Blackfish: The Dark Truth Behind Orca Captivity

After watching The Cove two weeks ago, Blackfish pretty immediately came to mind as that one documentary I had started to watch on Netflix at some point and just never got around to finishing. I’d heard about it because Lindsay Ellis, an internet media reviewer I follow regularly, had featured it on her Top Ten(ish) Favorite Movies of 2013 list, tied with We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. The Cove had undeniably been hard to stomach at times, so I thought of Blackfish, which focused on the orca Tilikum of SeaWorld fame, as something much in the same vain but lighter and softer. And objectively, it was.

But honestly, this one also has plenty of horror to spare.

Now as I mentioned in my post about The Cove, its been a while since I visited SeaWorld. Specifically, the last time I was there, was for a one week trip I took with my sixth grade class in elementary school. One day of said trip was allotted to be spent entirely at SeaWorld, with all of us sleeping over at the park, distributed in three different groups to camp out in sleeping bags at different animal exhibits. I remember feeling gipped because I ended up in the penguin group, while the group everyone really wanted to be in was the group sleeping at the whale exhibit.

This was the night after we’d spent all day at the park, and after all of us having seen SeaWorld’s big daddy Orca show Believe. I bought into the wonder and magic of killer whales hook, line and sinker, and immediately started fantasizing about working at SeaWorld one day and being best friends with adorable orcas. So of course, I was extra sour that I had to sleep with the penguins while one of my good friends was lucky enough to land herself in the whale group.

I believed once. ONCE.

The morning after, however, I was surprised to find out her group hadn’t slept at the orca exhibit after all. They’d camped out next to a single Beluga Whale tank, which I thought was weird but was also secretly happy about because if I couldn’t sleep with Shamu then, dang it, no one should.

And now I know why that was.

Behind all the glamour and showmanship, Blackfish goes on to detail what life is like in captivity for these whales. Back when Tilikum was still Sealand of the Pacific’s star attraction, he and the other whales were kept overnight in cramped, isolated floating box tanks. Completely silent, no lights, for what amounts to 2/3rds of their lives.  SeaWorld’s methods were allegedly better, but not by much. Animals that are used to swimming 100 miles a day are stuffed into glorified swimming pool tanks, and this is the root of the many problems behind modern orca captivity. The utter lack of stimulation in these animals lives leads to unendurable stress, and according to the many ex-trainers interviewed for the film, may have even resulted in a form of psychosis in Tilikum, who is to date responsible for the deaths of three people.

Orcas live an average of 30 to 35 years. 25% percent of orcas have collapsed dorsal fins due to age. We keep our orcas in family groups. I, like so many others, believed it. But according to the film, there are a lot of unsavory details that SeaWorld does not want the public to know if they’re business is to stay afloat. The lifespan of a healthy, wild orca is comparable to that of a human, with some reporting to live up to 100 years of age. Dorsal fin collapse occurs in less than 1% of wild killer whales. At SeaWorld, Tilikum was initially kept with the other female orcas in order to better familiarize him with his fellow SeaWorld kin. But the killer whale species is intensely matriarchal, and the females were aggressive to the point of physically endangering Tilikum, and he had to be enclosed in his own private tank, only joining the others during shows or for breeding purposes. The park would group its orcas together, but the whales were strangers, used to different lifestyles and forms of interaction and communication. Many of them would injure each other, and in some cases kill each other, in shows of dominance or aggression. Some of the females, the two named in the documentary being SeaWorld’s Katina and Kasatka, were promptly separated form their calfs when they proved to be too much to handle during shows. The ensuing separation was devastating for both.

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And these are the consequences. Over 70 incidents of trainers being mauled, maimed, and crushed in unanticipated whale attacks. 4 documented deaths, 3 of them caused by Tilikum. I was vaguely aware that there had been incidents like this at SeaWorld, maybe a death or two, but I’d thought they’d been light, unfortunate accidents. Trainers drowning maybe. Never this. Never innocent people mutilated and thrashed to death, through no fault of their own, by frustrated, unhappy whales.

And I have made this point before, but I will make it again for emphasis: these are sentient, self-aware, feeling creatures, and people need to start understanding that, no, its not overly passionate animal enthusiasts reading too much into this or looking for humanity in animals where there is none. The documentary features a sequence wherein a killer whale brain is run through an MRI. The study found that the brain has an entire section devoted to the processing of emotion that human beings lack. This notion is scientifically sound, undeniably so, and as countries like Chile and Costa Rica know, should be made aware to the populace.

To date SeaWorld has been involved in multiple lawsuits by OSHA. After the death of Dawn Brancheau, Tilikums 3rd victim, the park’s trainers are no longer allowed in close proximity with the whales. SeaWorld tried to appeal this decision in November 2013, but their case was denied. Attendance is dropping rapidly, with the park’s earnings plunging by 28% in 2014, a fact they attribute directly to the negative publicity given to the park by Blackfish.

Only time will tell where this will go, but hopefully, we’ll see orca exploitation and unjust captivity meet its watery grave.

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5 thoughts on “Blackfish: The Dark Truth Behind Orca Captivity

  1. I definitely share your thoughts and feelings on this. I’ve been on the internet long enough to be pretty desensitized to a lot of what I see. But Blackfish stuck with me. After I saw it, for a week at least, I thought about it constantly. I even dreamt about Tilikum one night. It struck a particularly deep chord with me. I think it’s just as important for people to see as The Cove, especially because it’s much closer to home. There is a lot going on that needs to be exposed and although Seaworld has done some great things and contributed to good causes, there is no excuse for continuing to keep and breed captive whales and dolphins. Simply put, it is unethical and it is beginning to become more and more difficult to disprove that. I think that the new orca habitat that Seaworld is planning is going to be better than what they have now, by a long shot, but it is not in any way a fix to this issue and it will never make up for the lives that Tili and the rest of the whales have had to endure at Seaworld.

  2. I grew up in Florida where it is customary to visit Busch Gardens, Disney World, and Sea World often. I have not seen the movie however I got a glimpse from reading your article. It seems that the movie is rather dark just like The Cove. I would rather watch a documentary about amazing animals in their natural habitats but we do need to know about what goes on behind the scenes of what goes on in captivity.

  3. A really great post. Really enjoyed reading this! I researched it and it says that Sea World will close in the future because of how infamous it is. Also they’re losing tourist so they can’t even make many money like they used to.

  4. Captivity really does seem to mess with animals with any kind of higher brain function, due to how unnatural it is for them to actually.. well.. be captive. We’re entertained by the creatures, sure, but I don’t think people understand that no matters how immediately happy an animal might seem when doing tricks and such, the long term effects seem a bit more detrimental.

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