With the arrival of summer, parents seek out family excursions that are fun, wholesome and educational. SeaWorld, with its plethora of rides, exhibits of thousands of marine and terrestrial animals, and unique shows, seems like an ideal vacation destination, at a mere $64 a head. But for trainers working in shows with orcas, the price has been much higher—some have paid with their life.
On February 24, 2010, one of the star attractions of SeaWorld Orlando, an orca named Tilikum, fatally attacked one of the most experienced and talented killer whale trainers, Dawn Brancheau. SeaWorld’s PR machine scrambled to find an explanation: The trainer’s ponytail had attracted the orca; she was pulled in the water and she subsequently drowned. But eyewitness accounts by shocked park visitors contradicted this official story, recounting a brutal and prolonged attack, and the autopsy detailed horrific lacerations to her body.
In the wake of Brancheau’s death, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) launched an investigation, and retired SeaWorld trainers started speaking out in the media against the “trainer error” theory.
Amidst the controversy, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s interest was piqued. A Los Angeles native, and mother to young twin boys, she had been to the San Diego marine park numerous times. “It’s on the parent’s bucket list,” she admits. But she was confounded as to why a veteran trainer would be attacked by a killer whale she loved, and who presumably loved her in return. The result of this probing was Blackfish, a profound, moving and shocking documentary about the costs and consequences of turning orcas into tourist attractions.
After reading Tim Zimmerman’s article “The Killer in the Pool” in Outside magazine, Cowperthwaite knew that her questions needed to be answered. She turned to former SeaWorld trainers, who agreed to participate, “with the caveat that it would not be sensationalized,” she says. “I was careful to make a factual, investigative piece that would be an airtight document that stuck to the story.”
The story that Cowperthwaite recounts is that of Tilikum, the six-ton, 22-foot male star of SeaWorld Orlando. “I followed Tilikum’s story as told through the eyes of the trainers who had become disillusioned,” she explains. What transpires is a Dickensian tale of grief, isolation, abuse, deceit and constant captivity in the name of profit.
It begins in 1983 with Tilikum’s traumatic capture as a young calf (not quite two years old) off the coast of Iceland. He was kept in a concrete holding pen for nearly a year before being transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, a marine park in Vancouver Island, British Columbia. There he was placed in an extremely small pool in the company of two older female orcas who repeatedly bullied him and bit him. He performed eight shows a day, 365 days a year, until one day in February 1991, when tragedy struck: Keltie Byrne, a young marine biology student who was working as a trainer, slipped on the deck and fell in the pool. One of the three whales grabbed her and she was pulled underwater.
After the incident, Sealand shuttered its business and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld, presumably for the sole purposes of breeding, and not for shows. SeaWorld employees were told that Byrne’s death was a result of hypothermia. It was not until Cowperthwaite tracked down two sisters who had witnessed the attack in Sealand 20 years prior, that a different version of events emerged.
There is no single documented incident of an orca attacking or killing a human in the wild. But in captivity the story is very different: Since 1988 there have been 11 injuries to trainers and over 100 incident reports of orca aggression at SeaWorld. Tilikum alone is linked to three deaths. And ominously, a mere two months prior to the fatal attack on Brancheau, another trainer, Alexis Martínez, was killed by Keto—a killer whale owned by SeaWorld—at Loro Parque, a marine park in the Canary Islands.
“They could have come to terms with their own rules on trainer safety before Dawn died,” Cowperthwaite maintains. “And the fact is, they did not take it seriously. They wrote it off and pretended that was just a Loro Parque problem, even though it was their whale.”
Marine experts all agree that whales in captivity are traumatized by the destruction of their family unit, their confinement and their boredom. They are essentially “ticking time bombs,” notes Cowperthwaite. But in the hugely profitable marine park industry, trainers are repeatedly kept in the dark about the dangers of working with orcas.
In fact, the corporate culture seems to exploit the relationship and emotional bonds the trainers have built with their favorite whales. They avoid speaking up about potential safety issues for fear of being demoted to the otter or sea lion arena. “Trainers really do care for the whales and really do love them,” Cowperthwaite notes. “It’s what essentially keeps them coming back and exposing themselves to risk daily. They are terrified of being taken out of Shamu Stadium and not to be working with their whale. They can never be sure if the next person will take as good a care of their whale as they do. So they think twice before challenging upper management. Using ‘love as leverage’ is what one trainer called it.”
The corporate indifference to risk is accompanied by a litany of incorrect facts given to visitors as part of their tour. In reality, dorsal collapse (a curved top fin) does not occur in the wild; the life span of orcas in captivity is greatly diminished (nearly halved); and killer whales do not perform tricks (or “behaviors,” as the official lingo calls them) because “they want to,” but because they are trained to, with food as a reward.
In addition to what Cowperthwaite shot herself along with her team on repeat visits to the parks in San Diego and Orlando, the film is replete with previously unseen footage: The director obtained SeaWorld video, under Fair Use laws; secured access to the personal archives of trainers; and scoured the Internet for tourist footage uploaded to YouTube.
One of the most chilling sequences is that of Ken Peters enduring a harrowing, tortuous 12-minute attack at the hands of a killer whale Kasatka in 2006. But what is surprising is that according to Cowperthwaite, “All the trainers have seen that video. That is essentially a clip that they use to demonstrate to their current trainers on how to deal with an aggressive incident. That footage is upheld as the gold standard on how SeaWorld’s training can save you.”
Another unsettling aspect of the film is the use of Tilikum as a breeder, even though he was known to have killed multiple people. Whether his behavior is genetic or situational psychosis, more than half of the whales in SeaWorld alone descend from Tilikum. Cowperthwaite adds, “There’s enough of Tilikum’s frozen semen in marine parks around the world to keep whales in captivity for decades and decades.”
The film deals with the morality of captivity very thoughtfully. “I was careful not be heavy-handed about the issue,” Cowperthwaite explains. “I did not want to get into an ethical boxing match with people.” Is she was fearful about taking on a multimillion-dollar behemoth like SeaWorld? “I am naturally scared of any litigious action,” she admits. “I would be silly to act as a bold, courageous cowboy with nothing to lose. It’s scary because you never know what a place like that is capable of. That said, I am armed with the truth.”
As for Tilikum, he continues to perform—for three minutes, a few times a day for the big splash finale. Although OSHA has decreed that there is to be no waterwork with the orcas, and trainers are to be out of the water during performances, they can still be in the water with them outside of those performances. “No one is safe quite yet.” Cowperthwaite concludes.