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‘Blackfish’ an Eye-Opening Look at Orca Captivity

Editor’s Note: I have not been presented the opportunity to view Blackfish and urge you to consider both sides of the argument before drawing any conclusions. A good place to start is this NY Times article on SeaWorld Park’s and Entertainment‘s response to the movie and what it sees as distortions of the facts and message. I want to thank Mike Bastoli for continuing to post here on the blog; even when I’m not 100% comfortable with his topics, I’m glad I can provide a forum for his ideas.

Blackfish_SeaWorld_TilikumFirst of all, I’d like to thank John for giving me the opportunity to comment on Blackfish here. Even though we are of different opinions on whether orcas—killer whales—should continue to be kept in captivity at SeaWorld and places like it, we both agree that everyone should have an opportunity to evaluate the facts and make up their own mind on the issue. Really, we are the jury.

Blackfish begins with a black screen and a terrifying 911 call: “A whale has eaten one of the trainers,” the voice on the phone tells the dispatcher. That call was made on February 24, 2010, moments after SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound male orca who had taken human life twice before.

The documentary, which is in a sense a heavily-abridged, on-screen version of David Kirby’s gripping 2011 book Death at SeaWorld (in paperback this month), examines the circumstances that led up to that awful tragedy.

In doing so, Blackfish presents stirring, at times infuriating, evidence that orcas do not belong in captivity. Not only for the very real dangers this presents their human keepers, but for the toll it takes on these intelligent, emotional creatures.


Some of the scenes in the film are truly heartbreaking: Baby whales being separated from their moms—not only during the early wild captures, but much more recently with whales born in captivity—the mothers shrieking long-range calls for hours, desperately trying to find their young.

Time and again, the filmmakers demonstrate that SeaWorld’s narrative does not match up to the facts. Take the case I just mentioned. SeaWorld has long said that its “Baby Shamus” were mature at the time of separation, but in the wild, orcas (males in particular) never leave their mothers’ side, even into adulthood. There is something very wrong with breaking that bond.

There are countless other instances of SeaWorld bending the truth, or outright lying, to shape the message that orcas live happy lives in captivity. A few of these are discussed in Blackfish. The issue of orca lifespans in the wild is a classic example of SeaWorld misinformation. Likewise, the slumped over dorsal fins on 100% of captive males; SeaWorld claims 25% of males suffer this in the wild; in reality, the highest-quality, peer-reviewed research demonstrates it is about 1%.

No one doubts that the trainers at SeaWorld, past and present, deeply love the animals in their care. The issue is captivity itself. How can you confine a creature that swims a hundred miles a day in the open sea in a chlorinated pool thousands of times smaller than its natural range and not expect it to act up once in a while, even violently?


Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who directed Blackfish, has publicly stated that she does not wish to see SeaWorld close its parks (neither do I or most people) only change course away from captivity of intelligent marine mammals. There are a number of ways that the company could do this and stay in business. The argument that the public, especially children, have to see a real, live whale to learn about and love them doesn’t hold up (is there an animal more loved by kids than dinosaurs?).

Whether you come into the theater already convinced that keeping killer whales captive is wrong, as I did, or you believe that it is a humane endeavor that should continue, you should see this film. In fact, you deserve to see it.

Blackfish is now playing in Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto. It will open in additional cities beginning this Friday (see here for a list of theaters) and will air on CNN on October 24 at 9 PM ET.

9 thoughts on “‘Blackfish’ an Eye-Opening Look at Orca Captivity”

  1. Took this comment from the NYTimes article john noted in his disclaimer.

    “”I’d rather orcas, dolphins, lions, tigers, etc. not be housed in aquariums, zoos, or other man-made enclosures. But in the bigger picture, providing public exposure to such magnificent animals can aid in their preservation. I would love to believe that saving natural wildlife could be achieved because people know they should. But the truth is that most people feel no kinship to wild animals and without some kind of personal connection or association, they would make no effort to save them. And that can’t be achieved by just watching PBS or Animal Planet or reading about them in the NY Times.””

    I agree with this notion. And will add, that the single aspect that is often not discussed by those who proclaim “wild animals should be free from captivity” is that zoo’s and conservation centres are used and have successfully saved and restored wildlife populations on the brink of extinction. There’s a science behind accredited zoo’s, aquariums, conservation centres, to use the money brought in from the public to help support and care for not only animals within their own enclosures, but found near and outside their properties.

    A couple examples: The Vancouver Aquarium, helps nurse and care for lost, stranded or injured sealife found in the greater area of British Columbia Canada. I have personally worked in aiding rescued Harbor Seals, Otters, Porpoises. 99% of the time these animals are released back into the wild. Times they’d be kept within the aquarium is when they are too young and inexperienced to survive in the wild. (Monterey Bay Aquarium and majority of aquariums have the same style of programs, this includes Sea World and Disney’s The Sea’s in Epcot. )

    Disney’s Animal Kingdom: will care for stranded, injured wildlife found within and around its own property. They also Partner with other zoo’s and wild life locations to assist in procedures. If you visit the Rafiki Planet Watch area of the park, you can see the procedures they are doing, and you will find 50% of the procedures are wildlife found on property, and not a part of Disney’s own collection of Animals)

    The Smithsonian National Zoo: Partners with Panda bases in China in efforts to study and work on rebuilding and maintaining the populations. ALL Zoo’s that have Panda’s are a part of this same program. Panda’s are on loan from China to assist in helping with the cause.

    Almost all accredited zoo or aquarium or conservations will have these programs in place. And the single thing that allows them to so this, is the funds raised by the public. This includes, putting animals on display, putting on shows, having live interactions, selling merchandise and allowing small tours and backstage experiences/encounters. So while you can preach all you want about the dignity in holding a wild animal captive for the sake of “entertainment”, think about the rest of the issues. And think about all the animals that have been hunted for their skin, fur, meat, bone, nearly to extinction. And remember, it was these Zoo’s, Aquriums, and Conservations, that first, put animals on display, second, raised the funds, and last, restored and are continuing to, restore those populations.

  2. Out of pure curiosity, I wonder what would happen if these wildlife parks were required to release all their “intelligent” animals from captivity? Would they just let them go? They couldn’t possibly, animals who’ve spent their lives in captivity wouldn’t be able to make it on their own if simply released. I assume there’d have to be some sort of long-term plan of the sorts if this were done. I wonder, from there, how long it’d take to completely phase out captivity of these creatures, or if it’d have to be done over a period of multiple generations? Just questions to think about, I suppose.

  3. We went to SeaWorld Florida last year, the show was amazing and the park was great. but after reading into Blackfish, reading comments and responses I feel bad for going to SeaWorld. I don’t think it is right to keep animals locked up even if its in a shiny environment.

    I guess we could all go round in circles with this argument. is it right? can they survive if put back in the wild?

    so I googled map seaworld florida. I ask you all to do the same and just look at the stadiums and the enclosures

    ask yourself this, does it look big enough to house these animals? would you be happy to live there?

    I’ve been able to spot what I think are indoor tanks (where they have suppose to keep whales in pitch black enviroments, they are easy to spot as you can see the tanks through glass roofs)

    but again are they big enough? are they just glorified padded cells for whales? would that environment make you feel FREE? also these tanks don’t seemed to be linked so again the whales would have to be lifted out and transported there, isn’t this distressing for the animals?

    totally different scenario but a story I heard long ago from my own mother who worked as a cleaner for a mental hospital. a patient had been in there from the hospitals opening. she was a child when admitted but was now a pensioner. all she had done was steal bread. at the time the court ruled that whilst hungry steeling just bread was strange (why not fruit or meat or something better than bread) and therefor had her admitted to a mental institute where over the years she had become mentally ill.

    this actually happened and again a totally irrelevant story to this. I tell it just to show that spending a lifetime in captivity can effect you even if your being well looked after. I imagine it would have the same effect on an intelligent and beautiful species of that they keep at SeaWorld.

    I have yet to watch blackfish, and will do so, and keep my mind open but what I’m reading so far as already effected my decision in going back to SeaWorld……..I imagine I wont be going again

  4. Anyone who swears off going to Sea World but still goes to other Animal Parks, Disney (Animal Kingdom/Epcot) included, can consider themselves ignorant hypocrites.

  5. Martin Allmark: The questions you raise are questions everybody should be asking. The closest human equivalent of the orca enclosures would be keeping someone in a small bath for years at a time.

    Crabby: Actually, there are major differences. Some animals (like pandas) can thrive in captivity and do not exhibit signs of distress. The species at Animal Kingdom are land animals generally suited to a hot climate and able to live fairly normal and long lives in that environment. Their needs are very different than marine mammals. You haven’t heard about a giraffe bashing its head against the gate trying to escape.

    Then there’s the key issue of intelligence. A great white shark has a brain weighing under 1.5 oz, about 34 grams. An orca brain weighs approximately 12 pounds and the species clearly exhibits extraordinary intelligence, memory, and emotion (e.g. orcas and dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror. If you point at something, they will look at what you’re pointing at, not your finger like, say, a cat.)

    So I am not opposed to aquariums in general, either. Unlike with cetacean captivity, the evidence of serious harm just isn’t there. There’s a difference between keeping a blue tang (Dory fish) in a tank environment and keeping a killer whale. The best new aquariums are choosing to forgo keeping marine mammals.

    1. Got it, so you’re only opposed to “intelligent” animals being captive. The “dumb ones” are free to be exploited.

      Keep in mind, Disney’s Animal Kingdom has the Flights of Wonder show. In which many species of birds are trained to perform tricks in front of an audience. Includes audience interaction. A Bald Eagle is part of the show. Maybe they’re not as smart as a Orca Whale, however they are known for their hunting, and high intelligence. If you’re against whales and “intelligent” marine mammals being kept confined to a cage, you should also be opposed to Disney, and other zoo’s, where many of their avian species wings are clipped, so they can’t fly away.

  6. It’s not about “smart” vs. “dumb”. It’s a question of needs (such as space, proper social groups) and evidence of harm. I would liken it to the difference between keeping a domestic cat and a tiger in an apartment. Which of the two is going to be more uncomfortable?

  7. 1983 November 9 2013

    Today is the 30th anniversary of the capture in Iceland of the performing orca known as Tilikum

    Three decades in the for-profit amusement business. Three people dead as a result of it.

    Consider not visiting parks that display orcas. Avoid them.

    Don’t buy a ticket to a whale or dolphin show. Avoid them.

    There is always the possibility that things can be done differently.

    SeaWorld must change and evolve. Think SANCTUARIES. They are the future.

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