A few years ago, my wife and I took my daughter to Sea World on the Gold Coast. We had a fine time and the undoubted highlight was the dolphin show. Quite apart from the usual tricks, impressive as they were, there seemed to be a real bond between the trainers and the dolphins. We all felt, a little strange and frankly a little teary. There was something beautiful about it. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought, but since seeing Blackfish, I have revisited that feeling and perhaps now I get it. And it’s a bit darker than I thought then.
Blackfish focusses on the death of an Orca trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, USA, named Dawn Brancheau. In 2010, this experienced and popular trainer was mauled to death by an Orca – often also called a Killer Whale – named Tilikum, who dragged her into the water from the resting pool’s edge and simply ripped her apart. News coverage at the time seemed to reflect not just the horror felt, but also the shock that something like this should happen. We have been led to believe the relationship between trainers and “talent” in these theme parks was warm and trusting, built on compassion and expert understanding. We have been led to believe that the animals themselves are happy and secure.
Blackfish, in tracing the story of Dawn Brancheau, suggests a contrary reality.
We go back to the early 1970’s, when the antecedents to many of the Orcas now in captivity were captured in the wild. Kicked out of US waters, SeaWorld operatives fled to Iceland and here their brutal and ignorant techniques spilt close-knit Orca communities and often left many dead. One grizzled veteran of these raids – who admits to a shady past as a mercenary – teared up 40 years later as he tells the story. Despite being in numerous war-zones, this was the worst thing he had done, he says.
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This foundation – Tilikum was captured as a two year-old in 1983 on one such raid – has, the film argues, set a low standard for the future welfare of Orcas in captivity. Tiny, isolated and darkened enclosures, a failure to understand Orca social structures, deprivation and punishment-based training and under-trained and poorly educated trainers added to corporate heartlessness and skulduggery to create, according to Blackfish, an utterly rotten culture at the Orlando SeaWorld which reached out to, and drew on, other marine parks elsewhere.
The links between these apparent black-spots and Dawn Branchaeu’s death – and others who have been injured or killed by Orcas in captivity- are easy to make in such a landscape.
Orcas are highly social animals. Research has shown that their limbic system – the site of the brain’s emotional and memory functions – is especially well developed in Orca brains, perhaps more so than in humans. As such, the techniques used by Orlando SeaWorld, which appear to be widespread elsewhere, are seen to generate serious dysfunctions and even psychosis among captive Orcas. The concluding sense is that captivity of any kind and Orcas do not and should not mix.
In this light it is surprising there are not more attacks.
Orlando SeaWorld did not take the opportunities to be interviewed for Blackfish, preferring instead to throw out media rebuttals since its release. The producers of Blackfish have sought to respond to these counter-claims.
Our emotions on leaving Gold Coast SeaWorld (which is fully owned locally by Village Roadshow and has no apparent direct relationship with Orlando SeaWorld) become less about the show we saw and more about the animals. Was there somewhere in us that told us “This should not be”? The story of Tilikum and his colleagues stains those of any animal held and obliged to perform in marine parks. Was the emotion an acknowledgement deep within us that for all the cheesy smiles, the kitschy performance and the joyous flips and spins of the animals, that what we were seeing was very, very wrong?
More than an investigation into a tragic single case, Blackfish raises questions about animals in captivity generally. Surrounding wild animals with four walls can never be anything other than artificial and problematic. On the occasions that humans get it right, it creates at the very least a skewed vision of those animals and of our place in nature and it surely alters the behaviour of the animals themselves. Where we humans get it wrong, we will have tragedies of the nature of Tilikum and Dawn Branchaeu.
If I do go to such a venue again, I’ll be thinking differently as a result of seeing Blackfish.
Title – Blackfish
Makers – Our Turn Productions
Couch Time – 83 Mins.
How to Catch it – Screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 7. Further distribution TBA, but it probably won’t be via Village Roadshow.
High Point – Insights into Orca intelligence and emotional sophistication
Low Point – Necessary imbalance due to SeaWorld’s refusal to be interviewed