Orcas are widely known as killer whales, but that is something of a misnomer. While there have been some recorded incidents of orca attacks on humans in the wild, none have been known to be fatal. However, one glance at the list of recorded attacks by orcas in captivity reveals how dangerous these supremely intelligent creatures can be when trapped, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary Blackfish explores this phenomenon to remarkably powerful effect. Many people have seen and loved the orca displays at Sea World and other parks over the decades, and this form of entertainment has developed into an enormously profitable industry, but Blackfish provides a penetrating look at the darkness and pain that it is built upon. The cost to both human and animal life is devastatingly high.
Blackfish centres on a bull orca named Tilikum, who has been in captivity for thirty years and a resident attraction at SeaWorld in Florida for twenty. Tilikum has been involved in three deaths – two of trainers, and one of a man who snuck into the pool at night – and the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau is used by Cowperthwaite as the film's framing device. Brancheau was a highly regarded professional who had been working with orcas for half of her life, but she didn't stand a chance as soon as Tilikum turned on her. Cowperthwaite interviews many former SeaWorld employees who talk about the deep affection and bond they felt with the creatures they trained, but as sincere as they sound they also come off as dangerously naïve. We are talking about a huge, wild creature built for the open seas who has spent its life trapped and abused by humans, and Blackfish argues that our treatment of orcas creates psychological scars that turn them into killers.
The evidence collected by Cowperthwaite and her team is very persuasive. We see footage of an orca being forced to spend its nights in a metal box that is barely big enough to give it wriggle room, the kind of space we would decry as cruel and disgusting if it was a human jail cell. Likewise, the punishment meted out to the orcas when they fail to complete tasks is simply asking for trouble; these are creatures used to hunting for their own food, not having it dangled over their nose and then withdrawn. Perhaps the most powerful impact on the orcas comes from the very moment of their capture, as they are separated from the family unit that is so integral to their way of life –one shattering sequence shows an orca having its offspring taken away and emitting a high-pitched, long-range scream. The animals in captivity are depressed, confused, lonely, scared, but all of that is hidden away from public view behind the smiling face of the SeaWorld propaganda machine. SeaWorld tells its visitors that the drooping dorsal fin visible on so many of its orcas is common to 25% of orcas in the wild, which is an outright lie. It's simply an externalisation of the pain they are going through.
Cowperthwaite is smart enough to know that the footage and personal testimonies she has at her disposal is powerful enough, and she doesn't need to overplay it. Her film is heartfelt and strident but the sharp editing ensures it remains focused and taut throughout. The one thing missing from the film is a perspective from SeaWorld, who repeatedly declined Cowperthwaite's requests for an interview. Perhaps they are simply hoping that the problem will go away if they choose to ignore it, but I hope Blackfish is seen by enough people and incites enough anger that it simply can't be ignored. The film reminded me of The Cove with its content carrying an undeniable visceral force that cuts straight to the moral heart of the issue, but it also reminded me of Grizzly Man, as it exposes the consequences of tangling with nature. Orcas are incredibly beautiful creatures who are far more intelligent and powerful than any man – what gives us the right to think that we can control them?