“The film SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see.”

Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite

“Blackfish,” dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite 

Blackfish, the documentary currently showing in a very few theaters, by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, argues – or attempts to argue – that keeping killer whales in captivity is a barbaric practice that simply has to end. It is a practice that will probably go down in history as another dark chapter in our relationship with the other animals of this world. It’s not an easy argument to make, and the filmmaker is partly successful. Persuasive despite its shortcomings, Blackfish is a powerful, disturbing film, and well worth the trip into Rochester to the Little Theater, the only local venue currently showing it.

Orcas are unusual animals, in some ways much like elephants, and our relationship with them raises similar issues. Highly intelligent, with sophisticated social structures and apparently multiple languages and human-like life spans, they live in matriarchal communities, with adult males roaming loosely on the fringes. It is not anthropomorphizing to say that in their natural state Orcas have strong family values; in some populations, members live with their mothers for their entire lives. Footage early in the film, shot off the coast of Washington State and in the North Atlantic, depicts the capture of live orcas. The targets, no doubt for practical reasons, are young whales, who must be singled out and corralled prior to transport. Whole communities of distraught adult whales line up outside the nets, traumatized, vocalizing loudly as their babies are taken away. One wonders what the Orca-English translation app would reveal.

The problem with Blackfish is visible from the opening sequence of the film, and even in the promotional material. It almost doesn’t matter what the opening sequence shows; the sound track is a 911 call from February 2010, reporting a trainer attacked by a whale, an attack still underway. Among other things, the film tells the story in reality TV style of the “notorious” Tilikum, the largest killer whale in captivity, a male orca currently living in SeaWorld Orlando. Tilikum has been involved in three deaths to date: a serial killer whale.

After the sensational opening sequence, the Tilikum story proceeds chronologically, and provides the overall structure for the film. Intercut with it, we see interviews with a number of trainers that are often highly emotional; with orca authorities and expert witnesses; and we see transcripts of court actions brought by OSHA against SeaWorld (currently under appeal). That “serial killer” horror story is actually the film’s problem. Although other whale incidents are mentioned, the film effectively focuses on a single whale, which implicitly frames the issue as a “rogue whale” story. The waters are further muddied, so to speak, by the focus on the specifics of this particular whale’s history: his capture and separation from his mother and his community, abusive treatment in his early years, the question of whether or not something is wrong with him – all tend to obscure the film’s core argument that orca captivity is abusive pretty much by definition.

The OSHA case itself is a red herring, so to speak (sorry). Focused as it is on worker safety, the idea that these animals can be managed safely, if only the company would care enough and be careful enough, is itself a distraction from the main issue, an unfortunate and poorly managed change of subject.

The film does put a number of complex issues into play, though it fails to follow through clearly. The depictions of Tilikum’s treatment and lodgings in the first park he went to, Sealand of the Pacific, now closed, in South Oak Bay, British Columbia, is deeply disturbing. Due to the flimsy facilities, two-thirds of the whales’ lives there were spent in a tiny, dark holding pool comparable to a bathtub. He was additionally confined with two more dominant and aggressive older females, and subjected to near daily violent attacks. The only similar human experience that comes to mind at all is life in prison.

And the film’s initial depictions of capture and separation of young orcas from their parents and their communities – stealing the babies from their parents – sets the pattern for later treatment by corporate managers who demonstrate a near-total disregard for social and family structures, arbitrarily separating and mixing whales from completely different communities and parts of the world, moving them from one facility to another, separating young from mothers. It actually suggests, as much as anything else, the American experience of slavery.

Some might see it as a stretch to compare the whales’ experience to prison or slavery. The common denominator, I think, is psychological. In each case, in order to get to a place in our thinking where we can treat other highly evolved creatures in such ways, we first have to define them, somehow, as “other,” as something less than fully human. It’s easier to do, surely, when the creatures involved are 60 times our weight, speak no translatable language, and can’t get out of the pool. The essential psychological step, though, and the fundamentally abusive nature of the relationship, is the same.

SeaWorld, of course, and the corporate marine park industry as a whole, is a central part of the problem. The film shows how the multi-billion-dollar corporation treats both the whales and the trainers as little more than commodities, committing a range of unethical and dangerous offenses in the course of doing business. The company and its PR machine spins lies and misinformation continuously, ranging from inaccurate orca biology and “accident” rationalizations to its nauseating Disneyesque advertising, deceiving everyone from its own trainers to the general public and OSHA. The price – beyond that paid by the orcas themselves – can be measured in the industry-wide roster of 40-plus dead and maimed trainers.

Blackfish is an interesting, important film with an important message, and whether it is ultimately persuasive or not, it’s unlikely that anyone who sees it will ever experience a MarineLand or SeaWorld commercial, let alone the parks themselves, in the same way again.