Audiences have always had an intense fascination with documentaries which depict the lives of animals in the wild. An enormous number of the most successful documentary series are those which concern wildlife, David Attenborough being the most prominent of these.
However, besides the fascination with wildlife, the message in these documentaries has always been clear, wildlife is just that, wild. The fascination with dangerous animals should stop at a distance, they can never be considered like “pets” and most certainly should never be captured.
Some of the most interesting documentaries lately have been those which examine what happens when mankind encounters nature in a far more intimate way. Films like Grizzly Man really hit home how dangerous it is to think that human beings can live a normal life in the company of a wild animal.
Dawn Brancheau with Tilikum
Blackfish takes that point to another level. Director Gabriela Coperthwaite’s documentary revolves around the life of the killer whales in SeaWorld, particularly the life of Tilikum, the parks most famous “Orca” whale. Beginning with a history of how whales were initially captured in the wild, Blackfish follows the life of Tilikum as he is moved from one Seaworld to another over the years before eventually settling in SeaWorld Orlando.
Despite the fact that Tilikum is one the largest male whales in captivity, living in the matriarchal society of the Orca whale meant he was constantly under threat. Rammed constantly against the walls of the tiny pools he lived in by the female whales in Seaworld, Tilikum also suffered at the hand’s of his initial trainers.
Blackfish suggests that it was only a matter of time before Tilikum began to fight back. While the most famous of his attacks resulted in the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, there had been claims that Tilikum was actually responsible for the deaths of two other people. Along with these fatalities, the other Seaworlds and parks in the company are responsible for a long list of injuries, many of which were never reported to other employees.
While presenting the facts in a clear and concise way, Blackfish also manages to move and petrify the audience in almost equal measure. Although documentaries should remain unbiased, it is crystal clear where the sympathy lies in this film, and it is firmly with Tilikum. Unfortunately, it is very easy to understand why; torn away from his mother at an early age, moved from one park to another, attacked repeatedly by other whales and left in a small tank in captivity, you will begin to question how he has managed to not commit more attacks. Another frightening point the documentary makes is that Tilikum was used as the main male for breeding in Seaworld, a violent whale is now responsible for about 53% of the whales throughout SeaWorld.
Those who take part in the documentary are also perfectly chosen and excellent sources, many who are interviewed are former employees of SeaWorld who fundamentally disagree with their policies. Their frustration and anger is difficult to ignrore, many moved to tears when they recount some of their testimony. Interestingly, Seaworld itself did not contribute to the documentary in any way.
Perhaps the only complaint with what is an outstanding piece of work is the manipulation of the videos which show some of the attacks. Set against dark music, they almost seem like they would sit better in 1977’s horror Orca.
Besides this slight side step, this is a fascinating piece of documentary work and one you should really go out of your way to view.
And remember, they are not called killer whales for nothing.