Capturing ‘Blackfish’

Controversial film playing at Landmark Hillcrest

By Anthony King | SDUN Editor

There is a line in the Neko Case song “People Got a Lotta Nerve” that says, “You know, they call them Killer Whales. But you seem surprised when it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank, where you can’t turn around. It took half your leg and both your lungs.”

Gruesome, for certain, but surprisingly true. Case’s 2009 song is not featured in the new documentary “Blackfish,” nor could she have been referencing the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando, the jumping off point for filmmaker and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. “Blackfish” opened Friday, July 26 at the Landmark Theatres Hillcrest Cinemas and continues this week.

Tilikum in a scene from “Blackfish,” a Magnolia Pictures release. (Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Tilikum in a scene from “Blackfish,” a Magnolia Pictures release. (Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

“Dawn Brancheau, a reknowned [sic] SeaWorld trainer, was killed by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca,” Cowperthwaite wrote in her director’s statement. “I remember fragments: something about a ponytail, something about her slipping and falling, something about how this almost never happens because in these parks, the animals are happy and the trainers are safe. But something wasn’t right.”

It turns out something was not quite right with the entire, 40-year history presented in the film.

The story goes back to the early 1970s, when businesses – SeaWorld included – were capturing orca whales in Washington State’s Puget Sound. In the instance presented in the film, seven young orcas were captured, taken from their pods and transported to parks around the world. Three adult orcas were killed as well.

During a 15-year span of unfettered access to orca pods in Washington and British Columbia, Canada, 275 to 307 whales were captured, the website Sea World of Hurt states. In 1976, Washington officials sued and won, explicitly naming SeaWorld in the court’s decision that prohibited the forced removal of orcas.

As “Blackfish” shows, that did not stop the whale’s capture. Hunters then moved to waters off of Iceland, where Tilikum was taken in 1983 at two years old. While no whales are captured today – SeaWorld insists all current orca in their care are captive-born, several sired from Tilikum – the affects are astonishing.

“I feel very, very strongly about marine mammals, or really any animals, for entertainment,” Cowperthwaite said in a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) interview promoting the film. “I think that’s the lowest rung on the ethical totem pole. It’s the strangest practice, I think, when you actually really strip it down and unpack everything that SeaWorld does. It’s reduced them to these circus animals.”

Tilikum was transferred to Canada’s Sealand of the Pacific, an amusement park not affiliated with SeaWorld. There, he faced bullying and abuse by other orca and trainers, and killed trainer Keltie Byrne after she slipped and fell into the whale tank. Shortly after, SeaWorld purchased Tilikum for their Orlando, Fla. theme park.

“Blackfish” includes the Byrne incident in its storyline, as well as several other orca attacks throughout the years, including one resulting in another trainer death at the Canary Islands theme park Loro Parque. The Spanish park is not owned by SeaWorld, but is stocked with SeaWorld orca and their trainers are partially trained by SeaWorld staff, the documentary shows.

The documentary includes interviews with visitors to the parks and witnesses of the attacks, as well as former SeaWorld trainers John Hargrove, John Jett, Samantha Berg, Carol Ray and Jeffrey Venture, among others. The trainers, coupled with orca scientists, perhaps provide the most emotional, and telling, stories.

While SeaWorld refused to be interviewed during the filming of “Blackfish,” weeks before the film’s release the company’s vice president of communications, Fred Jacobs, emailed approximately 50 film reviewers in the United States “rebutting various points in the film,” promoters of “Blackfish” said.

Jacobs addresses eight issues in total, ranging from the assertion that 80 percent of SeaWorld orca were captive-born and the average lifespan of wild versus captive whales, to the abuse, or whale-to-whale bullying, in captivity and breaking up of orca family units.

“Killer whales spend their entire lives within these family pods, swimming together for decades,” Cowperthwaite said in press material. “When you see this footage … and hear the retelling of the [whales’ capture], you understand that none of the other whales, including the mother, would leave. It just shot me in the heart.”

Blackfish_quad2SeaWorld also attempted to refute several points in the film surrounding Brancheau’s death, which served as an emotional and dramatic arc. By then, however, the message had meticulously and respectfully been presented.

“Tilikum did not attack Dawn [Brancheau],” Jacobs’ email stated. “All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.”

“Blackfish” representatives responded to Jacobs’ response, posted on the film’s official website and, for some, the ponytail issue might not seem important. It is the details, however, that filmmakers present – through court testimony during the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-won lawsuit filed after Brancheau’s death and video footage – that make the documentary so compelling.

“One great thing about this film, I hope, is that it has a life of its own. It’s a worthy tool for people that need to inform other people. It starts with us, telling them that what they’re doing is not OK,” Cowperthwaite said in the PETA interview.

“SeaWorld, given the fact that they have the resources that they do – $2 billion a year for people coming through these turnstiles – they have to be convinced that we won’t continue to make these decisions to watch their shows,” she said.

Hillcrest Cinemas is located at 3965 Fifth Ave. For more information and show times, visit For information on the film, visit

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