As a child, there was nothing I looked forward to more than our yearly family trip to San
Diego. For a child born and raised in the desert, the sound of the crashing waves, seagulls squawking and the feeling of sand beneath my toes was pure bliss. My love for the ocean did not just cease at the sand, but extended to the dolphins that I would see swimming offshore and to everything else that I imagine lived deep in these huge blue waters. I was intrigued with the idea of a whole other world filled with millions of different types of species that the typical human would not get the opportunity to see let alone interact with. The idea of a special place that gave me the opportunity to interact one one with these beautiful creatures but to also a venue to experience amusement rides as well became my childhood haven.
This paradise was known as Seaworld. My heart was immediately captured from the moment I stepped foot into the gates that separated this magnificent park from the regular world.
I remember the initial overwhelming shock of the size of Seaworld compared with the few aquariums I had seen before to the massive pools and exhibits of fish and other sea creatures. I was ecstatic that I had an entire day filled with opportunities to explore and immerse myself. I was mesmerized by the opportunity to touch a dolphin and be splashed by a killer whale’s tale along with the other hundred of tourists. It all seemed so happy and well orchestrated. Even the fast food was pretty good.
But as those annual family trips to San Diego continued, each of them including a day at Sea World, I began picking up on those small cues that just didn 't seem right. The initial amazement of stroking a dolphin formulated into the question of did these intelligent creatures like to to be poked by thousands of humans each day? Or how can two or three million pound orcas fit into a tub that looks to be the size of a large swimming pool? And how can these creatures still have room to swim around each other without feeling claustrophobic? Did they ever want to return to the ocean where they came from and, if they did, how would the find their own food after getting hand fed for years? Seaworld, a place that had once been a magic experience, became a place of many unanswered questions for me.
These serious questions were not just mine. I learned that other ocean and animal lovers were also asking was there something wrong with the Seaworld model. Animal captivity is an issue frequently ignored and completely forgotten about in our fast paced human world. We strip these beautiful creatures from their natural habitats and expect them to adapt to the new unfamiliar homes we place them into. From there, they are forced to perform multiple shows a day, simply for the amusement of these park visitors. Research has shown, that an animal in captivity cannot be compared to an animal who is still free living in the wild. These animals will eventually begin to stop eating regularly, isolate themselves, and stop interacting with the trainers as they had previously done before. They also have a tendency to become dangerous and act out unexpectedly (“Free Willy … Pals”). Protests sparked as soon as caring people found out about these inhumane actions and the screen between what tourists see and what actually goes on was exposed. These questions spread like wildfire and caught the attention of the media and entertainment industry. “Flipper” and old TV show about a boy and his dolphin, gave way to
documentaries and even movies like “Free Willie”, which told the story of a whale in captivity and the humane efforts to set him free.
Once the media picked up the vibe of infuriated protesters who attacked the captivity and abuse of sea creatures, they pushed the investigation to a new level. The desire to know what was really going on behind those purple colored iron gates of Seaworld eventually lead to the media’s ability to uncover secret information that Seaworld had desperately tried to bury. Shortly, the media obtained full coverage as to the kinds of cruelty that was going on and not long after this information was released to the general public informing them what was really occurring.
Incident after incident began resurfacing. This astonished not only the media, but Seaworld’s very own staff. Why these attacks had been kept quiet from not only the public but employees as well became a real mystery. This became the introduction to the documentary, Blackfish.
Blackfish was produced in 2013 by film director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a producer who questioned the real reasons behind Dawn Brancheau’s death. Through her determination to solve these unknown and at the time, unexplainable tragedies that Seaworld lacked to answer, she discovered information that opened the publics’ eye to this aquatic park in a much different way; the immoral treatment they endure upon of their animals. Blackfish became the one of the first formal introductions to the idea of how detrimental large aquatic life in captivity actually was. The documentary finally gave former Seaworld trainers the opportunity to publicly speak out and expose the secrets that they had been forced to keep about Seaworld and their cruelty for the first time. Stories included details about their experiences working with wild sea life animals’ as well as working within the park. Trainers were haunted by images they had seen and were
forced to keep quiet because of the parks trying to keep the awful animal captivity conditions under wraps.
There had been many attacks to trainers by these animals that were kept quiet and went unpublicized. Dawn Brancheau, a Seaworld trainer in Orlando, Florida, was attacked and killed on February 24th, 2010 by a killer whale. Dawn became one of the first attacked trainers that
Seaworld could not hide from the public and published to the media(Dawson). However, this was not the first attack at Seaworld’s or this orca’s first incident harming a trainer. Three other incidents had occurred previous to Dawns tragic incident, all of them during this orca’s entertaining career.
The attacker, an orca named Tilikum, was a Seaworld inhabitant as well as one of their most popular and profitable performers. Prior to his years at Seaworld, Tilikum was brought from a park in Victoria, British Columbia call Sealand, one of the first commercial aquatic parks.
During the process of purchasing Tilikum, Sealand advised Seaworld from allowing this animal to have any sort of interaction with trainers due to his violent outbreaks. Seaworld neglected to take this advice. Weighing about 12,000 lbs, Tilikum is the largest whale held in captivity.
(Johnson). Considering his large size, the tank he was placed in was not in proportion for his size. In his original home in British Columbia, Tillikum was placed in a 20 x 20 x 30 foot holding tank, where he spent the majority of his time. In addition to the tank’s cramped size, two other female whales inhabited that tank as well leaving three enormous creatures sharing a tank that is comparable to the size of a swimming pool. Due to the fact he was a newcomer and the others had not adapted to him, Tilikum was extensively abused by the female orcas. This was not the only abuse that occurred there. Sealand’s trained their whales aggressively, only
rewarding excellent tricks and good behavior with food(Johnson). Food deprivation, abuse or lack of places to use his natural instincts could have ultimately been what lead to Tilikum’s violence and depression.
His first attack took place in this Canadian park, Sealand. The victim was a female trainer who accidentally fell into their pool. The whales’ repeatedly dragged her body under the water for long periods of time. The orcas’ continuous thrashing of the woman’s body resulted in her death but it was the first of many incidents for this poor orca. Tilikum’s second incident involved Daniel Dukes, a man who snuck into the park after closing. The man was found in
Tilikum’s tank the next morning on top of Tilikum’s back completely naked and dead. Although it was never officially reported, a medical examiner said the orca had brutally mutilated his body, leaving him with bite marks along his body and his genitals were bitten off. To this day,
Tilikums’ last attack was on one of his most experienced trainers, Dawn Brancheau. Tilikum had been acting up during their on land interactions and not following her commands. Upon getting in the water, there was obviously something was wrong based upon his failure to listen to her commands. Within minutes of being in the water, Tilikum grabbed her left arm and dragged her under water, drowning her and detaching her left arm (Garcia).
There have been many investigations into these awful attacks and what caused these usual predicable, calm animals to turn so quickly. Through these investigations, evidence has concluded that orcas ' simply are not meant to be contained. These creatures are extremely active mammals who take pleasure in hunting and traveling. It is reported these enormous animals have the potential to travel one hundred miles a day in search of food (Gibson). They are dependent upon on their activeness, so to be restricted to a small tub and stripped of their natural instincts
creates serious negative long-term effects which ultimately, can lead to their violent outbursts. In addition to their talent of hunting, the killer whale has another skill that keeps them sane; their social instinct to communicate with other whales. As shown in the documentary, these creatures verbally communicate in order to know where the rest of their groups. This group can consist of two to fifteen whales who stay together to feel a sense of protection (Dawson). The inability to use their natural instincts of smarts, socializing and communication make these animals’ minds go astray. In the end, these restricted captivities causes large amounts of stress which can result in mental or physical issues to these beautiful creatures.
Furthermore, Blackfish contradicts the “facts” Seaworld attempts to inform and educate their visitors. Their mentality that they are providing a safe, clean home for sea life creatures by keeping them in captivity is something they take pride in. Employees and trainers share these “facts” with their visitors, making them believe what they are doing is right and ethical. Seaworld declares these mammals have a better chance of survival when held in captivity, giving them a longer, safer life. In all actuality, living in captivity cuts the life of the killer whale in half. (Johnson). Premature death is extremely common within parks, no whale has lived for their entire predicted life expectancy compared to if they had been left or born in the wild. Another common symptom of ocra’s is the collapsed dorsal fin. Seaworld claims that is a normal adaptation that frequently happens in the wild but this is far from the truth. This symptom is common among the parks but rarely seen in the wild. This condition is frequently seen in male orcas held in captivity but is possible to be seen on females as well. As The National Marine
Fisheries Service has reported, “"The collapsed dorsal fins commonly seen in captive killer whales do not result from a pathogenic condition, but are instead thought to most likely originate
from an irreversible structural change in the fin 's collagen over time. Possible explanations from this include: (1) alterations in water balance caused by the stresses of captivity dietary changes,
(2) lowered blood pressure due to reduced activity patterns, or (3) overheating of the collagen brought on by greater exposure of the fin to the ambient air”. (Kirby). These conditions, whether they be premature death, collapsing dorsal fin or many of the other serious conditions, that these beautiful creatures are subjected to can be traced back to their unfamiliar environment that takes a toll on them and their safety.
In attempt to make excuse their actions and regain the public’s trust, Seaworld has made numerous announcements to the public in a desperate attempt to save their reputation.
Upon doing any research through google on the topic of this documentary, the first website appear after each search is titled “the truth about blackfish”. The Seaworld produced website consists of arguments defending themselves against Blackfish and their “false accusations”.
Their claim of Blackfish being a propaganda rather than a documentary is title before information explaining their side of the story. One of their main arguments is blaming Dawn
Brashcu for her death, claiming “it had nothing to do with the animals at all” (“Truth about
Blackfish”). The website lists six of Blackfish’s main points and goes into great detail and depth explaining their side of these accusations. Bullet point number four is an explanation of the causes and reasons behind Dawn’s death. Their belief is that Blackfish portrays Tilikum to be a violent and psychotic animal in result of captivity which they believe is a false accusation. This information is far from the truth because their is not a single report of an orca harming a human.
It is believed that the animal feels such an extreme amount of stress from being held captive that they act out in unpredictable ways. Their claim that this documentary’s biased views reflects
negatively on them and they only show one side of the story. While this may very well be true, the story being presented through the documentary is displaying the part of the story that was hidden from the public and that answers many questions. Seaworld’s interactions with these animals has always been unethical. Whether it be taking advantage of these innocent mammals through forceful acting or working, or the mistreatment of them. A problem has arisen and unfortunately, innocent people have paid the price. The three lives that were taken were all individuals with no intention of harming Tilikum but something in his mind did not register that.
Currently, an ongoing investigation and trial is occurring attempting to understand what occurred on April 29th, 2010, the day of Dawn Brancheau’s attack. The investigation questions
Seaworld’s intentions and whether they create a safe environment for their trainers. The trials accusations are allowing their trainers to be in danger by putting them in such close proximity of the whales. The investigators of Dawn’s death have concluded that it is far too much of a risk for trainers to interact and perform with the orcas unless their is a physical barrier separating the two. OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, lawyer’s state, "Both measures
[barriers and distance] operate under the common-sense proposition that keeping trainers out of reach of the whales will prevent whales from grabbing or contacting trainers, thus materially reducing — even eliminating — the risk of deaths or serious injuries," lawyers for OSHA wrote in their brief (Garcia). Since I was not able to contact OSHA and ask further questions, I questioned civil rights attorney Jay Zweig, my father, on what would ultimately result from this case. Mr. Zweig commented, “Although the outcome of the court appeal is uncertain, it is clear that the courts and legislator will take steps to protect the whales and the humans that interact
with them. This is particularly true in places like Seaworld, where part of the motivation for keeping whales in captivity is profit.”
As a result of my analysis of Blackfish, it is apparent that orcas are not meant for confinement and that businesses like SeaWorld, should not be permitted to keep orcas in captivity and to put them and their human trainers at risk by putting them together in a tank.
Orcas are too large and too unpredictable to manage, and they were never meant to be managed
—especially not for entertainment or profit. Although as a child I was entertained and delighted to see orcas jumping and doing tricks at SeaWorld, after seeing Blackfish I could never enjoy these shows again. The documentary and other media coverage of animal rights issues and the deaths of orcas and their trainers provide our society for the basis to take action and return these immense creatures to the sea where they belong. Now it is up to us as a society, either through legislation or the power of public opinion, to take action.
Work Cited !
Dawson, Thomas. "Blackfish." Sight & Sound 23.8 (2013): 71-72. Academic Search Premier.
Web. 1 May 2014.
"Free Willy -- And All His Pals." Scientific American 310.3 (2014): 10. Academic Search
Premier. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.
Garcia, Jason. "SeaWorld Goes Back to Court with OSHA in Killer
Whale Trainer Death Case." Orlando Sentinel. N.p., 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 01 May 2014
Gibson, Megan. "The Documentary Blackﬁsh Is Still Creating Waves At Seaworld." Time.Com
(2013): 1. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.
Johnson, Brian D. "A Killer Whale Gone Very Bad." Maclean 's 126.27 (2013): 1. Academic
Search Premier. Web. 1 May 2014.
Kirby, Harri. "Planet Ocean: Why the Collapsed Dorsal Fin?" Planet Ocean: Why the Collapsed
Dorsal Fin? Planet Ocean, 27th Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
"Truth About Blackfish." World Class Theme Parks & Water Parks. Seaworld Parks and
Entertainment, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
Cited: ! "Free Willy -- And All His Pals." Scientific American 310.3 (2014): 10 Premier. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. Whale Trainer Death Case." Orlando Sentinel. N.p., 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 01 May 2014 ! (2013): 1 Dorsal Fin? Planet Ocean, 27th Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2014. Entertainment, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.