Every once in a while a documentary comes along that hits you from every direction. Blackfish, an inside look at the practices and policies of SeaWorld, shocks, disturbs, informs and, oddly enough, entertains.
Much of the narrative focuses on one orca, Tilikum, who has been held in captivity for nearly his entire life. Tilly, as he is affectionately known, was captured in 1983 and was assigned to Sealand of the Pacific, a since closed aquarium near Victoria. If you thought the animals at modern day aquariums lacked for space, wait until you get a glimpse of Sealand’s main tank, as well as the small prison-like area where resident orcas spend their nights. Simply put, the conditions are horrific.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Tilly, who was said to have been bullied by the two orcas that he lived with, started to go a little crazy. When a marine biology student and part time trainer slipped into the pool containing Tilikum and two other orcas, the effect captivity was having on the massive killer whale became apparent.
Tilly and two other orcas submerged 20 year old Keltie Byrne, and dragged her around the pool. After a lengthy struggle, the orcas drowned her, essentially leading to the end of Sealand.
SeaWorld was interested in acquiring Tilly despite his demonstrated demeanour for the simple fact that he was still young and could breed with the aquarium’s female orcas. This made Tilly a very valuable commodity, and Tilly became a featured performer at SeaWorld’s Orlando park.
Since the incident in Victoria, Tilly has killed twice more. Once in 1999 when a man broke into SeaWorld after hours and jumped into his tank, and again in 2010 when he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during a routine performance.
Since that incident, SeaWorld has understandably come under fire for its shows that involve trainers interacting in the water with killer whales, as well as the general idea of holding orcas in captivity to begin with. Numerous activists have called for Tilly’s release into the wild but SeaWorld has shown little interest in that idea. Tilly (a father to 11 living calves) and his genetic material are simply too valuable.
The story is told through a variety of interviews with former SeaWorld trainers who reveal some shocking truths about the amusement park’s general practices. There are some truly emotional sequences, especially when discussing Brancheau’s death, which only serves to further outrage the viewer even more.
The ultimate question is whether or not Blackfish is one sided. Certainly there is a clear message here and SeaWorld in particular is portrayed in a very negative light. For their part, the filmmakers did reach out to SeaWorld executives but they refused to be interviewed for the film. SeaWorld has come out and said the film is inaccurate and misleading.
Blackfish is far from Michael Moore agenda-pushing, however, and it is difficult to see where the filmmakers might have gone over the top. At the end of the day, Tillikum has killed three people and remains a part of the SeaWorld shows in Orlando (although trainers are no longer permitted to get into the water with any orcas, something that SeaWorld is fighting to have changed).
If you’ve been to a SeaWorld park, this might be a tough, but necessary movie to watch. If you plan to go to SeaWorld for your next family vacation, it might be worth checking out so you know the price of the entertainment. Regardless of your opinion on the subject matter, Blackfish is a brilliant documentary that will surely fascinate you from start to finish. For that reason, I’ll give Blackfish 9 out of 10 stars.
Blackfish is now available at Kicking Horse Movies.