“When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home,” says a professor and former whale trainer in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s often-shocking documentary “Blackfish,” speaking of the intelligence and personality of captive killer whales. Later in the film, they’re called something else: ticking time bombs.
Prompted by the 2010 death of SeaWorld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, “Blackfish” looks at the history of killer whales in captivity but focuses primarily on one: Tilikum, a male orca captured in 1982 and subsequently involved in the deaths of three people at marine theme parks. “He’s killing because he’s frustrated and has no outlet,” says an expert in the film. The whale was separated from his family, held captive in tiny pools, left for long periods without stimulation or exercise, attacked by other theme-park whales establishing dominance, forced to perform “behaviors” for food – all of which left him, the film argues, psychotic.
Tilikum isn’t the only captive whale who’s killed or injured a trainer – we see a long list of incidents and some harrowing footage of near-fatal whale/trainer interaction (thankfully, we’re not shown any fatal incidents) – but his story provides the film’s backbone, as it unfolds like a nearly unbearable thriller. We hear emergency-call transcripts of Brancheau’s death (“A whale has eaten one of the trainers!” says someone, barely able to get the words out), and listen as a parade of former SeaWorld trainers discuss their now-troubled relationship with their past work. One watches a clip of herself at a SeaWorld show – announcing cheerily that “Namu is doing this because he wants to!” – and cringes.
A title card tells us that SeaWorld “repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this film,” and the company has publicly taken issue with many of the film’s claims. Though “Blackfish” gives SeaWorld much credit for educating the public about killer whales over the past several decades, its ultimate message is clear: Killer whales belong with their families in their natural habitat, not performing for audiences. After listening to this film’s many impassioned voices, it’s hard to argue.