Killers and Whales, by David Bax
A six ton whale takes hold of one of his trainers – the person who feeds him and playfully pets him – by the foot. He drags the man to the bottom of the pool in front of the spectators who have gathered for a fun, family-friendly show. He holds him there for about a minute before surfacing. The whale just barely lets the man catch his breath before dragging him down again. At one point, the animal lets the man go for a second, only to bite down on his leg again and continue the torturous process. Eventually, the whale lets him go long enough that his colleagues can pull him out of the pool just before the beast charges him again.
Out of context, this sequence in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, Blackfish, is a scene of an enormous orca nearly earning its nickname as a “killer” whale (and then some) by being not only violent but sadistic. But stacked alongside the movie’s claim that there is no documented account of an orca ever harming a human being outside of captivity, footage like this takes on a different tone. Cowperthwaite’s goal, which she more than realizes, is to demonstrate that keeping whales at places such as SeaWorld not only deprives them of their natural habitat and the large-scale social interaction upon which they depend, it also causes unthinkable psychological harm. Violent outbursts like the one described above – which are far more numerous than widely reported – are the tragic outcome of a system that, essentially drives whales insane.
Using as its jumping off point and recurring touchstone the much publicized death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, Blackfish establishes an immediate case that these animals’ lives are not as pleasant as they seem to parkgoers and then continues to build a case that it’s even worse than imagined. SeaWorld is the main villain here and not only because they’re the most recognizable name. As Cowperthwaite shows, SeaWorld is large and influential enough to set the industry standard. In fact, as poorly as whales are treated at their parks, other small companies can’t even match that level of care.
While we descend further into the institutionalized inhumanity of captive whales’ lives, we simultaneously become more and more learned about just how smart, sensitive these creatures are and that their very survival and way of life depends on an emotional depth that may rival or even eclipse that of humans.
Blackfish’s narrative is executed perfectly and, along with photography that captures just how massive and yet graceful whales are, is directly targeted at the part of your brain that feels outrage. Blackfish is not only a great film but an imperative one.