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Movie Review: ‘Blackfish’

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BlackFishLowResThe orca that killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010 before a packed, horrified audience was an aggressive individual that had killed twice before and would likely kill again. So says the documentary Blackfish, a movie that examines the danger involved with domesticating orcas for circus-like entertainment at places like SeaWorld.

We all remember the tragic incident in Orlando. Initial reports stated Brancheau was pulled by the whale, or fell into the water when Tilikum, SeaWorld Orlando’s star attraction whale, dragged her under effectively drowning her. SeaWorld claimed Brancheau’s pony-tail style hair was to blame, having gotten caught in the whale’s teeth, an explanation echoed by local law enforcement. The whale was simply playing and unintentionally drowned her.

Blackfish disputes that explanation and rightfully so. SeaWorld’s passive denunciation of the tragedy, modified several times since, is in bold denial of the facts. Brancheau’s autopsy revealed she was attacked, thrashed about, and scalped. Her left arm was torn off. Witnesses say it was eaten by the whale. She suffered a lacerated liver and broken ribs. If not for the outcry of the unfortunate viewing public who witnessed the matinee show at SeaWorld, we may still be believing a whale of a tale.

Tilikum had killed twice before. In 1991 trainer Keltie Byrne was killed at Sealand of The Pacific in British Columbia when she entered the whale pool and was tossed from mouth to mouth by Tilikum and two other trained whales. The official cause of death was drowning. Witnesses describe a horrible death. The negative publicity from the tragedy forced Sealand, which was more a roadside attraction than an amusement park, to close. They sold Tilikum to SeaWorld which intended to use him as a breeding male.

In 1999 twenty-seven year-old David P. Dukes sneaked into Tilikum’s pool and was found naked and dead the next morning draped to the whale’s back. He had wounds and bite marks on his body and his genitals were bitten or pulled off. Details of this incident are unclear with accusations that SeaWorld must have video surveillance of this attack which they claim they do not. SeaWorld’s public spin on this tragedy suggested it looked like the whale had tried to save Dukes from drowning by putting him on its back. Believe!

Tilikum still performs at SeaWorld Orlando to this day, although he now swims alone. While the documentary attempts to depict him as an aggressive individual who is spawning countless potentially dangerous baby whales – a rather alarmist sci-fi notion – one suspects it is the breed itself and not some individuals who are a threat to their trainers. Director Gabriella Cowperthwaite notes there is not a single documented case of a killer whale killing a human in the wild. These tragedies occur only in captivity.

The film conveys the absurdity of capturing and training these magnificent beasts, and then joining them in the water as if they are an air blown aquatic toy to be ridden on like a horse. Grainy video from old TV news reports, and colorful vistas from SeaWorld’s promotional advertising that depict for instance, parents placing their child on the head of the killer whale, are coupled with the very dark edited footage of the tragic events. The most compelling footage is the near-death of trainer Ken Peters who was dragged down by his foot to the bottom of the whale tank, held underwater, brought back up to the surface and dragged down again. The entire incident, well known and immortalized on YouTube, lasted nine heart pounding minutes.

The film is an aggressive and impelling argument against the capturing and compounding of killer whales. SeaWorld is depicted as an uncaring contemptuous multi-million corporation hiding behind a veil of ecological righteousness in their claim of promoting awareness and activism of marine wildlife. As a result of the death of Dawn Brancheau, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has made it mandatory that a physical barrier must be placed between the trainer and the killer whales. SeaWorld is appealing that decision.

Blackfish, which is a Native-American word for killer whale, made its premier at The Sundance Film Festival and is currently in mass distribution by Magnolia Pictures.

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