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'Blackfish' Makes A Splash At Sarasota Film Festival

Documentary on the life of killer whale Tilikum provokes questions about purpose of whale shows at SeaWorld.

If there ever would be an audience to challenge whether they would go to SeaWorld Orlando ever again, it would be one in Florida just two hours away from the theme park. 

A packed Van Wezel crowd screened the Sarasota Film Festival's Opening Night film Blackfish on Friday night, with gasps, shock, even a few laughs, and a hearty applause. 

The documentary is directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who used to take her twins to SeaWorld and after not feeling what the enthusiastic crowds felt, she questioned the purpose and history of these shows, focusing on the record and effect of one particular killer whale: Tilikum. 

Tilikum weighs 12,000 pounds and he made national news for killing trainer Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010, prompting an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates safety in the workplace. The outcome dictated that the trainers couldn't enter the water with the whales for shows.

The case is still open due to Sea World appealing the decision, and an OSHA investigator at the screening of the film declined to discuss the case with Patch.

As for the film, viewers are taken through how Tilikum was captured in 1983 and the cruel fate of two other whales that were caught with him, and how Tilikum's record of close calls and death in 1991 wasn't disclosed to SeaWorld trainers before Brancheau's death. 

Tilikum also killed a trainer in his former home in Sealand of Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia, as well as a 27-year-old man in 1999, who entered the orca tank. 

Be prepared to see blood and gruesome injuries, but the video evidence of Brancheau's actual moments of death are not shown. Cowperthwaite told the Sarasota audience that even if she did obtain the footage, she would never show it out of respect for the family. Still, Cowperthwaite did an impressive job of patiently waiting to obtain video through public records requests and seeking proprietary footage to purchase to make her case.

It's a good example of journalism, and so much so that CNN Films (as well as Magnolia Films) has picked up the movie to help spread it to a wider audience. 

Directors dealing with heavy subjects tend to add some humor and light hearted moments to break up the intensity, and some of that is inevitable in Blackfish by showing the bond that the trainers had with these whales and the cheery and cheesy SeaWorld commercials from the '90s. 

But I do believe that there are some documentaries that if they want to have the impact they want to really challenge people to make a permanent change, they have to be heavy handed. Blackfish could have been that film, and while I would have preferred that approach, it's not what the director wanted. Cowperthwaite told the Sarasota audience that she isn't advocating—she's presenting a story and letting her audience to decide. 

That's noble, but yet, it also prevents from SeaWorld lawyers calling more than what they would be already, which appears to be not at all since the amusement park wouldn't comment for the film.

The movie even shows pages and pages of injuries OSHA has recorded involving killer whales in captivity since the 1960s. We're also presented tales of a purported spin machine by SeaWorld to heavily modify the tales or cover up incidences of death or close calls of its whales. 

Is it possible that SeaWorld and similar multi-million dollar parks will have to shut down its whale shows? Sure. It's also possible that the federal government orders that trainers must remain behind a barrier during water shows, or could even allow the shows to revert to the way they were.

Nothing was more impactful for me than what the former SeaWorld trainers said after the movie during an audience Q-and-A. Which is amazing considering all the damning evidence presented. An audience member asked what would happen to the whales if SeaWorld had to shut down. According to the panel, many couldn't be released because of their poor dental health. Some whales destroy their teeth on the steel gates separating the pools. Some whales, the panel said, have their teeth bored out, and some removed, so eating in the wild would be difficult.

So, if these are not animals capable of unpredictable aggression in captivity, why do such a thing to their teeth? 

The arguments about the circumstances of each person's death from a killer whale at theme parks still continue, and it's difficult to discern the true motivation for these whales to attack. Deciding to remove teeth or drill holes? That's ridiculous. I don't know how many zoos would decide to declaw a tiger or lion.

I haven't been to SeaWorld since March 1999, when I was a freshman in high school coming to Orlando from Maryland on a marching band field trip. I didn't get to see the whale show, and after see Blackfish, I don't think I'm going to be running to go back to the park. 

I would, however, be up to seeing Blackfish again.

Julie Walmsley April 06, 2013 at 08:14 PM
The drilling of teeth is not a strategy to reduce the severity of trainer injury. It becomes necessary because the orcas (actually dolphins and not whales) break their teeth from mouthing gates out of boredom, aggression, self-injury, or an attempt to join other orcas in adjoining pools. Removing the teeth allows flushing of gums, which is an attempt to prevent potentially life-threatening bacterial infections. Sadly, orcas do not respond to any local anesthesia, so trainers drill the highly sentient orcas' mouths without any pain relief.

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