According to the movie Blackfish no orca has ever killed a person in the wild. But more than one person has been killed by orcas in water theme parks. Orcas are marine mammals closer to dolphins than whales. At one point in Blackfish a MRI scan of an orca brain reveal lobes, specifically the paralimbic cleft, that gives these creatures more emotional capacity than humans.
The whole killer name from killer whales comes from the fact that some orcas hunt other sea mammals like seals or other whales. A movie from 1977, Orca used the concept of vengeance between a whale and a hunter (Richard Harris) and helped popularize the killer whale meme. Another film from 1986 depicts whales in a more sympathetic manner. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had Captain Kirk and crew traveling to the past to communicate with humpback whales. And last year the French film Rust and Bone starred Marion Cotillard as a woman recovering from a killer whale incident.
Orcas are in our consciousness and Blackfish wants to present facts to put the way people think of the huge creatures into perspective. All of the human related deaths by orcas occurred at water theme parks, notably SeaWorld in North America. One orca in particular Tilikum was involved in three of the deaths. Some of the information presented was revealed through testimony in a lawsuit brought against SeaWorld by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).
While Blackfish introduces us to several orca trainers as well as different orcas like Kandu, Corky, and Kasatka it’s Tilikum’s story that provides the biggest arc. After Tilikum was involved in the death, at the British Columbia water park Sealand of the Pacific, of Keltie Byrne in 1991 SeaWorld purchased him. Because he’s a male Tilikum is valuable for breeding but also because orcas traditionally form matriarchal groups he was being beat up every night by the female orcas. Tilikum was involved in the death of a guy (Daniel Dukes in 1999) who snuck into Orlando SeaWorld at night, stripped naked and dove in to swim with the whales. The third death was Dawn Brancheau at the same park in 2010. Blackfish traces all these incidents and at the same time paints a sympathetic psychological portrait of Tilikum.
John Hargrove, one of the trainers seen in the film, explained to Free Press Houston in a phone interview how after he began working at SeaWorld “there was no dignity in the shows for the trainers.” Hargrove attended University of Houston 20 years ago, at the same time getting scuba certification and applying to work for SeaWorld. “I volunteered to help rescue stranded dolphins in Galveston. It wasn’t pleasant work but it got me credit.”
After a 14-year career Hargrove left SeaWorld, disillusioned by battles with management. “The animals seem happy, but what is really going on is these majestic animals are living in a pool,” said Hargrove.
“SeaWorld doesn’t care about trainers or the whales. If you think they will set the whales free - that’s never going to happen. What does have to happen is to get the media to take the issue up to the next step,” concludes Hargrove.
While Blackfish contains some graphic footage it’s not a snuff film, and is less controversial than the docu from a few years ago The Cove (about dolphin hunting in Japan). There’s sadness to the incidents depicted in Blackfish. Yet there’s also a greater importance of exposing the truth, and how a billion dollar company has spun said truth. Blackfish opens this weekend at the downtown Sundance Cinema Houston.
- Michael Bergeron