In 2010, the SeaWorld star Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca, attacked, scalped, smashed and partially devoured one of the park’s best-loved animal trainers.
SeaWorld initially reported it was because “her ponytail got caught.”
The documentary “Blackfish,” opening Friday, tells the deeper story behind Dawn Brancheu’s gruesome death. At under 90 minutes long, it is straightforward and intimate, exposing the personality of her killer through the eyes of the people who knew him best, and making the tragedy – which now appears inevitable – even more gut-wrenching.
The attack, when it first happened, had a good run in the media, with poorly informed commentators debating who was at fault, whether an animal they knew nothing about was “playing” and what role marine attractions have in society.
Some of that footage shows up in director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film, mostly as counterpoint to her interviews with former trainers, OSHA representatives, wildlife experts and others who reveal the true story behind Tilikum, the killer whale who lived up to his name.
Cowperthwaite knew nothing about marine parks or killer whales before Brancheu’s death, but having recently visited SeaWorld, she was curious enough to dive deeper. Her discoveries become the audience’s, starting with a man who tearfully describes what it was like to capture baby orcas in the wild to sell to tourist attractions.
“It was just like kidnapping a little kid away from its mother,” says John Crowe, who adds that it was probably the worst thing he ever did in his life.
Just as a defense attorney might lay out the case for a client she concedes is guilty, Cowperthwaite presents Tilikum’s early years, torn from his family, put in a tank barely bigger than a swimming pool at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, and trained using starvation and punishment.
The whales at Sealand were kept overnight in 20 by 30 foot water boxes; larger animals attacked the smaller ones and the conditions were ripe for disaster. One day, Keltie Byrne, a young trainer and competitive swimmer, slipped in the pool with the whales. She was killed. Reports at the time called it a drowning accident, but Sealand soon closed and Cowperthwaite finds witnesses who tell another story.
That story didn’t make its way to SeaWorld in Florida, or to the young, enthusiastic staff there, who were excited when the park bought Tilikum, by then a massive male who was prized as a stud.
Former trainers admit on camera that they were not the highly educated animal experts they are presented as to the public.
“It’s more about your personality and how well you swim,” says Kim Ashdown.
What follows is a compelling mixture of personal recollections of the SeaWorld experience, testimony from OSHA investigators, who say bluntly the best recommendation they can give is “Stay out of the water and you won’t get killed,” and evidence from nonscientific research on the brains of orcas, which are larger than humans’.
“These are animals with highly developed emotional lives. They have a strong sense of self, and that sense may be distributed among the group,” one scientist explains.
Person after person compares the official SeaWorld script about the animals with what they now know to be true. Captivity doesn’t extend the life of orcas; it shortens them. Orcas don’t naturally have dorsal fins “flop” over; that is a response to captivity.
And, as former trainer Samantha Berg learns, the gentle giants of the ocean, where there are no documented attacks on humans, can become frustrated and ferocious in captivity. She said that the investigation of Brancheu’s death revealed more than 80 reports of animal aggression against trainers at SeaWorld.
“We weren’t told about any of them,” she said.
SeaWorld reportedly declined numerous requests for comment in the film. It is now fighting OSHA regulations that require it to keep physical barriers between its trainers and the orcas – including Tilikum, who still performs there. For now, there is no more swimming with the whales.
3½ stars (Out of four)
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Running time: 83 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images.
The Lowdown: Documentary tells how SeaWorld star Tilikum the orca became involved in the deaths of three people.