Sunday, August 25, 2013

Movie Review: "Blackfish" (2013)

Movie: "Blackfish"
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Image Source
We're never going to Sea World. Ever, ever again.

It's hard as San Diegans to imagine Sea World not being here. It's a place we've been to a hundred times, we hear about it every day, we see their summer fireworks every single night, and BigJ even worked there for a short time in high school. Sea World, just like the San Diego Zoo, is part of our local culture. With that being said, "Blackfish" does a spectacular job of turning that culture on its head.

This movie is extremely powerful, even chilling at times, to say the least. It takes an inside look at whales in captivity, with an extreme focus the incidents of orcas attacking and even killing humans, as well as whale-on-whale violence. The violence towards humans is only known to happen with whales in captivity, and there has never been a death of a human from orcas in the wild.

This movie also interviews several former employees and trainers from a number of aquatic parks (mostly Sea World) throughout the world and gets their inside perspective on their interactions with and thoughts on orcas in captivity. As it turns out, there are not strict requirements to become an animal trainer at Sea World; many of the requirements are purely physical versus having a degree or background in marine biology, sea life, or zoology itself. In some parts of the world, like Loro Parque and Sealand of the Pacific, even less training was required (or given) to be in the water with killer whales.

After studying an orca brain, it turns out that not only are they intelligent as humans are, but they also possess an area of the brain that allows them to have emotions, feelings, and a sense of self, like humans do.

Many scenes in this documentary are absolutely heartbreaking. Once scene in particular where a mother orca was separated from her baby calf is particularly inhumane and gut-wrenching. The mother cries and screams for her calf, which she had never done, following the separation in an attempt to communicate with her baby that is no longer there. She isolates herself in the corner of her tank for hours and doesn't move. Instead of realizing that orcas are pack animals and want to stick with their families, Sea World and other marine life organizations often separate mothers from their babies for purposes of breeding, but mostly for financial gain.

This movie also uses Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, as its primary focus. Tilikum was born in the wild and at the age of 3, was captured in Iceland and sold to Sealand of the Pacific, an marine mammal park in Canada. There, Tilikum and two other female whales were kept in small holding tanks, isolated, in the dark, and often deprived of food. Because Tilikum was a new male whale, we was often abused by the other two females, raked with their teeth, leaving him to bleed. It was also here that Tilikum had his first fatality. Though trainers didn't enter the water with the whales at Sealand, trainer Keltie Byrne was dragged under the water after tripping into the pool, subsequently being tossed around like a rag doll. Sealand eventually closed its doors and sold the 3 whales to Sea World. In 1999, a "drifter" who snuck into the Sea World whale holding tank after hours was found the following morning, naked and dead, "paraded on the back of Tilikum." Finally, in 2010, he killed a trainer named Dawn Brancheau, who was in the water with him; Tilikum dragged her in, possibly by her arm, causing her to drown. In all of these 3 deaths, blunt force trauma, as well as broken bones and lacerations, were contributors to their deaths. Sea World PR did everything they could to blame the victims, even though the autopsies and eyewitness accounts tell very different stories.

This documentary makes the claim that because these whales are kept in captivity, it almost causes a form of psychosis, which causes them to lash out violently. Sea World has turned a blind eye to these instances of violence and death, keeping Tilikum performing at its theme park in Florida to this day, though trainers are no longer allowed to get into the water with the whales.

Sea World is a for-profit corporation, making huge revenue off of ticket and parking prices, food and beverages, and of course, stuffed "Shamu" dolls. Without the notion of "Shamu," they probably wouldn't be as profitable as they are today. People come from all around the world to see these orcas, and this film brings up the moral dilemma of keeping an intelligent being captive purely for the recreation of others, for profit, and for amusement. The only opposing viewpoint in this documentary makes the case that the world would be different without Sea World, that it's hard to imagine a world without "Shamu." "Blackfish" as a whole shows that maybe there shouldn't have been a world with "Shamu" in the first place, if having "Shamu" means these creatures are mistreated, pushed to their breaking points, and miserable in captivity.

My Rating: 10/10
BigJ's Rating: 10/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 98%
Do we recommend this movie: ABSOLUTELY YES!!!


  1. Oh my gosh. Fascinating and heart breaking. I couldn't stop reading your words, even though some parts broke my heart.
    I've never been to Sea World, I've always thought they were highly exploitive of their marine life. I quickly realized it's not a popular stance, especially here in SD. I've always given Sea World and more so the SD zoo a pass because of the beneficial research and rehabilitation that they proclaim to do, but after this post I'm thinking the damage done far out ways any good. Sad.

    1. I really do hope you get a chance to see this movie. It's really hard to watch, but worth it. We're serious when we say no more Sea World.

  2. Great review! I love that San Diegans are seeing this film and refusing to support their hometown Sea World park. What people forget is that these whales weren't "rescued" by a Sea World that was involved in rehabilitation & education mission, but were KIDNAPPED by a FOR PROFIT amusement park to bring visitors and make them $$! Only later did they start the rescue, rehab & education component

    1. Thanks for stopping by our blog! I'm glad you liked the review. I really hope this documentary makes a difference. I will refuse to support Sea World as long as they continue their awful practices.