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Whale's tragic story unfolds in graphic detail

Video and testimony depict a harsh reality at SeaWorld's parks

By New York Times


Unapologetically designed both to inform and affect, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's delicately lacerating documentary, "Blackfish," uses the tragic tale of a single whale and his human victims as the backbone of a hypercritical investigation into the marine-park giant SeaWorld Entertainment.

Denied on-camera interviews with park executives, who have strenuously taken issue with the film's contentions in a lengthy news release, Cowperthwaite tells the distressing story of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca implicated in the deaths of three people. Through the rueful voices of former trainers and whale experts, a narrative driven by disillusion and regret unfolds as the trainers point to a gap between SeaWorld's public image and behind-the-scenes reality.

Rated: PG-13
Opens today at Kahala 8

Seemingly supported by chilling video and the oral testimonies of two witnesses to Tilikum's first attack in 1991, the trainers accuse SeaWorld of cover-ups and misinformation.

Much of the footage is painful to watch: bleeding whales, flanks raked by the teeth of their fellow captives; a trainer crushed between two gigantic beasts with only his wet suit holding him together; another trainer dragged repeatedly to the bottom of a pool until he manages to escape.

Providing context for this alarming behavior, researchers describe highly socialized, caring creatures used to living in thousands of miles of ocean and ill-suited to theme parks where they may be subjected to repeated overnight confinements in dark concrete pens.

"If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don't you think you'd get a little psychotic?" Jane Velez-Mitchell, a CNN anchorwoman, wonders in a clip that's used in the film. Other signs of mental distress, like severe tooth and stomach problems caused by the whales gnawing on their enclosures, are described.

But the film's most harrowing moment occurs not while addressing Tilikum's 2010 mutilation and killing of a senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at the park in Orlando, Fla., but in a face-to-face with a former whale hunter, the diver John Crowe.

Tearfully recalling his traumatic capture of whale calves four decades ago in Puget Sound while their mothers howled pitifully ("We were only after the little ones"), Crowe seems haunted to this day by the unearthly sound of the animals' apparent grieving.

Calmly and methodically countering SeaWorld's contention that whales benefit from captivity — the website "Orcas in Captivity" places the current total at 45 — Cowperthwaite questions the advisability of exploiting mammals whose brains, the neuroscientist Lori Marino suggests, may be more complex than our own.

"When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home," one of the trainers says. Perhaps that's why SeaWorld's most well-known show was called "Believe."


Review by Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times

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keikamaui wrote:
I have a house cat. He is the friendliest of all cats I have ever owned. Sometimes when I pet the critter, he will affectionately clamp his sharp teeth in me, and I assume it is his way of thinking that I am something, he loves. A cat yummy or toy. If anything, there is something to be said about these Orcas in captivity. At some time, they too will feel the urge to 'clamp down' on the people who swim with them. However, the lives they live in captivity are not as bad as I will assume this documentary has chosen to suggest, without giving the people at Sea World the opportunity to challenge. These whales, if they had open doors to the sea, I guarantee that they would come and go and never leave their Sea World trainers and cheering audiences for very long.
on August 23,2013 | 04:59AM
Nalochun wrote:
you've got to be kidding, right? these very intelligent and very large mammals' home is the vast and beautiful ocean...freedom to swim and eat at will, and interact daily in intimate connections to their tutus, aunties, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers as well as yearly reunions with other family groups. Anyone who says that these magnificent creatures would choose to live in a bathtub instead of the ocean and would choose to interact with human trainers instead of their own family and extended family, and would choose prison over freedom...is ignorant or seriously lying to themselves and others. I suspect it is the latter.
on August 23,2013 | 06:19AM
primo1 wrote:
I suspect it is a little of both. It's sad, but SeaWorld (and places like them) make a lot of money off of fools like this.
on August 23,2013 | 08:41AM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Seriously? Prisoners are given a roof over their heads, 3 square meals a day, and free medical but I'm not running over to be with them. Life is a struggle but freedom is a great thing. SeaWorld is in business to make money at any cost.
on August 23,2013 | 09:28AM
aomohoa wrote:
Sea life park also. It's not a natural environment and many sea mammals have died there.
on August 23,2013 | 08:09PM
aomohoa wrote:
Your last comment is just plain crazy.
on August 23,2013 | 08:07PM
keikamaui wrote:
Let me add, that I also live in San Antonio, Texas and visit the Sea World there many times every year. It is sad to see how they have restricted the contact with the whales in the water. You won't see anyone pushed underwater by the whales or riding on top of them. You won't see dolphins jumping hoops or tethered lines either. The audiences become bored...and also the mammals too! Sea World...I thank you for your consideration for these animals. The shows aren't like they used to be, but the parks are just as spectacular as ever!
on August 23,2013 | 05:05AM
yhls wrote:
Down with SeaWorld and any other marine parks that have orcas in captivity. They should be boycotted. The whales should be released.
on August 23,2013 | 06:23AM
hanalei395 wrote:
The whales, dolphins know, that if they don't do stupid tricks for those fools, they don't eat.
on August 23,2013 | 07:43AM
Mythman wrote:
Sad - reminds me of what Hawaii's majority population of "trainers" did to the "captive" native Hawaiian people........
on August 23,2013 | 10:16AM
ryan02 wrote:
Some animals are just not meant to be in captivity. Orcas are too intelligent, too social, and too roaming, to be able to remain sane in captivity. I believe the same thing about elephants. I can only hope the evil people who do this type of thing, or support it through their money, will re rewarded in kind once they meet their makers.
on August 23,2013 | 11:12AM
Skyler wrote:
Of course 'somebody's home' - they're not windup toys.
on August 23,2013 | 04:21PM
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