REVIEW: See ‘Blackfish’ and never see SeaWorld the same

Jul. 11, 2013 @ 01:03 PM

Once you see the documentary “Blackfish,” you won’t see killer whales the same, or SeaWorld, either. SeaWorld declined interview requests from the film that premiered at Sundance Film Festival, was picked up by CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures, and is now making the theatrical circuit. There will be a free screening in Durham on July 19 at the Full Frame Theater at American Tobacco as part of Third Fridays.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite directed the documentary that features eight former SeaWorld trainers, including some who knew Dawn Brancheau, the experienced trainer killed by the killer whale, or orca, Tilikum, in 2010.
Tilikum is the focus of much of the film, from his capture from the wild as a 2-year-old, to his life in a Canadian orca show that kept him in a small tank overnight, where he was attacked by other orcas. After orcas drowned a trainer, SeaWorld acquired Tilikum, where he has been for two decades. The film opens with the 911 call about Tilikum’s attack on Brancheau and records of how she died.
“Blackfish” is comprehensive in who they were able to interview, not only trainers but two women who witnessed the orca attack in Canada, the widow of a trainer killed by orcas in a Canary Island park that used former SeaWorld orcas, and even a diver who helped capture young orcas in the 1970s. He describes being brought to tears as they took the baby whales from their mothers, with orca families staying nearby communicating as their offspring were taken away. Former SeaWorld staff talk about the grieving behavior of mother orcas when their orcas born in captivity are sent to other SeaWorld parks. It’s heart-wrenching. Other footage shows audience recordings of killer whale attacks on trainers.
What “Blackfish” doesn’t have are current SeaWorld trainers’ thoughts, aside from recordings of testimony in OSHA vs. SeaWorld. SeaWorld’s reaction to the documentary was that it repeats unfounded allegations. The result of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration vs. SeaWorld case, rendered in 2012, is that trainers must remain behind a barrier during shows with orcas. SeaWorld is appealing it.
The “Blackfish” trainers who are interviewed talk about the joy and love they had for the killer whales and how much they cared about them. “Blackfish” argues that SeaWorld has dismissed orca attacks as accidents or the fault of trainers. The film calls for an end to orca shows.
“Blackfish” makes you think about what you’re paying for when you buy a ticket to SeaWorld, and if seeing killer whales in captivity perform like circus animals is worth it. SeaWorld has introduced many a child and adult to the beauty of sea life, and “Blackfish” introduces us to the dark side of that. Perhaps viewers will come to expect different things from SeaWorld and how it conducts business. The film is compelling and emotional, for fans of orcas and fans of SeaWorld, too. For more on the film, visit


WHAT: Screening of documentary “Blackfish”
WHEN: 7 p.m. July 19
WHERE: Full Frame Theater, Power Plant Building, American Tobacco Campus
TICKETS: Free admission