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Review: 'Blackfish'

Samantha Berg (front left) is one of teh former Sea World Trainers interviewed in "Blackfish."
Magnolia Pictures
Samantha Berg (front left) is one of teh former Sea World Trainers interviewed in "Blackfish."

Documentary Asks If Captivity Can Make A Killer Of A Killer Whale

Review: "Blackfish"
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Blackfish."

In 2010, a Sea World trainer was killed by a killer whale. That incident sparked the documentary “Blackfish” (opening July 26 at Landmark's Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Theaters). Watch Evening Edition tonight at 5 p.m. for more on the film and Sea World's reaction to it.

If you live in San Diego, you’ve probably seen a Shamu show with majestic killer whales performing tricks and splashing the audience. The success of the Shamu show relies on a kind of willing self-delusion. Sea World relies on the audience believing the animals in the show are happy and on the trainers believing they have a special relationship with the whales.

"I think those of us working there bought into the idea that we were having a relationship with these animals," said Samantha Berg, former trainer at Sea World in Orlando, "We did feel like we had a special connection with the animals and I’m looking in this animal’s eyes who’s very intelligent and I feel like I’m getting something back."


Berg initially bought into that myth as did filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

"I thought if I had to be an animal in captivity, I’d probably chose to be a killer whale at Sea World," said Cowperthwaite. "I mean I had taken my kids there, they just seemed happy, the place seems clean. You are sort of anesthetized when you are there. We want the cuddly Shamu that’s the fairy tale we’ve been sort of told for 40 years."

Trailer: "Blackfish"

However, Cowperthwaite’s documentary “Blackfish” attempts to shatter that delusion. Cowperthwaite is a mom who had taken her kids to the Sea World in San Diego. Then she heard about a killer whale named Tilikum and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau.

"The first thing I learned was that Tilikum had killed twice before," recalled Cowperthwaite, "He terrified me. I didn’t have a natural sort of empathy, let me think about what made him do this, I was just terrified by this incident."

The incident also caught OSHA's attention and the organization brought worker safety violation charges against Sea World in 2010 after Brancheau's death.


"It’s an employee safety issue and absolutely you cannot tell that employee safety issue without understanding the relationship between the trainers and the whales," said Berg, "Then you have to look at why the whales would actually act the way they do in captivity. When you start to see all the footage of the history since Sea World’s operation and how many incidents there have been of trainers and whales in the water, I think [Cowperthwaite] absolutely got the balance of that because I don’t think anybody would walk away from the movie blaming Tilikum for what he did. And that’s what I think the story gets, that this whole progression that led up to that moment with [Brancheau] interacting with that whale in a way that put her in a dangerous situation -- that neither one of them is at fault."

Unlike Cowperthwaite, Berg did have immediate empathy with the whales: "I realized although it was my dream to swim with the whales, it wasn’t necessarily the whales’ dream to swim with me. So that’s what started things with me. And I have been outspoken about my experiences there and just trying to educate people more about really what goes on and what the animals’ lives are like."

Berg is one of the former trainers that appears in “Blackfish.” She said there wasn't a single incident that prompted her to leave Sea World but she did come to rethink her initial feelings about working with the whales in captivity.

"Honestly, knowing what I know about what those animals are missing because they are not living in the wild swimming 80 to 100 miles a day in the wild, and they have the most incredible social structures and interactions with each other. I would actually give up that experience in a heartbeat if I could trade that for the animals not being there in the first place," said Berg.

As Cowperthwaite interviewed trainers, scientists and even men hired to capture orcas in the wild, her empathy for the whales began to grow and her focus shifted from being just about a trainer’s death to also being about the whales and the veteran Tilikum in particular.

"I knew that as a filmmaker I had to go back 40 years and kind of understand him, what sort of drove him to this point, so that very quickly became my story structure," said Cowperthwaite.

Cowperthwiate gathers amazing footage ranging from home movies shot by visitors to the theme parks to Sea World’s own footage used as evidence in OSHA’s work safety violation case.

"Any source you could possibly imagine, I probably tapped it," said Cowperthwaite, "I went to people’s personal archives, visitors who might have been filming at Sea World. OSHA took on Sea World in court, so as a result of that -- and the freedom of information act -- some video that was actually used as evidence or exhibits, became available but it took about a year. It was like detective work, seeing a piece of footage and seeing someone in that footage that had a camera, and just trying to figure out who that person was even if they were filming on Super 8 in 1970."

Sea World has levied some criticism against the film but Cowperthwaite stated, "I never got pressure during the filmmaking process necessarily to not use certain footage."

Some of the footage, especially those from Sea World of trainers attacked by the whales, is riveting yet disturbing. Here a former trainer describes video of an attack:

"[The trainer] made the mistake of interacting without a spotter... you hear her just scream out, 'Somebody help me.' And the way she screamed it, it was a blood-curdling, she knew she was going to die."

The one complaint I have about “Blackfish” is the sometimes exploitative way it uses the footage of trainer deaths and injuries. By opening with Brancheau’s death and repeatedly teasing us with footage of the incident, we start to feel a voyeuristic obsession with seeing more and then feeling uncomfortable with how gratuitous that is -- like watching "Faces of Death."

Gabriela Cowperthwaite (right) shooting her documentary "Blackfish."
Magnolia Pictures
Gabriela Cowperthwaite (right) shooting her documentary "Blackfish."

Cowperthwaite said: "My portal of entry to all this was the trainer death so I was thinking more about people and putting ourselves front and center in front of these predators, and what is it that drives us to do that. So I backed into the whole whale issue."

And that seems the core of the problem I have with the film. Brancheau’s death is tragic, but she had a choice about going into that pool with Tilikum and whether or not Sea World warned her of any potential dangers. She knew Tilikum was a wild animal and a predator that could behave unpredictably as all wild animals do. Tilikum, however, had no choice, and to me, the story of the whales is the more compelling and urgent one. Cowperthwaite has amazing footage to make a case for the whales but resists making her film a call to action, instead returning to the tragedy of Brancheau’s death for a weak conclusion.

Despite this problem, Cowperthwaite still makes a powerful case for rethinking our relationships with wild animals.

"We in these parks," Cowperthwaite said, "these marine parks, can never, ever give them what they need to really thrive let alone survive. And that it’s actually quite dangerous for us to continue trying."

"Sea World is a $ 2.2 billion company," added Berg, "So I know they are not going anywhere and they do do some amazing things in terms of rehab. They do great work with manatees and sea turtles and they have the facilities to do better rehab work and they could also do a much better job with education. So what I would like to see is that they would phase out their captive breeding program, stop breeding these animals in captivity, phase out the animal entertainment side of the business and they could be an amazing educational facility. I think the time for seeing these majestic animals in captivity for the purpose of entertainment has passed."

In the end, Cowperthwaite blames neither Brancheau nor Tillikum for what happened but rather sees both as victimized by a corporate system, but what she fails to explore is our role in keeping this kind of animal entertainment alive and thriving as a business. A call to action could have been a challenge to that.

Further reading:

Sea World's Statement Regarding "Blackfish" Documentary
Sea World's email response to a request for an interview.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Sea World's reaction to the film and Cowperthwaite's response

"Death at Sea World" book

OSHA fines SeaWorld

Initial report of Brancheau's death

Follow up on Sea World's initial reports of Brancheau's death

Killer whale info here and here

Advocate for whales

Video of killer whales hunting sea lions

Companion viewing: "Orca," "Free Willy," "Trials of Life," "Happy Feet," "Island at the Top of the world"