“Blackfish” tells the story of Tilikum, a performing orca whale and his captivity. Over his long career as a performer at SeaWorld (and other similar water parks), Tilikum is accused of killing three different trainers. The coverage of Tilikum includes his capture in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, and purported harassment by fellow captive orcas at Sealand of the Pacific—incidents that director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite argues contributed to the orca’s aggression. Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld’s claims that lifespans of orcas in captivity are comparable to those in the wild, typically 30 years for males and 50 years for females, a claim the film argues is false. The film includes a testimonial from Lori Marino, Director of Science with the Nonhuman Rights Project. Other interview subjects include former SeaWorld trainers, such as John Hargrove, who describe their experiences with Tilikum and other captive whales.
Cowperthwaite began work on the film after the February 2010 death of Tilikum’s trainer Dawn Brancheau and in response to the claim that the orca had targeted Brancheau because she had worn her hair in a ponytail. Cowperthwaite argued that this claim had been conjecture and that “there had to be more to this story”.
This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals.