Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. This documentary shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity.
'If you were in a bathtub for 25 years," says an uncommonly lucid Fox News talking head, 'don’t you think you’d get a little irritated, aggravated, maybe a little psychotic?" This, in a nutshell, is what director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s gripping, revelatory Blackfish is about: why, if the six-tonne bull orca Tilikum, familiarly known as 'Tilly’, had a direct fin in the deaths of three people and caused injury to a few more, is the animal still performing at Florida’s SeaWorld Orlando to this day? And what caused—and may yet cause in future—the whale to attack humans?
at once fascinating and horrifying
Yet what lifts this film significantly above the garden-variety televised nature doco—'When Orcas Attack!’—is Cowperthwaite’s meticulous research, an abundance of archival footage (much of it generated by SeaWorld itself or furnished by numerous former trainers) and those ex-employees themselves, articulate and passionate talking heads who exhibit by turn various stages of emotion ranging from nostalgia, wonder, mortification and regret over their roles in the popular shows featuring the whales performing various tricks for rewards of food and praise.
'When I look in their eyes," says one, remembering the intelligence of his aquatic charges, 'you know someone’s home." This is a major plank in Cowperthwaite’s platform, the idea, reinforced by various professionals in the field, that orca whales are complex, emotional and intelligent social creatures, and that separating them from their close-knit families and communities can lead them on a flume to loneliness, confusion, frustration and psychosis that can result in the kind of violence exhibited by Tililkum and other captive animals.
There’s plenty of video evidence to back this up, beginning with Tilly’s capture off the coast of Iceland in 1983. Eight years later, during his stay at the now-shuttered Sealand of the Pacific outside Victoria, British Columbia, the whale, along with two other females in the pool, killed a young swimmer, stripped the clothes off her body and held her underwater for hours.
In 1999, a young man who had hidden in SeaWorld after closing was found the next day on Tilly’s back, his clothes also stripped away and his genitals either bitten or ripped off. Then, in 2010, a capable and well-liked 40-year-old trainer named Dawn Brancheau was literally pulverised by Tilly; this tragedy provides the narrative through-line of the film, and the post-mortem from the video of the event, narrated by various trainers who were her colleagues and friends, is at once fascinating and horrifying.
There would even have been a third death, had not trainer and experienced diver Ken Peters kept his head when the whale repeatedly dragged him to the bottom of a deep tank by his feet; again, the entire event is captured on video from multiple angles.
So why is Tilly still there? Money, of course. Though nobody from the SeaWorld organisation agreed to be interviewed for the film, it is on the record that the whale is used for breeding purposes. What’s more, park officials continue to deny the whale is dangerous, shifting blame for the deaths on the victims themselves.
Cowperthwaite, along with editor and co-writer Eli Despres, shows an admirable skill with structure and pacing, taking a subject the more cynical non-animal person might find unengaging and bestowing upon it the urgency of a polished thriller. The film is aided enormously by the string-based score of composer Jeff Beal, an emotive yet largely non-intrusive musical bed.
Though never specifically mentioned in the film, the 'Tilikum’ comes from the Northwest US-based dialect Chinook Jargon, and means 'friends’ or 'common people’. What is explained is the meaning of the title Blackfish, which is what First Nations people and coastal fishermen in the Northwest called the whales, respectful of a perceived great spiritual power. Seen in this light, the treatment of these animals, as one former trainer says in an expression that may seem trite out of context but is as spot-on as that Fox host’s, 'is not okay."
Friday 1 November, 8:30PM on SBS (streaming at SBS On Demand after broadcast)
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
What's it about?
Blackfish, orca, killer whale - for decades these awesome beasts have been captured, transferred to sea parks, and trained to perform for our entertainment. In 2010, a five-tonne male named Tilikum killed one of his trainers at Florida's SeaWorld. It was not a singular event, though there are no recorded cases of orcas injuring humans in the wild. This documentary follows Tilikum's tragic story and that of his fellow captives.