Some of the video of SeaWorld accidents is disturbing, and a lot of the footage of orcas — killer whales — being herded so that their young can be grabbed for use in theme parks is heartbreaking.
But the most chilling moments in “Blackfish,” the CNN Films expose of SeaWorld’s long, ugly history with Shamu and his “big splash” kind, come from a 911 call and the transcription of a police interrogation.
From the 911 call: “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” This happened in Orlando in 2010, an accident witnessed by thousands and thus too big for SeaWorld to cover up. And from the local sheriff’s department transcripts, which reveal the early stages of the theme park company’s spin on the event, a few blunt lines.
Question: “The arm?”
Answer: “He swallowed it.”
The gist of this documentary, which is built around scores of interviews with ex-SeaWorld trainers, eyewitnesses to tragedies and near-tragedies, and whale experts, is that this “didn’t just happen.” For decades, the film points out, huge, social and roaming killer whales, confined to tiny pens and taught to perform in tank shows at amusement parks, have been involved in incidents and tragedies. Tilikum, the male who killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 was a breeding male who had killed before, and yet was still in the show at SeaWorld Orlando. Many of the trainers were unaware of the whale’s deadly past, but they suspected something by the way some company folks acted around him.
“Clearly (management) knew more than they were telling us,” ex-trainer Samantha Berg declares.
Trainers acknowledge that only the most experienced of their ranks are actual “trainers,” that they’re basically smiling performers taking part in activities with animals they don’t fully understand. A veteran diver recalls, with regret, the whale roundups SeaWorld used to run in Washington’s Puget Sound before they were banned from doing so. To a one, the witnesses talk of the personalities, intelligence and empathy of the whales, which never have human “accidents” in the wild. They’re curious about us, even there. And they cry when their young are taken from them. We see it and hear it.
The film is a little monochromatic in its use of trainers. Some have survived “accidents,” yet none of those people were talked to. But otherwise, this is as through a takedown of a business and its practices as you’re likely to ever see.
SeaWorld seemed to collectively bristle at the very idea of the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” a film that first pointed the finger at the company’s practices and how it encouraged dolphin roundups (and slaughters). But their corporate heads are going to explode at “Blackfish,” a damning documentary that shows the lies in “the party line” — that orcas’ fins curl naturally (almost never happens in the wild), that they “live longer” in captivity (25-30 years in captivity, a “human lifespan” of 60 years-plus in the wild) and that these “accidents” are always the fault of “the trainers.”
As one tearful ex-trainer says in utter outrage — remembering her friend Brancheau, who was one of the smartest trainers out there — “How DARE they.”
Cast: Former SeaWorld trainers, whale experts, eye witnesses
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, written by Eli Despres and Gabriela Cowperthwaite. A Magnolia / CNN Films release.
Running time: 1:24
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images