Blackfish (documentary) – Eye-Opening Tale of Showbiz Cruelty


How would human beings feel if they were held captive in tiny rooms and left there for long time without any exercise or stimulation? Psychotic? Similarly, what would be the physical and emotional toll for a Whale, which is being held captive just for the sake of water-splashing, hand-shaking, ball-pushing entertainment? If this question was put before us we might say that they were just animals or that those animals were exceptionally cared by the trainers. Some might even utter words about the ‘damn’ animal-rights activists. But, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s bloodcurdling documentary (“Blackfish”, 2013) about the bruised and battered Killer-Whales makes us rethink about theme parks with animal shows. It is both intriguing and heartbreaking.

“Blackfish” starts like a thriller. We hear 911 tapes that describe the fate of Whale-trainer Dawn, who was pulled under the water and dismembered by a 32 year old, 12,000 pound Orca, Tilikum. Orca is commonly called as ‘killer-Whale.’ It has a large dorsal fin; black and white toothed and mostly predatory in nature. They are usually found in cold seas. Tilikum, the protagonist of this documentary is the largest male orca in captivity. He was first captured in 1982 and was involved in deaths of three people in marine theme park, ‘SeaWorld.’ One of the Whale expert observes says, “He’s killing because he’s frustrated and has no outlet.”


The sad thing is Tilikum isn’t the only Whale (held captive), who’s injured or killer trainer. Through the emotional stories of former Whale-trainers and through some footage, we get to see a long-list of near-fatal accidents. Orcas mostly live with families, forming lifelong social bonds. They never leave their mother’s side and some of the female Orcas teach their younger members of the group about parenting by having them babysit. The Orcas have a life span similar to that of humans. They love the freedom in seas and swim miles for a day. In captivity, Orcas are trained in small pools and were shut down inside dark concrete pool at other times.

What’s most intriguing about the Orcas is the fact that they are one of very few mammals aside from humans, chimps, to have self-awareness. They are highly intelligent; has rich emotional life; conscious of having an individual feelings and characteristics. The simple fact is that the animals are not living for the sake of human’s entertainment. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite succeeds in moving this documentary like a riveting thriller. She centers the film on the death of Dawn Brancheau , a ‘SeaWorld’ official who was faulted for what the lawyers called ‘an accident.’ Through her death, she uncovers the history of violence in Tilikum and other whales, and also accuses ‘SeaWorld’ for covering up. The former trainers’ tales are highly elaborated. Trainers who knew Dawn pore narrate the small incidents that might have upset the whale.

Dawn Brancheau

Dawn Brancheau

The director also traces the back-story of Orcas. The harrowing footage of the capturing of whales in North Atlantic, in 1983 is heartbreaking to watch. One of the guy involved in the capture says, it was like watching a child snatched from his parents.  The $2.5 billion company, ‘SeaWorld’ now has 22 off the 46 Killer-Whales in captivity and has declined to be interviewed by the documentary crew.

2008’s Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” showed us the tear-jerking fate of Dolphins. Now, this expertly shot and edited documentary gives us the same remainder – that the effort to change free-roaming animals into performing artists is an absurd thing. Like humans, animals belong with their families in their natural habitat. At the end of the documentary, the ex Whale-trainers travel to sea and see the majestic Orcas, swimming in groups. That moment looked so exciting than the Whales splashing water inside a concrete pool.


“Blackfish” (2013) is a fair-minded powerful film since it shows the tragic fate of both the Whales and its trainers.


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