When I was a little kid, for many many years I had a poster for Sea World on my wall. It was a photograph, in moody blue watery hues, of Shamu diving through the water with a diver hanging onto his pectoral fins. To this day, my mother still has a photograph on her desk of myself, probably around the age of five, grinning while standing next to a guy-in-an-orca suit.
After seeing Blackfish, remembering this churns my stomach.
Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, one of the whales who has “played” Shamu at Sea World, that took the life of one of its trainers in 2010. In investigating the history of Tilikum, the film also uncovers the history these whales have had with mankind since they were brought into captivity, ultimately becoming more of an intense psychological thriller than a basic documentary. Numerous chilling interviews with ex-trainers build a case for how some animals do fine in captivity, while others clearly do not. Ultimately the film develops a scathing critique against Sea World (and other such water parks), but rather than be a basic condemnation of its practices, it makes us consider humanity’s relationship with nature as a whole. It is fascinating to hear former trainers talk about how they felt as if they had some sort of deep caring bond with these whales. But in an example where one whale started “playing” with a trainer almost like a cat with a mouse, seeing the trainer escape by the skin of his teeth and run terrified from the whale that “loved” him is a striking example how our understanding of an animal can be colored by our own preconceived human notions.
And yet it doesn’t paint the orcas as killers, but as intelligent, social, wild animals. The film even mentions how they have a larger emotional brain center than humans, and makes a strong claim for how they are indeed intelligent, if not a different sort of intelligence than as we understand it. Hearing the story of one female Sea World orca giving out plaintive long-range cries when separated from its child is haunting. The same can be said for when we see an old salty longshoremen break down crying while being interviewed about how the other whales reacted when he captured their babies. Perhaps we have already encountered alien intelligences, only on our own world in the form of these marine mammals?
Unlike the other doc that critiques how humans treat cetaceans, The Cove, what is most shocking about Blackfish is that this is something happening within our own country. Every year countless people flock from all over the world to visit Sea World and marvel at these ocean giants (myself included), and yet we are supposedly a more civilized, “enlightened” first world country. I seriously hope Blackfish stirs up controversy on how these whales are treated in the wild, and the general treatment on wild captive animals in general.
And yet one issue I had with Blackfish is its inability to really critique both sides of the argument. While the film no doubt convinced me that humanity’s dealings with captive whales inexcusable, it only briefly touches upon the possible value places like Sea World might have. It is true that without places like Sea World, people in general might not have any connection to ocean life all. I would argue that this is a valid point, but that ultimately a place like Sea World that exploits whales as a way to make a massive amount of money is in it for the wrong reasons. The film points out how every “fact” Sea World tells the public about the whales is often skewed to protect the company’s image, and how even the trainers themselves rarely have any strong scientific background. Yet I myself have worked as an interpreter at museums, and even the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf up in Santa Barbara (check it out!). The places I worked tended to be non-profits, whose fundamental goal was to educate the public about the natural world. At the Sea Center we would often catch small critters (crabs, urchins, etc), but they would usually only stay with us for a few weeks before being rereleased to the local ocean, bringing in new ones to take their place. And it is also worth considering places like The Monterey Aquarium or San Diego Wild Animal Park, which has actually saved creatures from going extinct. I would have liked to see Blackfish focus a bit on the positive side some of these organizations can have in respecting and protecting animals, and also educating the public and inspiring them to care for nature, but perhaps that is a subject too broad, and should be covered in a separate documentary.
Either way, if it is unjust to see whales at a place like Sea World, then how can one experience them? I’ll end this by mentioning a little anecdote: when people ask me to name some of the best experiences in my life, there is one day that particularly stands out in my memory. A couple years ago in late summer that I took the ferry from Port Angeles, Washington, over to Victoria, British Columbia. I spent the first part of the day visiting the glorious Butchart Gardens, and then that afternoon I went whale watching. I expected maybe to see an orca or two, but instead I saw dozens and dozens, more than I could count, swimming in great pods all around our boat; males, females, young ones, all together, freely living their life. It was an amazing sight. Obviously this was an experience not everyone in the world will have a chance to witness, but after seeing groups of orcas in their wild habitat, and seeing the way they are treated by humanity’s hand in Blackfish, it is shameful to imagine anything else could be appropriate.
Blackfish opens in select theaters July 19. For more information on the film, visit the official website – www.BlackfishFilm.com! Check out the (intense) trailer below!
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