Blue Water, Black-and-White Death
by Thomas Delapa
Oceans away from the feel-good New Zealand fable Whale Rider, Blackfish swims in the same roiling documentary school as The Cove, the Oscar-winning 2009 exposé about the grisly annual slaughter of dolphins at a seaside Japanese village.
But Blackfish strikes closer much to home and lands like a punch to the gut. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite methodically reels us into her fact-heavy investigation that fatefully begins with the much-publicized death of a SeaWorld Orlando orca trainer in early 2010. “Death” is an innocuous term for what happened to Dawn Brancheau, who was caught and shredded by Tilikum, a six-ton, twenty-foot killer whale.
Cowperthwaite—a TV sports documentarian—is never sensational in recounting the gruesome details of this and other attacks by Tilikum since he was captured off Iceland in the 1980s. The darkness lurking at the heart of Blackfish is that the attacks were suppressed by SeaWorld officials, if not altogether deep-sixed, at least according to the gallery of former SeaWorld trainers interviewed for this scathing tract. The sheer number and sincerity of these testimonials will likely convince audiences that this is no mere mammal-hugging fish tale. And those still not hooked need only note the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 2012 ruling and fine against SeaWorld in the wake of Brancheau’s horrid death.
Cowperthwaite constructs her tract as equal parts horror story, mystery and marine-biology lesson. Few recent documentaries have so deftly utilized video and film footage to make such a devastating, if didactic, case. In our sea-to-shining-sea world of security and surveillance cameras, seeing is believing, and we’re afforded compelling replays of the events in chilling detail. It’s almost as if Cowperthwaite were on the trail of a cold-case murderer, as the life of “Tilly” is traced from his capture to his stay at a low-rent Canadian sea park and finally on to Florida, where his aggressive past was ignored and he became the “big splash” at Shamu Stadium.
SeaWorld visitors on any coast know that these majestic creatures (called blackfish by Native Americans) are the stars of the show, performing with their trainers in a revue of risky tricks and stunts in big-top outdoor pools. To the casual observer, the whales are happy, docile, gentle giants—Flipper’s super-sized cousins. But the ex-trainers and experts testify to a dark side, speaking candidly about the volatile nature of these massive, intelligent predators that can turn on their handlers in a heartbeat. From a natural habitat of the wide blue sea, living in tight matriarchal family “pods,” these captured orcas are torn from their kin, trained (mostly by amateurs) through strict behaviorist discipline and housed essentially in underwater cages—the net long-term result often being neurotic and aggressive behavior.
Of all the chilling footage featured by the filmmakers, perhaps none plunges deeper into the shadowy sea-park abyss than the sight of trainer Ken Peters as he’s helplessly dragged underwater like a bathtub toy by an angry orca. Adams survived to tell about it, but Brancheau and several other mangled victims weren’t nearly as lucky.
Audiences may well agree that the tagline hook for Blackfish could be lifted from a poster carried by a recent SeaWorld animal-rights demonstrator: "Free Tilly."
Blackfish, a Magnolia Pictures release, will be available on DVD Nov. 12, 2013.