Tilikum the Blackfish

blackfish vancity theatre

The 2010 death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was initially reported by the media as an “accident” due to “trainer error”. Unsatisfied with this explanation, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite began to investigate the history of Killer Whales held in captivity and used for the purposes of “entertainment”. What she unveils is not necessarily surprising but at times it can definitely be shocking.

According to the documentary, the orca responsible for Brancheau’s death, Tilikum, is the largest orca in captivity, weighing in at 12,000 pounds, and has previously been involved in the deaths of two other individuals. In Tilikum’s defence, he was stolen from his family when he was approximately 2 years old, repeatedly harassed and physically abused by other orcas and left in a small dark tank for extended periods of time, sometimes up to 12 hours.  Cowperthwaite argues that because orcas are highly intelligent and sentient mammals, such experiences could leave them traumatized and could potentially lead to aggressive behaviours.  Unfortunately in Tilikum’s case, it has led to three fatal actions.

The truly astonishing part of Blackfish is not that it just details Tilikum’s aggressive behaviour but that it shows numerous examples of how captive orcas have “acted out” against their trainers. In simple terms, I was astonished that people seem to be shocked when these beautiful creatures become aggressive. They are captive animals who are taken from their families and made to do tricks for the sole purpose of entertaining humans. Who wouldn’t eventually demonstrate some sort of aggression?

The trainers, it should be noted, do not have extensive training or education in regards to the mammals they are working with and are actually chosen based primarily for their athleticism and personality. That is not to suggest the trainers do not love the whales they are working with, it is clear that they do, but numerous former trainers consulted for the film attest to the fact that they were naïve to believe that there was a sacred bond or connection between them and the orca. If push came to shove, the captive whale would assert its dominance, and no “bond” could necessarily override that.

During some footage of a trainer repeatedly being pulled under water by an orca (which you can find on YouTube if you are so inclined), my plus one for the evening said the expression on my face was one of horror.  The act was planned and deliberate.  At the risk of sounding (somewhat) melodramatic, it was as though we were watching an attempted murder.  This particular trainer somehow managed to stay calm, maintain steady breathing (when brought up for air) and eventually made a break for it when the orca finally let go of his foot.  The visible look of terror on his face is unsettling. It is a sad scene for both the trainer and the orca.

In the end, we discover that Tilikum is still being kept at SeaWorld as a sperm donor and is no longer used in the main shows. With the exception of some of his offspring, Tilikum is also kept separate from the other orcas. It was additionally noted that due to Brancheau’s death, the court has restricted water work between trainers and orcas who must now be separated from each other by a barricade. SeaWorld is currently appealing this decision.

While it is clear what position the documentary it is taking, it would have been interesting to hear from officials at SeaWorld. Unsurprisingly, repeated offers for an interview were refused.

Vancity Theatre begins a brief second run of Blackfish next weekend (August 16th -18th).