'Blackfish': What price keeping wild orcas captive?

Tilikum, the main orca in the mvoie, in a scene from BLACKFISH Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Gabriela Cowperthwaite. 7/22/2103

I can't think of any children, or, for that matter, adults, who wouldn't be delighted by the expertly choreographed killer-whale shows at theme parks such as SeaWorld.

Famous orcas such as Shamu, Sakari, and Takara perform acrobatic feats, or race around the pool with their trainers on their backs.

Yet very few of us would like to think about the physical and emotional toll that life in captivity takes on these magnificent creatures.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's powerful, heartbreaking, and beautifully crafted documentary, Blackfish, forces us to do just that.

One of the most important documentaries in recent memory, Blackfish begins as an inquiry into the horrific 2010 death of experienced killer-whale trainer Dawn Brancheau during a show with Tilikum, a now 32-year-old, 12,000-pound bull orca at SeaWorld Orlando.

Tilikum pulled Brancheau underwater, dismembered her, and partially devoured her. Brancheau was the third human killed by the orca.

While Cowperthwaite's film opens with a simple question about the behavior of a single killer whale, it ends up mounting a persuasive ethical argument against keeping orcas in captivity.

The film uses archival footage, interviews with former SeaWorld orca trainers, and independent scientists to show that life in captivity goes against the very grain of what it means to be an orca.

Members of the oceanic dolphin family, orcas live in matrilineal groups, or pods, forming lifelong social bonds so strong that they rarely spend more than a few hours alone. They pitch in to care for each other's calves. Experienced females teach younger members of the pod about parenting by having them babysit.

Orcas in captivity live apart from their familial group. They rarely live beyond age 30, while those in the wild have a life expectancy of 40 to 80 or even 90 years. In the wild, killer whales swim for miles a day. In captivity, they are forced to live in small pools.

What cuts to the quick is the notion that since orcas are so highly intelligent, capable of a rich inner emotional life, they may be aware on some level that they are living an impoverished life.

Research suggests that orcas are one of very few mammals aside from humans, chimps, and bonobos to have self-awareness - they are conscious of having an individual character, feelings, and motives.

Under such conditions, it seems inevitable that orcas in captivity would develop changeable moods, even violent behavior.

SeaWorld, a $2.5 billion company, owns 22 of the 46 orcas in captivity. The company declined Cowperthwaite's offer to have a representative speak on camera.

Yet, last week it launched a public relations campaign to discredit Blackfish with a rather weak point-by-point refutation of eight claims made in the film. (It has been posted with filmmaker responses on the Blackfish website at http://blackfishmovie.com.)

Blackfish never accuses SeaWorld of mistreating its resident orcas. It does show, however, that keeping killer whales in captivity is the essence of cruelty.


Blackfish ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 23 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (disturbing subject matter, some violence, animals in peril)

Playing at: Ritz Five

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.


Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. With John Hargrove, Dean Gomersall, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Howard Garrett, Dawn Brancheau, Kim Ashdown, Carol Ray, Ken Balcomb, Daniel Patrick Dukes.

Running time: 1 hours, 30 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images).