales and the people and marketing campaigns that put a happy face on the animals’ existence. She expertly cuts together tourist footage of animals performing with bleeding wounds, trainers being attacked and court testimony from OSHA’s lawsuit to stop SeaWorld’s slipshod practices.
Packed with interviews from former SeaWorld trainers, Blackfish looks at the culture of misinformation that leads to trainer deaths. To make the bottom line, SeaWorld hires trainers not for their knowledge of marine life but for their looks and athleticism. SeaWorld experts then train these chosen beautiful people. Cowperthwaite argues that it’s a system that’s great for profits and criminally negligent for both the trainers and the whales. But she does not blame trainers for the mistakes of their past.
Currently at exclusive engagements at Baltimore’s Charles Theater and Washington’s Landmark Cinema, Blackfish is worth the trip. Go prepared for rough viewing: Some of the footage is difficult to sit through.
Despite fond memories of a childhood trip to SeaWorld, I’m moved to send my well-loved Shamu plush back to Orlando with an angry note.