The Green Leaf


August 20th, 2013

Wow. I just saw "Blackfish," the documentary by director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite at Consolidated Theatres.

The film created a buzz at the Sundance Film Festival and opens at Kahala Theatres 8 in Honolulu Aug. 23. If you ever went to marine parks or have any love for marine animals, I highly recommend that you go see it. If you're a parent with young kids, I also recommend that you see it.

Cowperthwaite's documentary, which was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, is eye-opening, exposing the dark underbelly of what really happens behind the scenes at a place like SeaWorld. Actually, the film takes SeaWorld on directly, interviewing several of its former (and now disillusioned) trainers about what went on.

The pivotal focus of the film is on the Feb. 24 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, an experienced and well-respected trainer. During a routine performance, she was dragged underwater, thrashed and killed by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. in front of a horrified audience, resulting in a lawsuit by OSHA.

Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (Credit: Cabriela Cowperthwaite).

Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (Credit: Gabriela Cowperthwaite).

As a child, I went to Seaworld and have memories of being splashed when Shamu the whale crashed down in the water. Everyone did. We never thought twice about it. The amusement park is a place of sunshine, happy smiles and the trainers lead you to believe that the animals enjoy performing.

Until a tragedy like Brancheau's death happens, and you say, "Wait a minute. What happened?"

That's what started the whole project for film director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, herself a mother of 7-year-old twins who took them places like SeaWorld. Cowperthwaite, who in an interview said she never planned to make this documentary, nevertheless got drawn in by the need to put the truth out there.

It turns out Brancheau was not the first, but the second trainer (and third person) to be killed by Tilikum, 20 years apart. But none of the trainers interviewed knew anything about the previous incidents, and often when there is an accident, the well-oiled PR machine of SeaWorld would blame the tragedies on trainer error.

So we don't have a SeaWorld in Hawaii, nor any Orca whales in captivity here. But many of us have been to marine amusement parks on the U.S. mainland. The film may also cause you to start examining the larger picture of animals in captivity for the purpose of entertainment.

Some highlights:

>> "There's no record of any Orca doing any harm in the wild," says Orca researcher Howard Garrett. But dozens of injuries (and several deaths) have been caused by Orcas in captivity, which have hurt one another and the trainers they work with. Tilikum, the whale that killed Dawn Brancheau, had previously killed two other people as well.

>> The film delves into Tilikum's history. He was plucked from the ocean near Iceland as a 2-year-old calf, separated from his mother (who grieved and would not leave even though she could have), then mistreated at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada. At night, Tilikum was held in a small module, pretty much a prison cell for a mammal meant to travel miles in the boundless ocean. Former diver and Orca hunter John Crowe, who remembers rounding up the whale calves in Puget Sound, says: "This is the worst thing I've ever done."

>> Natural life span. In the wild, marine biologists say there's evidence Orcas can live 60 to 70 years, but SeaWorld staff are trained to tell the public that they live an average of 25 to 35 years, and that they live longer in captivity because of vet care. Who do you believe?

Cowperthwaite skillfully weaves imagery and footage (including the 911 call placed for Brancheau) with heartfelt interviews, capturing some of the most powerful quotes and emotions from former trainers at SeaWorld.

You can see that the trainers loved the whales and the thrill of working with those magnificent creatures, but were naive and surprisingly, had very little scientific knowledge about Orcas.

Just like "The Cove," in 2009, I think "Blackfish" is going to make an impact. It's kind of a wake-up call that will make anyone think twice about going to a place like Seaworld again. "Free Willy" (1993) was a movie with a similar message, but this one isn't fiction — it's based on real life, which strikes a deeper chord.

Should these majestic creatures of the ocean deep be held in captivity and trained to do tricks for our entertainment? What are the consequences? More importantly, is it morally wrong to forcefully take a whale calf from its mother for the purpose of making money?

Needless to say, SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

To its credit, SeaWorld claims it plays a role in both conservation education. Go to its corporate website and you will actually see links to "education" and conservation." The link to conservation is cleverly branded as, and includes stories on how the SeaWorld Rescue Team returned Claire the Manatee to her natural environment, for instance. The team also responded to the BP Gulf oil spill, saving more than 100 endangered sea turtles.

Here are some rebuttals from SeaWorld and the film published on indiewire.

While watching the film uncovers an ugly truth, unveiling footage of accident after tragic accident, as well as confessionals from former trainers,  it also makes us love and respect these Orcas even more. We discover they are marine mammals that stick together like family and display linguistic, cognitive and emotional abilities (as well as the smarts to try outsmarting their captors by having one group leading them away from the calfs and mothers).

In my generation, we may have accepted sea life amusement parks blindly but in the next generation, maybe this won't be the case and there will be some change.

The film opens and closes with images of the Orcas swimming in their natural environment. What it conveys is the beauty of that, and of the "blackfish" as "an animal that possesses great, spiritual power, not to be meddled with."

Orca whales in the wild, majestic and free. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures (from Christopher Towey).

Orca whales in the wild, majestic and free. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures (from Christopher Towey).

To learn more about orcas, also known as killer whales, visit the following websites:

Kids watch Tilikum the Orca whale from behind a window. BLACKFISH. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (by Gabriela Cowperthwaite).

Kids watch Tilikum the Orca whale from behind a window at Sea Life Park Orlando. BLACKFISH. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (by Gabriela Cowperthwaite).

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