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Three deaths, two decades, one whale. What have we learned?

In one of the most powerful and thought-provoking documentaries in a generation, Blackfish turns the spotlight on humankind’s selfish desire to confine large, intelligent marine mammals in a captive situation for our viewing pleasure.   Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s important film could have so easily been labelled ‘just another activist film’ but this is different.  The film’s narrators are mostly ex-employees of the multi-million pound captive marine mammal industry who have decided to speak out on the culture, management style and insidious PR machine that exists at one of America’s most identifiable brands – SeaWorld.

Many of these trainers left the captive marine mammal industry years ago, have since established new careers, and had no financial interest in speaking out in Blackfish. The film draws aside the thin façade that hides the dark underbelly of the captivity industry and arms the filmgoer with the hard facts allowing them to finally dispel the myth behind the Shamu label.

The ex-trainers in Blackfish candidly describe their experiences of working at SeaWorld and eloquently convey how frustrated they came to feel after starting work there and how dismissive and even oppressive SeaWorld’s senior management could be if trainers failed to toe the corporate line. The trainers in Blackfish acknowledge that they privately questioned whether the captive whales at SeaWorld were behaving normally and whether working practices recommended by their managers were appropriate and safe, but didn’t dare voice these concerns for fear of jeopardising their own positions and careers.

Just as captive orcas at SeaWorld may be deprived of food if they miss a cue or perform incorrectly during showtime, so the former trainers in Blackfish describe how they feared being ‘deprived’ of working with the orcas if they expressed their concerns over welfare or safety to their managers.

For many, this all changed on February 24th 2010 with the tragic death of experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at SeaWorld Orlando. Dawn was grabbed, pulled into the water and drowned by a male orca called Tilikum whilst kneeling beside his pool. The autopsy report detailing her horrific injuries makes for harrowing reading. Orcas are by far the largest animals kept in captivity and Tilikum, weighing in at 5.5 tonnes, is by far the world’s largest captive orca.

But this wasn’t the first time Tilikum was responsible for human death. In 1991, on the other side of the continent, trainer Keltie Byrne met a similar fate at Sealand of the Pacific in the city of Victoria, Canada. And in 1999, Daniel Dukes, a visitor to SeaWorld Orlando, hid out in the park after closing and was found mutilated and drowned in Tilikum’s tank the following morning. Since Dawn’s death SeaWorld has been banned from letting its trainers back in the water – a ban SeaWorld is currently appealing against.

In spite of the risks, Tilikum is hugely important to Sea World’s breeding programme. Though Tilikum is disturbed, bored, frustrated, aggressive and possibly psychotic, his DNA has been inherited by most of SeaWorld’s captive-born orcas. These are not desirable qualities to propagate in any responsible captive breeding programme especially one where such powerful animals work in close proximity with humans.

It is unlikely Tilikum was born with these problems. He is a son of Iceland. Captured from the wild at three years of age, he was brutally removed from his pod and consigned to a life in captivity. Blackfish recalls the tragic deaths of three people but there really are four victims to this sorry tale. From the moment Tilikum was removed from the ocean and placed on the back of a truck his life was effectively over.

As people stream out of the Shamu Stadium and plan their next thrill-seeking experience, they should spare a thought for Tilikum in his holding tank – alone, bored, listless and a one-dimensional caricature of his wild counterpart. He’s still there after thirty years……. hour after hour, day after day, year after year. The phrase, dying to entertain you, has never rung more true and makes you realise that sometimes in life you just have to shake your head and walk away.

Make no mistake, Blackfish is an important film and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Its ultimate triumph lies in exposing how fake the beguiling sparkle of the SeaWorld experience really is.

Three deaths, two decades, one whale. What have we learned? Nothing, it seems.

Blackfish Trailer

In the UK it will also be shown on BBC FOUR at 9pm on Thursday, November 21st. During the evening, WDC will be having an online forum to discuss the issues raised by the film. Put your questions to our experts by joining our live Facebook and Twitter debate from 8.30pm UK time.

HELP US SAVE ORCAS. ADOPT AN ORCA NOW!

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