On 24th February 2010, animal trainer Dawn Brancheau died at SeaWorld Orlando whilst performing with an Orca named Tilikum. He pulled her under the water at the end of a routine and drowned her. Following her death, Gabriela Cowperthwaite began work on a documentary to investigate why this tragedy took place and how it could have been stopped. Blackfish also looks at Tilikum’s background, how he was bought to SeaWorld and how the park treats its Orca’s.
I’ve been meaning to watch this documentary since its release but as an animal lover who is very much against the captivity of animals, it took me a while to bring myself to watch it.
The film eases you in slowly with images of these beautiful creatures swimming in the ocean and people telling the camera how they cannot wait to work with them. The first thing that struck me was that you didn’t need any qualifications whatsoever to be a trainer. Alarm bells anyone?
We then witness how whales came to end up in parks such as Seaworld. They weren’t bred in captivity, oh no. They were brutally taken from the ocean and their families. Bombs would be let off in the water to herd the Orcas into coves so the fisherman could capture them. The aim was to capture the babies but these animals aren’t stupid. They’re extremely smart and the mothers didn’t let their babies go without a fight.
Sadly, they succeeded in capturing baby Orcas to then ship off to these institutions. That’s if they even got there – some whales died due to stress by getting stuck in their nets. This is how Tilikum’s life started. He was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland and shipped to his new home, Sealand of the Pacific.
A public aquarium in South Oak Bay in Canada, it housed a number of Orcas. Tilikum joined the likes of Haida and Nootka who took a disliking to him. They persistently chased him round the small pens resulting in his isolation. The park kept the whales in what can only be described as a large swimming pool and overnight, they were housed in what was called a module. This was 20ft across and 30ft deep and the lights were turned out. It’s evident in the documentary that the owners of Sealand did not care about the welfare of their animals, they were just interested in the money that they bought in from tourists. In February 1991, Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into the whale pool and was drowned after Tilikum, Nootka and Haida dragged her under the water. The park closed shortly after and the three whales were sold to SeaWorld.
The documentary then follows Tilikum to SeaWorld Orlando where again, he was bullied by the other females, something that occurs naturally in the wild. Due to the sheer size of Tilikum, he couldn’t get away from them easily and even if he could, where would he go? Tilikum was again isolated frequently to protect him.
The documentary goes on to look at how this could have affected his behaviour. When we take into account what he has already been through in the run up to living at SeaWorld, this without a doubt has an effect on his behaviour, stress and anxiety levels. Whilst watching, I got the impression that the trainers were practically brainwashed. Former trainers are interviewed as part of this film and they genuinely used to believe that what they were doing at SeaWorld was right. Their bosses would spin lies about how the whales at SeaWorld lived much longer compared to the ones left in the wild and how their droopy dorsal fins were a sign of health – a complete lie. Whales in captivity acquire droopy dorsal fins because they do not get enough exercise and cannot swim fast enough to keep the tissue in the fin firm and strong.
We also find out how accidents frequently happened at parks like SeaWorld all the time between trainer and Orca but they were treated as normal and nothing to be concerned about. This just highlighted for me how these parks are run by idiots who have no idea how to analyse animal behaviour.
So after all this, is it any wonder that the life of this woman got taken? Here’s what I think after watching this powerful documentary.
These parks forget that they are working with animals that are much stronger and much more powerful than them. After all, Orcas are nicknamed Killer Whales for a reason. They aren’t meant to be in captivity and they aren’t meant to do circus tricks for the pleasure of an audience.
The people who keep these parks open do not care whatsoever about the welfare of these Orcas. All they care about is money and making a profit. The Orcas are simply used as a way to lure tourists through the doors.
Unfortunately, I have actually visited SeaWorld in Orlando – when I was about six. Obviously I didn’t know any better back then and now as an adult, I would never go near one of those parks. This is what SeaWorld relies on though. Their main target audience is children because of course they don’t know any better and all they are interested in is getting the chance to see these amazing animals.
What I would love to see in the future is the end of SeaWorld and other parks like them and for kids to convince their parents to take them on whale watching trips instead. There’s nothing more amazing than seeing these animals in their natural habitat where they are free to roam the ocean until their hearts content.
Since Dawn’s death, SeaWorld has a new policy in place whereby none of the trainers are permitted to enter the water with the Orcas or have any human contact with them. The franchise has also recently announced that it will be stopping its Orca shows and breeding programmes. Hopefully, this inevitably means that SeaWorld will now come to an end.
Just a last thought to end this blog, I’ve just been reading SeaWorld’s response to the points made in Blackfish and frankly, I find them laughable. I won’t go through the whole lot because it doesn’t deserve the publicity but a couple of points they make are:
“SeaWorld does not collect killer whales in the wild and has not done so in over 35 years.”
“The film highlights two separations. In one instance, involving a whale named Takara, the film leaves you with the impression she was a calf when separated. In fact, Takara was 12 years old when she was moved.”
Both these statements are ridiculous. Although they might be true, neither statement gets away from the fact that what they did was wrong. It was wrong that whales were collected from the wild 35 years ago and it was wrong that Takara was separated from her mother, no matter how old she was.
I would thoroughly recommend that anyone who is interested in animal welfare and conservation to give Blackfish a watch. It’s available on Netflix.