With: Tilikum, Dawn Brancheau, Kim Ashdown, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Howard Garrett, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Jeffrey Ventre
Do whales have feelings? It’s a provocative question, worthy of debate. There’s the scientific evidence that some whales have spindle neurons, which is what humans use to process emotions. But is the effect the same on whales?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s brilliant controversial documentary Blackfish effectively argues that whales not only have emotions but also are sentient beings with complex familial and societal organizations. She goes further, sketching out a psychological profile of the film’s titular lead, Tilikum, an orca that truly is a killer whale.
While questions of the nature of whales—their intelligence, playfulness and nurturing qualities—abound in Blackfish, the film is structured as a murder mystery. In the film’s first scene, a news report offers the shocking news that a trainer at SeaWorld, Dawn Brancheau, has died due to an accident in which her favourite whale, Tilikum, has inexplicably dragged her into the pool, drowning and then maiming her.
The film then moves backwards in time, showing how SeaWorld employed crews in the 1970s to capture mother whales and their calves and then transport the babies to captivity in some of the organization’s aquariums. A hardened former crewmember admits that the capture and separation of the mothers from their children was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
It’s in the following archival scene that the viewer first meets a three-year-old Tilikum near the shores of Iceland, where he was forcibly taken away from his mother into something that humans would call slavery. His first place of internment was a fly-by-night institution called Sealand, near Victoria B.C., where the still young whale was stuck in an unlit steel box for most of the day while being maltreated by the older female whales.
In 1991, Tilikum was involved in his first human death. A trainer, Keltie Byrne, fell into Sealand’s tank, was “played with” by all of the whales but ultimately died by drowning. The testimony by two sisters who were there that day is harrowing in its details; it’s clear that Tilikum was involved in the young woman’s death.
Soon after, Sealand closed and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld, an organization that has three highly successful operations in San Antonio, San Diego and Orlando, Florida. Tilikum is one of over twenty killer whales “working” for SeaWorld. His treatment at this bigger US operator of marine lands, which includes dolphins, sharks and polar bears, was clearly better than at Sealand but other whales, particularly some of the older females, often harassed Tilikum.
Cowperthwaite has assembled a great set of witnesses to Brancheau’s demise, SeaWorld’s corporate malfeasance and Tilikum’s homicidal behavior: Kim Ashdown, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Howard Garrett, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove and Jeffrey Ventre are, in the main, former SeaWorld trainers. Through a wealth of archival material, the viewer sees most of them—and Brancheau—as young, eager employees, thrilled to be working with the whales at SeaWorld.
The footage shot by Cowperthwaite shows them now, wised-up and hardened, truly upset at the treatment of the whales at SeaWorld. Clearly, they believe that whales have feelings and personalities; in fact, some like Tilikum and feel that he’s been badly mistreated. Still, there’s the matter of Dawn Brancheau’s “accident.” By all accounts, Brancheau was a first-rate trainer but Tilikum, slightly underfed that day, with his routine thrown off by mitigating factors, was “frustrated.” The killer whale, who was responsible for Keltie Byrne’s demise and the death of an intruder who fell into his tank one night and somehow drowned, dragged Brancheau to her painful, tragic end.
Over two years later, Tilikum is still alive, working at SeaWorld Orlando. None of the deaths have been ruled as homicides. After all, whales can’t think or feel anger, can they?
Blackfish is a powerful, thoughtful film. It’s one of the finest docs of the year.
Blackfish screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting July 19. Click here for full details and showtimes.