By Kim Robson
We at Green-Mom have written before about the injustice and cruelty of keeping captive orcas at marine parks like Sea World. Orcas, also called killer whales, are the most famous and iconic symbol of Sea World’s dominance over the seas. These intelligent mammals reach weights in excess of 10,000 pounds and have mouths bristling with rows of sharp teeth. They can be deadly and unpredictable. They range over hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, traveling upwards of 100 miles a day in search of food sources and breeding grounds. Yet Sea World has captured and bred scores of their “Shamus” over the decades and confined them to tanks hardly larger than they are.
Many of us have felt the excitement and awe of watching enormous orcas soar out of the water and fly through the air at marine parks, as if in perfect harmony with their trainers. These beloved mammals are viewed as majestic, friendly giants, yet are infamous for their ability to suddenly and viciously attack trainers. Perhaps not surprisingly, there has never been a single report of an orca attacking a human in the wild.
A new movie called Blackfish from Magnolia Pictures, due in theatres July 19th, addresses the complexities of this dichotomy by telling the story of the notorious 12,000-lb. male orca named Tilikum, who has taken the lives of three people while in captivity.
At Sea World Orlando, Tilikum attacked and killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau, 40, a sixteen-year veteran trainer who adored whales, had just finished a show on Feb. 24, 2010, when she began rubbing 22-foot-long Tilikum from a poolside platform. He suddenly grabbed her ponytail in his jaws and pulled her in. Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy. An autopsy showed she died of drowning and blunt-force trauma to her head, neck and torso. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued two citations to Sea World Orlando for the death. Sea World appealed the ruling and the fine was reduced from $75,000 to $12,000.
Tilikum also had been involved in the 1991 death of a trainer at SeaLand, in Victoria, British Columbia. In 1999 in San Diego, a man who’d climbed into the tank at night was found dead of hypothermia and draped over Tilikum’s back in the morning. Sea World said that Tilikum wasn’t usually in the water with trainers “because of its size and strength. It was primarily used to splash people.” This is the tiny tankthey held him in after the 2010 incident.
Since his traumatizing capture at a very early age, Tilikum has fathered more than half the calves at Sea World. Otherwise, he is ignored, beaten up by females, and left alone in a secluded medical tank at the back of the stadium for 90% of the day. Tilikum is the very definition of a depressed animal.
Blackfish employs never-before-seen footage and riveting interviews with trainers and experts. It discusses the orca’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity over the past four decades, and the growing disillusionment of workers who were misled and placed in danger by the highly profitable sea park industry.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s shocking footage and emotional interviews present a convincing case against keeping these wild animals for human entertainment. “This is the worst thing that I have ever done,” says a remorseful fisherman who helped capture Tilikum. This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to reconsider our relationship with nature. Blackfish reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals. Check out the movie’s riveting trailer on YouTube. You can also “Like” the movie on Facebook. Be sure to see it in a theater near you this July.