My Problem with ‘Blackfish’

Tilikum in Blackfish
Tilikum in Blackfish

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

There’s no denying Blackfish is a powerful documentary. Focusing on the mistreatment of orcas by SeaWorld and other such marine mammal parks for human entertainment, the captivity of these animals is something that needs to continually be addressed as it has been for several years.

The opening moments describing the capturing process is enough to enrage anyone with the slightest bit of compassion in their hearts. The horrors continue as we hear of the tight confinements and utter darkness several are kept in over night at the now-shutdown Sealand aquarium in Victoria, Canada or the description of a baby orca and its mother’s cries as the two are wrongfully separated. However, these are the obvious facts of the case, it’s the film’s presentation of the facts that raised my eyebrows.

The story of Blackfish is told by a group of former SeaWorld trainers, a story that leads to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau who was attacked by an orca named Tilikum, whose path we follow from his capture in 1983 to Dawn’s death in 2010. In-between these times several other incidents involving trainers and some involving violence strictly between the orcas is detailed. The most damning piece of information, in my opinion, is the statistic that not a single human has ever been killed in the wild by an orca whale and yet the incidents continually mount in Blackfish. The case for not keeping orcas in captivity is open and shut as far as I’m concerned.

However, before I continue, I think it’s important and fair to include a statement SeaWorld gave to CNN (a producing partner and distributor of Blackfish) regarding the documentary before it aired on the cable news channel recently:

Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues. To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld — among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world’s most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research. Perhaps most important, the film fails to mention SeaWorld’s commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals, as demonstrated by the company’s continual refinement and improvement to its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures both before and after the death of Dawn Brancheau.”

Of course, you could very easily poke holes in SeaWorld’s rather vague statement, but I’ll leave that alone for the purposes of this article. Moving on…

As far as quality is concerned when looking at Blackfish as a documentary, I have some issues. The fact the story is largely told (about 95% I’d say) through the voices of five former SeaWorld trainers is problematic. There aren’t many specifics when it comes to just how long each of them worked there, at least none that I can remember hearing anyway, and the fact none of them seem to hold any personal responsibility for what takes place is bothersome for me.

At one point, John Jett, a former SeaWorld trainer from the early-to-mid ’90s who now serves as a Research Professor at Stetson University, speaks to why he stuck around and says he “stayed for Tilikum” because if he didn’t, he didn’t know who would care for him. In the press notes for the film it says a contributing factor to Jett’s leaving was the demoralization of Tilikum as trainers were asked to collect his sperm on a regular basis. “It was just so demeaning to the whale,” Jett is quoted saying.

I’m can’t remember if Jett’s reason for leaving is ever specifically mentioned in the film, but I think a lot more is said in the following passage from Tim Zimmerman’s “The Killer in the Pool” piece for Outside Online:

John Jett was a trainer at SeaWorld in the 1990s. He left to pursue a Ph.D. in natural-resource management in 1995, having grown disillusioned with the reality of keeping large, intelligent animals in captivity. He says that getting nicked, and sometimes hammered, was just part of the price of living the killer whale dream: “There were so many incidents. If you show fear or go home hurt, you might be put on the bench.”

Jett was a Tilikum team leader and also comments in that same piece about the beatdown’s Tilikum would receive (one of which is seen in the film) that would leave him bloodied and causing him to have to be held out of shows (something SeaWorld denies). Jett termed the blood in the water “sky writing” and says, “It’s extremely sad if you think about being in Tili’s situation. The poor guy just has no place to run.”

So, clearly, despite the ugly side of things, there was an allure to being a SeaWorld trainer that kept these people around. Blackfish also makes sure to mention there wasn’t a doctorate requirement to work with any of the whales. One of the trainers, in fact, started in the kitchen. These were ordinary people, just like you and me and they got caught up in a situation they couldn’t handle or control. However, to tell the stories of what happened while you were there and to act as if you weren’t complicit in some way is problematic if you want my opinion. Sure, you were drawn to your work and were able to overlook wrong-doing to make sure you didn’t lose your job, but I think history will show that’s not a good way to go about your business. I simply just didn’t like the way each trainer seemed able to justify why they remained at SeaWorld despite what was going on and what they now so easily fight against without any visible remorse and/or shame as much as they simply say, “This happened, and this happened and that happened…”

At the same time, I don’t want to pretend Blackfish is the first time any of these people have decided to speak out or that it’s necessarily their fault their reasoning, shame, remorse, etc. isn’t included in the documentary. This could all be due to poor editing, but it remains a problem with the documentary overall.

That said, Blackfish, if anything, is only the latest response to whales being kept in captivity. Jett has been speaking out against it since the mid-’90s and just because I wasn’t aware of his efforts doesn’t mean he wasn’t making them.

[amz asin=”B00EL6ACOI” size=”small”]My problem isn’t with the message, it’s with the delivery and while Blackfish is successful in getting its message out I think it fails in giving us all the necessary information. I also think it fails in making this a larger topic. Yes, the subject of the film is killer whales, but what about every other animal in captivity. There’s a comment made about seeing something in the whale’s eyes, are the eyes of all other animals kept in captivity for human amusement empty? Just a quick montage of other animal species kept in captivity would have been enough to open up the conversation, but like so many documentaries today the message becomes so targeted it loses some of its power.

I think Blackfish is a documentary worth seeing as anything that is able to encourage this level of conversation clearly hits a nerve, I just wish documentaries did a better job of covering their bases when it comes to opening themselves up to potential criticism.

All that said, just below is the film’s trailer along with the 1997 episode A Whale of a Business from Frontline, which is largely considered the pioneering investigation into the business and practices of marine mammal parks and goes to show this is a battle that didn’t just begin with Blackfish.

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