Sea World & Blackfish: How One Documentary is Changing the World

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“If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little irritated, aggravated, maybe a little psychotic?”

In 2010, an experienced trainer at Seaworld named Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, the featured act in the park’s killer whale show. Seaworld was rather vague about the circumstances surrounding her death, ‘It was an accident, she fell in, she made an error,’ were a few of the excuses Seaworld made in order to bury the case. This was not enough for documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite. “If I have this many questions, I’m sure everybody else will”. What followed was a series of investigations, which led to the uncovering of some of Seaworld’s best-kept secrets, including that Tilikum killed two people prior to Dawn Brancheau, a fact so effectively buried by Seaworld that Tilikum was able to remain a featured act for the past thirty years.

In 2013, Cowperthwaite’s revealing documentary Blackfish premiered at the Sundance film festival to critical acclaim. It was picked up by CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures and is currently (at the time of writing this) available to stream on Netflix instant. The cases of animal mistreatment, employee endangerment, blatant lies about the health & average lifespan of an orca (It’s about 30 years longer than Seaworld claims it is), victim blaming, media manipulation and corporate greed all come to the forefront in Blackfish. This information has been floating around in various circles for some time, but up until Blackfish, it had never been so widely available to the general public.

Since the release of Blackfish, Seaworld’s reputation has suffered terribly, resulting in a 3% drop in revenue and an 84% drop in its net second quarter income. And it did not stop there. Willie Nelson, Pat Benatar, Martina McBride and Cheap Trick (among many other musical acts) canceled their scheduled performances at the park. Southwest Airlines didn’t renew its 26-year partnership with Seaworld. Three class-action lawsuits were filed against Seaworld for blatantly falsifying information about the way they take care of their performance animals and train their employees. An amendment was attached to the Agricultural Appropriations Act, which would require the USDA to study the effects on orcas kept in captivity, and it passed unanimously. Perhaps most notably, Seaworld canceled its infamous Shamu show, which featured mistreated performance orcas like Tilikum.

At least to some degree, Seaworld is making a conscious effort to change. At Seaworld’s San Diego location, the killer whale show will be phased out and replaced with a more informative show about orcas. The idea is to send a message about conservation, rather than just use the animals for the sake of spectacle. While this might not be the end-all to animal abuse at amusement parks, it’s a step in the right direction and there is hope that this show will be a tremendous improvement upon its infamous predecessor. But the concern is still prevalent. At Seaworld San Diego, a 2-year old beluga whale died on Friday due to gastrointestinal problems. This news may have flown under the radar if not for Blackfish, which encouraged its viewers to investigate stories like this, rather than just accept Seaworld’s word every time something bad happens at their parks. Blackfish is powerful, especially now, when films are more easily accessible to the public than they have ever been before. We are living in a world where animals are still kept in captivity for entertainment, and Blackfish could be a tremendous step forward in changing that.

About the author

Marisa is an intern at the Greenwich International Film Festival and working on a BA in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.
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