Blackfish

Blackfish-Killer-Whale-Seaworld-FilmBlackfish begins with a single incident: a SeaWorld trainer’s tragic death during a show. The actual emergency call to 911 is played over a black screen and the incredulous operator listens as the surprisingly calm speaker requests help for the trainer who has been mauled by a killer whale. The film starts there, and then jumps back twenty years to unravel the reasons how, and potentially why, this accident happened.

Advertisements for SeaWorld show happy families attending the amusement park with permanent smiles plastered to their faces. It’s a place of wide-eyed wonder and innocence, where patrons sit in marine-blue stadium bleachers and gasp at the acrobatic tricks the whales perform. However, this idyllic picture hides the seedy underbelly that makes the park work. To obtain their star attractions involves a cruel process of herding whales by throwing explosives into the water, cornering them in coves, and then plucking the baby whales and separating them from their families. The film describes how whales can communicate with one another, have the capacity for emotion, and have a part of the brain that humans don’t. After the baby whale has been taken from the family, the other whales are released. But they don’t swim away. They float around the boats, hoping for their kidnapped child to return. It’s heartbreaking.

The whales are then kept in substandard conditions, and one whale researcher argues that some of the animals could develop sociopathy as a result. Which means that the death of the trainer wasn’t an accident – it was calculated. It’s a startling conclusion, but the film never fully explores this interesting explanation for why there have been over seventy incidents of trainers getting injured or attacked by the aquatic performers. The notion that the whales may be striking out against their captors, or seeking vengeance, is a tantalizing possibility. However, this explanation is merely mentioned while the film instead focuses on the questionable business ethics of aquatic amusement parks and the necessity for regulations to keep trainers safe – and alive.

The bulk of the film is made up of countless interviews done with former SeaWorld trainers who describe their experiences working in the business. They all genuinely love the animals, and became trainers because it seemed like a cool job and they were drifting twenty-somethings. What’s interesting is that these trainers don’t require any special degrees or understanding of marine life. They simply go through a corporate program that fills their heads with misinformation (whales in the wild live longer and are healthier than their captive counterparts, but the administration simply invents statistics saying the opposite, which are then repeated by teen tour guides to park visitors) and only requires them to be good swimmers. It’s like taking a page out of Orwell’s 1984.

There may be arguments for why these amusement parks should exist (and Blackfish may inadvertently make one feel guilty for visiting the zoo, although I’m not sure that was the filmmaker’s intention), but this film makes compelling and persuasive reasons why they should be abolished.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: Fun fact – the whale used in the movie “Free Willy” was a captive animal and only released ten years after filming.

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2 Responses to Blackfish

  1. When will there be a documentary on documentary film makers?

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