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Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish has been causing Seaworld some public relations nightmares since its debut.

Blackfish addresses how amusement parks treat orcas in captivity and how trainers suffer injury and, even more sadly, die. Tilikum, the orca at the center of the documentary, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, and he is considered responsible for two other deaths as well. Seaworld blames the people involved — suggesting it was their error, intoxication or, seemingly ridiculously, their ponytails, as reasons why.

Through interviews with former trainers, experts, and eyewitnesses, the documentary shifts the focus back to Seaworld for its treatment of the orcas in captivity and for such parks’ capture of orcas at all. One of the crew involved in capturing orcas shed tears as he said the situation was “just like kidnapping a little kid away from their mother.”

The archival video is even more compelling, if difficult to watch. Footage from 2006 shows a trainer’s encounter with an orca who grabbed his foot, dragged him underwater repeatedly, and nearly drowned him before he got away. The commentary explaining what is happening makes for a nail-biting sequence.

The documentary effectively raises the question about the humaneness of keeping orcas in captivity for public amusement. The nature of the creatures in the wild makes captivity sound almost like solitary confinement. They live in huge families, share a language, and even possess a sense of self. Their capture forces them away from these families into a fake one, where we’re told they harm each other in captivity; “training” involves punishment, through food and sensory deprivation; Tilikum also is a sperm donor used to inseminate females around the country, and their calves are separated from their mothers, causing stress for both.

Blackfish has caught the public’s attention. Several musicians have canceled their concerts at Seaworld, fans are petitioning artists to cancel their shows, and still other musicians request their music not be used as part of shows. Impact, indeed.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.