Speaking Whale

Why does an animal that killed three people still perform in aquatic parks? Oh yeah. Money.

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Blackfish
Opens August 29th, RPL
4 out of 5

One of the most effective environmentally minded documentaries in recent years, Blackfish makes an ironclad case against aquatic parks á la SeaWorld, whose reputation was already in tatters following The Cove.

Blackfish uses the story of Tilikum to illustrate the barbaric ways a killer whale is brought in, trained and kept in captivity. Seized near the coast of Iceland in 1982, the massive male orca first landed in the infamous Victoria attraction Sealand of the Pacific. With very limited mobility and bullied by other whales, Tilikum grew restless. A trainer fell into the tank and was quickly drowned by Tilikum and his companions.

Because of his size and his gender (Tilikum has fathered over a dozen orcas), the killer whale was quickly snatched by SeaWorld in 1992. Since then, his psychotic tendencies have only worsened: Just imagine living in confinement for decades, away from your pod, forced to perform. A vagrant and a second coach would fall victims of Tilikum’s damaged psyche, and in both cases the park blamed the humans.

As Blackfish illustrates, Tilikum’s case is hardly unique. All around the world, these massive animals of enormous intelligence are treated like criminals, sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labour. The doc makes its point with remarkable footage of actual deaths and near misses (including a breathtaking sequence involving a trainer repeatedly submerged by an inscrutable orca). Also, former SeaWorld workers are at hand to illustrate the horrible business practices of the chain.

Sure, Blackfish is openly biased — SeaWorld refused to participate in the film — but some arguments are impossible to argue against. Aquatic centres are businesses that generate millions in revenue and the well-being of the “stars” ranks low in their list of priorities. The people who run these parks are not professional zoologists but businesspeople, as you can discover in the poorly worded response SeaWorld crafted as Blackfish gained notoriety.

I know they won’t be receiving a penny from me, at least.

2013-08-22