The grim reality of marine performance

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish explores the dirty secrets of the marine performance industry.


Many of us no doubt have childhood memories of attending a marine show at theme parks like Ontario-based Marineland or the U.S. franchise SeaWorld. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s doc Blackfish, distributed by local doc specialists EyeSteelFilm, is a damning indictment of SeaWorld in particular, and the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity in general.

The film starts with the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by the park’s star orca, the massive 32-year-old male Tilikum. As it turns out, Tilikum is actually responsible for not one but two other deaths over the years — a somewhat astonishing fact dug up by Cowperthwaite in her diligently researched film, which also reveals dozens of other incidents that make the whole marine-performance industry seem dirty and dangerous.

The bulk of Blackfish is made up of interviews with disillusioned former trainers whose love for the animals is equal to their frustration with SeaWorld’s sneaky corporate ways, which pile up to the point of seeming almost comically evil. The doc also touches on the sordid history of whale capture and the animals’ highly evolved brains, which demonstrate strong emotional centres as well as high intelligence. It’s not a particularly cinematic film, and its obviously biased point of view is sometimes backed up by manipulative music. But it is a great work of journalism, using copious historical footage to build its case, and its suspenseful pacing makes it flow like a captivating detective story.

SeaWorld has, not surprisingly, reacted angrily to the film. There’s no denying the doc should be taken with a grain of salt, like any film with an ethical axe to grind. But since company reps declined to be interviewed for the film, their protest rings somewhat hollow in contrast to Cowperthwaite’s scrupulous research and use of good old-fashioned facts. You can read SeaWorld’s letter to the media and decide for yourself, but in the meantime Blackfish is definitely worth seeing — you’ll think twice about ever taking a kid to this kind of spectacle again, for the sake of human safety as much as whale well-being.■

Blackfish opens Friday

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