In Jacques Audiard’s recent film De Rouille Et D’os (Rust And Bone), a killer whale trainer played by Marion Cotillard is attacked by an orca in the middle of a show at a tourist marine park. It is one of the more striking cinematic sequences of recent years, with the camerawork suggesting the point of view of Cotillard’s character Stéphanie as she struggles helplessly against the giant creature’s grip. Audiard manages to capture a sense of the size and strength of the mammal, and the attack is so severe Stéphanie loses both legs as a result.
Real-life incidents like this are the subject of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s informative and moving documentary Blackfish, which examines the captivity and training of orcas in marine theme parks in Canada, Spain and the US, primarily focusing on SeaWorld and one bull whale in particular, named Tilikum.
Tilikum was originally captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, and for many years was held in captivity in Sealand, a marine park in Canada. During his time at Sealand Tilikum was regularly attacked by other female whales, and grew more and more aggressive as a result, eventually drowning part-time trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991 with the help of two female orcas after Byrne slipped and fell into the pool. Witnesses interviewed by Cowperthwaite for this documentary maintain that Tilikum was the chief aggressor, but when Sealand closed shortly after the incident all three whales were purchased by SeaWorld.
Tilikum has been involved in two further deaths since moving to SeaWorld; in 1999 a man named Daniel Dukes was found dead in the whale’s pool (he was actually discovered on Tilikum’s back) after evading security and remaining behind when the park had closed for the day. More recently, in 2010, Tilikum killed experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau following a ‘Dine with Shamu’ show. Despite repeated aggressive behaviour and signs of psychosis SeaWorld have been using Tilikum for breeding purposes for many years, and the whale has fathered dozens of calves, some of which remain with the park and some of which have been sold on to other parks around the world. As of 13 August 2013, there are 45 orcas in captivity worldwide, 32 of which are captive-born.
Cowperthwaite records the opinions of former SeaWorld employees – mainly whale trainers – as well as other people who have worked with or helped to capture whales over the years while employed by SeaWorld and other parks. She also talks to witnesses, family members of the deceased and whale experts, building a strong case that argues for an end to whale captivity. Many of the trainers interviewed had (and still have) deep emotional ties with the whales they trained, but by and large they have left their jobs and now accept that whales should not be kept in pools or trained to perform. The whale experts (and one former whale trapper) interviewed are unanimous in stressing that separating whales from their families in the wild and keeping them in captivity is a cruel process which is probably largely to blame for any aggressive behaviour.
According to the documentary there are no recorded attacks on humans by killer whales in the wild (though I would strongly advise against ever going swimming in their vicinity). Research has shown that the marine mammals have well-developed brains and a very strong sense of family – even stronger than that of humans – hence the mass beachings of whales that occasionally take place; if one whale beaches, other members of its family may join it in a show of solidarity. (There is also some suggestion that mass beachings occur after undersea earthquakes.) It’s not rocket science: the creatures are strongly attached to their families and are used to swimming for dozens of miles a day in the wild; pools and performance routines for tourists give them none of that freedom.
Interestingly, despite repeated attempts by the filmmaker to involve the park, SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the documentary, and their official line on Brancheau’s death at the time laid the blame with the trainer. The documentary accuses SeaWorld of a cover-up, suggesting a conspiracy is in place so that public performances can continue and park takings do not suffer unduly; there is certainly much talk of the suspicious disappearance of CCTV footage here. The park’s arguments in response to the documentary’s assertions have since been stated via press releases and its own website, and naturally they dispute the accusations of cruelty, conspiracy and the repeated suggestions that safety at the parks is an issue. They also disagree with the documentary’s findings that orcas in the wild will live for – on average – 60 to 70 years longer than those held in captivity. Still, Cowperthwaite gradually sucks credibility from SeaWorld’s arguments by juxtaposing the park’s family-friendly ‘magical’ advertising videos and whale dolls with footage of trainers fighting for their lives in whale pools and select details from coroners’ reports. She has also invited SeaWorld to take part in a public debate, something the park authorities have not accepted.
In the film, SeaWorld’s employees are mainly shown coming in or out of court, although park staff are filmed secretly and appear to be giving tourists information that is wildly different to the apparent facts whale experts say to the camera. It is a shame they declined the opportunity to participate, and the documentary is all the more damning as a result. As expected with such a controversial subject, the debate continues to rage: in January 2014, the family of the late trainer Dawn Brancheau said neither it nor the foundation named after her were affiliated with the film, and that they did not believe it accurately reflected Brancheau or her experiences. Court cases rumble on, performances have been cancelled and the issue is now very much on the public and political agenda.
I’m no expert, but to my mind Cowperthwaite presents a reasoned argument for ending whale captivity and performances in Blackfish, which is backed up by extensive research and the opinions of a range of experts. Her documentary is filled with emotional, moving interviews and startling footage, and one of the saddest scenes I have seen in a long time shows a whale being separated from its family; a captor involved that day talks about his own experience, and his realisation mid-capture that something terrible was happening. He is still visibly haunted by the process nearly thirty years after the event.
Presumably Cowperthwaite’s main aim in making Blackfish was to end whale captivity in theme parks. Time will tell as to whether she is successful, but she should be commended for managing to raise public awareness of the issue at the very least. It is a gripping and disturbing documentary, and an excellent companion piece to Louis Psihoyos’ Academy Award-winning 2009 film The Cove. I expect most people who watch it will never visit a marine park with performing whales again.
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Written by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres, Tim Zimmermann
Running Time: 83 minutes