I think it would be difficult to find an individual who has gone through their entire childhood without seeing a whale performance at Seaworld – or any major water park, for that matter. It’s an aquatic circus-show that is so engrained in the world of theme parks that it’s almost a completely normalised “right of passage” for curious youngsters. The huge, dominating whales, with their giant teeth and glistening midnight skin, are somehow brought down to a cartoonish level of cuddliness when doing tricks with their wetsuit-clad trainers – to the audience, these two are the best of friends, and that trainer has the best job in the world. The reality is something not so Free Willy-friendly.
Blackfish’s argument centres itself around the 2010 death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was drowned by the park’s largest (and most famous) whale, Tilikum, during a performance. The film presents a difficult recipe – the trainers do genuinely love these animals, and there is plenty of evidence to show the whales form an emotional attachment to their trainers. There is however, a deep mistreatment of the whales that comes from the head of Seaworld that has shown it has the potential to result in tragedy for those unknowing trainers.
Blackfish does not have a simple humans vs. animals mentality; it’s humans vs. animals vs. humans vs. humans. While the conditions at Seaworld may be causing these whales to experience what one interviewee describes as “a psychosis”, these issues are more often than not kept from those most at risk – the trainers. Many of the interview subjects are former trainers at Seaworld, and it’s shocking at how much information they weren’t given about the nature of these “accidents” while they were working there. They were completely unaware that they had been put in an unsafe environment – for many of these trainers, they weren’t aware until they were in danger themselves. One of the film’s more shocking statistics is the fact that there have been numerous documented events of whales attacking humans (some fatal) in captivity, and zero documented attacks in the wild.
It’s a difficult watch, but it’s also hard to look away – the film is emotionally powerful and absolutely determined with its message. A raw and relentless look at the cloaked injustices within Seaworld, Blackfish is not the kind of film you’ll easily forget.