Prior to viewing Blackfish, the most striking footage I had seen concerning Killer Whales was a segment in the BBC documentary series The Blue Planet. In this, a small group of Orcas hunt a larger female grey whale and her young calf. They chase the pair until they are completely exhausted, and then seperate and attack the calf, drowning it as a team. They then tear off the calf’s lower jaw and eat it, along with its tongue, a very small proportion of the poor creature. They then leave the rest of the whale’s corpse to float down. It’s easy to be left thinking “killer whales are utter bastards”, but there’s more to the actions of these top predators than that.
It’s a very different image of Killer Whales than the cuddly one the likes of Free Willy gave us. This type of behaviour demonstrates more than just cruelty though. The methods used suggest a high level of intelligence, and even the small amount consumed infers that they may have been doing this mostly for entertainment purposes, sport hunting a much larger animal than themselves. Orcas are very complex animals, and more similar to us than we might think.
I mention this because there’s a grim similarity between this hunt and that of the animal at the centre of Blackfish, Tilikum, but that time, it was an orca family being hunted by humans.
In the wild, Orcas are extremely social animals, always living in matriarchal pods, working and playing together. They have been known for their playfulness and curiosity around humans, which has led to them being captured and trained to perform in water shows. They don’t tend to to attack humans in their natural environment, but in captivity, have done so numerous times, as this film documents.
Tilikum was involved in perhaps the most infamous of these incidents, which kicks off this documentary. In 2010, he made headlines when, during a routine show, he attacked and killed his experienced trainer. This was the third human death that Tilikum had been involved in, and was likely the cause of.
We should always be cautious when presented with true stories about animals described as if they were like humans, but Blackfish makes a very good case for Orcas. It intersperses examples of highly intelligent and social behaviour exhibited by these cetaceans, along with words from marine mammal experts and neuroscientists to back these up. That is background information really, not the main focus of Blackfish, its primary subject is the cause of the attacks in captivity, and really, whether the captivity itself is that cause. Consider Tilikum’s origins:
Tilikum was captured from the wild when he was around 3 years old, separated from his mother and pod, and taken away to perform in amusement parks. He was placed in a small pool with two older unrelated females who repeatedly attacked him with their teeth, leaving injuries and scars. For two thirds of every day, when he wasn’t training or performing, he was kept in the dark in a very small enclosure where he could barely move. If he didn’t perform correctly, all the whales would be deprived of food. Again, we should remember that this is not a human so we cannot truly comprehend its feelings but we know it is a large-brained, huge, smart, social animal accustomed to living in, and constantly moving around in, the open ocean. Now imagine if a person was kept in these kinds of conditions, what effect it would have on them and their mental state?
What the lasting effect of such harsh, captive treatment is is the question that drives Blackfish. In Tillikum’s case, it led to the death of a trainer in his first park, after which he was moved to SeaWorld, home of many of the world’s captive orcas and the real villain of Blackfish.
The film features interviews with not just one, but many former SeaWorld trainers who reveal how the company truly treated these animals. It’s shocking, harrowing stuff, and features a considerable amount of disturbing archive footage of attacks on trainers (no actual death footage if you’re worried). The most damning and memorable scene in Blackfish involves the decision by one park to separate a baby whale (born in captivity) from its mother and send it to another park. The mother’s reaction was one easily described as despair, crying out all night for her baby. When marine biologists studied the calls they found that the orca was sending out never before heard long distance vocalisations, in a desperate attempt to locate her missing offspring.
Blackfish is clearly not trying to examine “both sides” of the argument as to whether or not we should keep killer whales captive for entertainment purposes. It has an agenda but it’s upfront about it. Only one former trainer interviewed sometimes disagrees with the general consensus. It notes that representative of SeaWorld repeatedly refused to be interviewed for the film, which is telling. Indeed it reveals some outright lies they’ve told in places, such as claiming that captive orcas live longer (they don’t by a considerable margin). It also reveals some methods used by SeaWorld to cover up evidence of its captive orcas’ frequent aggressive behaviour.
I’m no vegetarian or animal rights type, but I found this film quite affecting. It’s a good example of an ‘activist documentary’, and bears some similarities to the Oscar-winning The Cove. The gripping and powerful film presents a very strong case against keeping killer whales captive for our entertainment that’s extremely hard to dispute. The only counter-argument I’ve heard is that SeaWorld raises awareness of and educates people about marine mammals. I can imagine a good number of people will think twice about going to SeaWorld after seeing this.