Recommended Viewing Situation:
On a boat in the Pacific Ocean surrounded by pods of Hawaiian orcas … Or in a marine park, watching the 2pm orca display.
Running time: 83 minutes.
Format: Digital on Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon XA10,Panasonic AG-AF100 and Panasonic AG-HVX 200.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
Writer: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres and Tim Zimmermann.
Cinematography: Jonathan Ingalls, Christopher Towey.
Awards: Nominated BAFTA Film Award.
“Fish weren’t meant to be in a box.”
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, ‘Blackfish’, exposes the true cost of captive orcas (killer whales).It begins with the chilling emergency call made after a senior trainer at Seaworld, Orlando, was eaten by Tilikum, an orca.
Cowperthwaite ships us back to a 1970 whale hunt and the concept of these resplendent mammals becoming circus acts starts to feel uncomfortable. We are introduced to Tilikum, the undisputed star of this documentary; of his capture at the age of two in 1983, diver John Crowe says it was “the worst thing that I’ve ever done.” As the story unfolds, you realise the whole, sinister significance of Tilikum’s capture and that Crowe’s discomfort does not stop at the remorse he feels for “kidnapping” a baby orca.
Cowperthwaite finds no shortage of ex-employees of marine parks willing to talk about mistreatment and punishments. Marine biology experts with a tangible passion for their subject throw their weight behind her and their comments, set against a backdrop of orcas swimming in the wild, with carefully chosen music, make galling viewing, as does the shot of a wild orca making friendly cooing noises whilst a child pets its snout.
“They live in these big families and they have lifespans very similar to human lifespans … but the adult offspring never leave their mother’s side. Each community has … a complete repertoire of vocalisations.” (Howard Garret, orca researcher)
“Whales have a sense of self, a sense of social bonding … much stronger than in other mammals, including humans.” (Lori Marino, neuroscientist)
The overarching argument seems to be that orcas are intelligent creatures with complex emotions and highly evolved social structures. Therefore, to see them in small, concrete pools, in fake family groups, is, at best, patronising; at worst, unpalatable.
Interspersing hard facts with bouncy adverts for marine parks sends out a powerful message. Excerpts from performances, with cheesy music becomes distasteful. Links between treatment of captive orcas with deaths of trainers are in abundance; all Cowperthwaite does is present them. And just when you think you can’t be shocked any more, she includes a montage of whale trainers giving misleading talks on lifespans and floppy dorsal fins:
“Every other potentially embarrassing fact has been twisted and turned and denied.” (Howard Garret)
Easy for marine parks to do, as whale trainers do not need marine qualifications:
“I thought I knew everything … I really know nothing about killer whales.” (Seaworld trainer Samantha Berg)
Made halfway through the ‘Finding Nemo’ movie franchise (the quote at the start is from ‘Finding Nemo’, hence it says ‘fish’ and not ‘whale’), you could be forgiven for thinking you are watching a live action, considerably grittier version of a Disney movie. The story, themes, good guys versus bad guys … all the ingredients are there. Sadly, for Tilikum and other orcas, the story continues with little hope of freedom, although Seaworld has announced plans to stop breeding orcas in captivity and gradually phase out public orca performances.