Review: Blackfish

The Notorious TIL
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite enlightens us an on uncomfortable subject. Sure, one can argue a lot of the things said in Blackfish can be found online, but this film offers a little bit more detail, and is nicely put together for those who haven't had the time to look around the web.
At the center of Blackfish is Tilikum. He is responsible for the deaths of three people, most recently the grisly death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010. One man in this documentary describes what I feel like Tilikum's behavior is to a tee,  He's frustrated. Frustrated by spending his life in a small tank when he was captured in the wild at age two. Cowperthwaite takes us back to the beginning. She speaks with a man that used to catch whales in the wild for a living, and the footage shown is devastating to watch. Hearing the noise a mother whale makes when it's separated from its calf is gut wrenching. Even worse when SeaWorld purposely split up mother and calf in captivity, and the poor trainers were powerless against the big wigs that made that decision for them. It really put things in perspective. I have a two year old. What if someone took him from me? Is Tilikum's mother still searching for him like I would be? On the side, one thing this doc did that I really appreciated was that after something very heavy was shown, they would cut to an old campy SeaWorld commercial from the late 80's/early 90's. (They even show scenes from one of my favorite B movies, Orca) Those moments to get my composure were needed.
Hearing from the former trainers was one of the most interesting parts of this doc. (It was also the best part of the book Death at SeaWorld, by David Kirby, which I read prior to watching.) They were really kept in the dark about a lot of things. Past accidents, take Ken Peters being pulled under water at SeaWorld San Antonio for example, John Sillick, a trainer that was crushed by another whale. SeaWorld had the audacity to call it "trainer error." The clip shows otherwise. Even the death of Keltie Byrne, at the hands fins of Tilikum and two other whales was barely touched upon before these trainers met the whales. While the doc didn't talk to anyone in Keltie's family, they did speak with a few eye witnesses. Three years ago, the only think you could find online about Keltie Byrne was a small blurb on Wikipedia saying she slipped and fell in the whale tank. There was also a news clip on youtube in Danish? I believe that touched up a little more on the subject. Turns out that's not exactly the whole story. Yes she slipped, but only her foot fell in the water, Tilikum pulled her in. They'd never had a human in the water and she was their new toy. When Sealand closed after this tragedy, one of the trailers tells the camera he was happy for Tilikum to be going to the "bigger and better" SeaWorld. "Alright Tilly, you're going to Disneyland! Have fun!" he exclaims, sarcastically. He didn't expect things to go the way they did.
Also touched up on was the death of Alexis Martinez by a whale named Keto in 2009. This happened on Christmas Eve, just a few months before Dawn Brancheau would meet her untimely death. Outside Online has a very well written piece giving you more information on Alexis. The thing about his death, was that it got zero publicity in the states until AFTER Dawn Brancheau was killed. SeaWorld lent it's whales to Loro Parque, the marine park that Alexis worked at. When he was killed, he was being supervised by one of SeaWorld's top trainers. His fiancĂ©e tells us how the police and Loro Parque staff weren't honest with her at the start. They told her he was going to be okay. His chest was crushed. He wasn't okay.
The film starts and ends with Dawn Brancheau. We hear the 911 calls on the day of, we also cut back in forth with court transcripts from when OSHA took SeaWorld to court over the safety of their employees. Why was Dawn allowed to be so close to a whale with Tilikum's record?  SeaWorld insists that it was all trainer error, that her distracting pony tail drifted into Tilly's mouth and he pulled her in. Eye witnesses said he pulled her in by her arm. He eventually bit part of that arm off and swallowed it. Her autopsy report is disturbing.
The important thing here is that Tilikum is not shown as a crazy savage whale that wants to kill. In fact, many trainers called Tilly their favorite, and all felt sorry for him. Orcas, aside from being the ocean's top predators are a very female dominated species. Calves stay with their mothers for their entire lives in the wild. Tilikum was brutalized by the females he was placed with in captivity. Because of this, he's often kept alone, floating in a small tank. Mind you, Tilikum is the largest whale in captivity. 22 feet long and nearly 12,000 lbs. He's a huge animal with no place to swim to avoid the conflicts. Cowperthwaite doesn't call for immediate protesting of SeaWorld or anything, she suggests that Tilikum and other old whales that have spent a life in captivity be released to a sea pen to live out their days. I agree with this, seeing as releasing Keiko of Free Willy fame into the wild didn't exactly go so well.
 This film as a whole makes me re-think that time I went to SeaWorld as a kid. I loved it. Seeing an orca up close is amazing, and I really did learn a lot about marine life there. (I didn't know false killer whales existed until I went to SeaWorld) This is where I'm torn. I'm disgusted by the things SeaWorld does in this documentary. (No one from SeaWorld actually spoke to the film makers, they even sent out a letter to many film critics telling them that this movie contains false information) But at the same time, I understand the need to study these animals. People like me who live in bumfuck nowhere Midwest are never going to see an Orca up close UNLESS we go to a place like SeaWorld. I think if SeaWorld turned into an animal sanctuary with a sea pen, it would be more beneficial. People could still see these wonderful creatures, and they could be in the ocean where they belong, and not doing tricks. Again, I feel like a hypocrite there because don't dolphins look like they're having the time of their lives when their doing tricks?
The sad thing about all of this is, Tilikum (or any of the other wild caught Orcas for that matter) will probably never get released into said sea pen. He's SeaWorld's own private sperm bank. 54% of the captive born whales from SeaWorld have Tilly's genes. Because breeding a whale with a history of aggression is genius. What if he grows frustrated and kills again? We know he's capable of it. Does another trainer have to lose their life in order for more freedom to be granted towards these magnificent creatures?
Wow, I really lived up to my rambling name with this one. I guess this film just really affected me, I knew it would, I just wasn't expecting it to be as intense.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Recommended: Yes
Grade: A
Memorable Quote: "I stayed because I felt bad for Tilikum."


  1. Lovely review. I don't think I've seen any of the documentaries released this year, so I might as well start with this one as I love sea life.

    Places like Seaworld always are fun, but guess there are just some things most people don't know happening behind the scenes. I'm intrigued!

    1. Yay! Thank you for reading. I was afraid nobody would since it got so damn long. I've never had a doc upset me as much as this one did. It's very fascinating.

  2. I don't think I could go to Seaworld again after seeing The Cove. This one sounds quite heartbreaking as well. I could see how this would be so upsetting to you Brittani, I felt the same way w/ The Cove, which I highly recommend.

    1. I never actually saw The Cove, but I added it to my Netflix queue awhile back. I just worry that another trainer is going to have to die before they retire them to a sea pen or something.

  3. Great, great review! I can't see this movie. Whenever I see movies where people are so clueless and ignorant towards animals I just loathe our species even more.

    1. Thanks! :) Oh, this doc is good at making one loathe our species. Especially when they show them catching wild orcas. It's despicable.

  4. Nice write up Brittani, you know the misses and my five year-old have been driving me nuts about taking a trip to Sea World. I am sort of on the fence about the whole thing.

    1. It really makes me look at it differently. I mean, SeaWorld is actually very educational, at least it was for me. It makes me wonder if I saw Tilikum perform when I was there.


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