By Eva Posner
Blackfish has been on my DVR since it aired on CNN for the first time in October. I knew I should watch it but I didn’t want to. I’ve never been to SeaWorld, and I wanted to go. I wanted to see the whales. I wanted to watch them jump in the air and wave at me. It’s really selfish, and maybe not the best thing to admit, but I didn’t want to see Blackfish because I didn’t want to feel guilty about thinking the whale show was super cute.
Last night, I decided to woman up and turn it on. Which lead to the most depressing 90 minutes I have spent in front of a TV in a long time, and relief that I never did make it SeaWorld. Because I would have been disgusted with myself.
“Blackfish” follows the story of Tilikum, an orca (or “killer whale”) captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 who has been at SeaWorld Orlando since 1992. The film follows a history of violence by “Tili” and the three human deaths he has been associated with. The story culminates in Tili pulling senior trainer Dawn Brancheau into the water and killing her in 2010.
It makes a convincing case against keeping orcas in captivity, not only for the whales’ sake, but for the safety of employees at aquatic parks as well.
There are some facts from the documentary that make it a pretty open and shut case for me:
- The mortality rate of captive orcas is 2.5 times higher than their wild counterparts.
- There is no record of an orca ever killing a human in the wild.
- Although in the wild, orcas breed in their early teens and babies never leave their mothers, SeaWorld breeds its orcas at 5 or 6 and separates the families.
- In the wild, orcas live in pods with their families. At SeaWorld, different whales from different families are strewn together in whatever amalgamation will sell the most tickets and result in the most prolific breeding. This causes tension and violence between the whales who ram each other and “rake” each other with their teeth. These acts of aggression have resulted in the injuries and deaths of multiple whales. (Including a serious injury at our local park last year.)
- Housing marine mammals that are not compatible with each other violates the Animal Welfare Act.
There are three SeaWorld aquatic parks in the United States: Orlando, San Antonio, and right here in San Diego. You all know where it is. You can’t miss the signs, or the giant Christmas tree, or those obnoxious summertime fireworks.
SeaWorld San Diego was the home of the very first orca show, done in 1965 by a female orca named Shamu, who became the mascot of the park. What is less known is that Shamu was taken from the wild, and that her mother was killed with a harpoon gun during the capture. Shamu herself became violent with trainers, and died in 1971 at 10 years old.
It’s not only the whales we should worry about; human lives are at stake too. There have been over 100 incidents between captive orcas and humans. With minimal research I was able to find that at least 48 of those incidents happened here in San Diego. And there are likely countless more. It was only 2006 when trainer Ken Peters was attacked during a whale show and dragged to the bottom of the pool by his foot. Orcas have lunged at trainers since then. It’s likely just a matter of time before another serious incident occurs and someone gets hurt or killed.
The movie asserts that the orcas are driven to psychosis by their unnaturally small environments, discipline by their trainers, and unnatural social order in the parks. Whether you buy into whales going crazy or not, the fact is that these are large predatory animals with instincts to hunt. They are not the giant aquatic teddy bears the “Shamu Shows” lead crowds to believe.
After the death of Brancheau in 2010 the Occupational Saftey and Heath Administration (OSHA) cited SeaWorld for “willfull” safety violations and told the company to keep trainers at a safe distance from the whales or put physical barriers up. SeaWorld has appealed more than once, and the decision has been upheld as recently as last year. Although SeaWorld has stopped allowing trainers in the water, they are continuing “dry work”, when the whales are up on a stage or platform and the trainers pet, kiss and cuddle them. Brancheau was doing dry work when she was killed. And that doesn’t even count the contact with the orcas that trainers and veterinary staff have when there isn’t an audience.
The company has also gone on the offensive regarding Blackfish. Although invited to be interviewd for the film multiple times, SeaWorld declined. Now it calls the film one sided and misleading. Friday it took out whole page ads in the U-T San Diego, Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, and other papers to “set the record straight.” The “open letter” can also be found on SeaWorld’s website.
As the municipality in which a SeaWorld park is located, the city of San Diego should do something to end the animal and employee abuse in Mission Bay.
The city currently leases the land that SeaWorld sits on to the company at an extremely cheap rate, where the park discharges massive amounts of polluted water into Mission Bay with near impunity.
Could the City Council vote to revoke the lease? Could the City Attorney sue for animal cruelty and willful endangerment of employees? Could someone bring this up in the mayoral election and see if Alavarez and Faulconer have any ideas?
There will be arguments from opponents of job loss and revenue loss. There will arguably be an effect on the local economy, though I doubt it would be very big considering the deals SeaWorld gets.
What could replace it? Maybe a less cruel theme park. Dollywood? (Yea, I’m Southern.) Don’t we still need a place to build that damn football stadium that we are going to undoubtedly waste taxpayer money on? There’s tons of parking already. We could rename SeaWorld Drive to Chargers Boulevard or something. Everybody wins. Well, the Chargers win. And the orcas. And the trainers who won’t die.
There are holes in this position: For one, SeaWorld is taking the brunt of criticism for an entire industry. There is also a larger issue of wild animals being in captivity that needs to eventually be debated. (I am not advocating shutting down or even boycotting the San Diego zoo. That could be seen as hypocritical.) And to be fair, SeaWorld does do some good conservation work with turtles, manatees, and other species that is largely being overlooked and would likely be misplaced if the company closed.
Maybe we don’t have to close it. Maybe we can just get them to free the whales. And dolphins. And seals.
I know San Diego has a lot of issues and a lot of fights at present. There’s the fight for Barrio Logan, the fight for the mayor’s office, the fight for pensions and a balanced budget that still invests in essential services, children and vulnerable populations. Those only scratch the surface. But this is something we should add to our list. It’s a fight that needs to be had.
I will be doing more research, and will likely write again on the issue. It’s been a while since I’ve been this worked up over a company that wasn’t Walmart or BP.
I will never go to SeaWorld. I will never allow my son to go to SeaWorld. I will never recommend SeaWorld to friends and family who come to town. I recommend you take the same stance. I recommend you pressure your city councilmemeber to take a hard line on the issue. I also recommend you watch Blackfish, because misery loves company and, man, am I sad.
Dana Levy says
Sadly, the truth still hurts, and in Sea World’s case it is all too blatant. I have been there several times and it is sort of fun but there are long time-wasting lines to ride the few funnest rides and the actual fish encounters are few and far between. I always said that the raising of awareness was the dominant theme worth the price and hassle but that myth now is gone too. So my youngest granddaughter now knows that we are no longer going to go to Sea World until they dramatically change their policies and/or prove that their care for the whales and all other mammals in their charge are vastly improved for the entire theme park venues. The SD Zoo is a much better alternative and all my grandkids love it there. It is relatively affordable and the diversity is tremendous so we are missing nothing at Sea World. It is the tourists from around the world that now must face the reality of what goes on at Sea World and have to make that dreaded decision as to go forward or not support this living “concentration camp” as they pass the protesters and have to turn a blind eye to the mental and physical devastation perpetrated on the animals held captive there. Sea World has received special treatment from San Diego for far too long and it is time they show some gumption put up or shut up. They claim to be the great protectors of all animal life as they make a few rescues of seals and birds in the local area all the while knowing that the largest of their captives lead a life resembling those found in the gulags of the near past in Russia and elsewhere. I also didn’t enjoy Blackfish but it is a story that needed to be told and I am ever hopeful that the pressure that it will bring to bear on Sea World’s corporation brings about changes that are much needed and necessary to the loves of those on the inside and outside of the big (jail cells) tanks.
The Blackfish film and the endless
work of other Freedom Fighters will get the truth told! Please read the Blackfish “Take Action” that includes Lifeforce campaigns to stop captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium too>
The documentary is completely one-sided and your “facts” aren’t “facts” they are the hypotheses of the documentary film maker (“facts from the documentary” — funny oxymoron). And do you think the elephants, leopards, cheetahs, gorillas, bears, zebras, rhinos and hyenas are happy over there in the San Diego zoo?
Don’t be stupid. There are very few animals that benefit from captivity…but we do keep a select few in captivity so we can learn from them. But to hold one park hostage for what zoos all around the world have been doing for decades, is simply nothing more than a bunch of lemmings like you following this suddenly hot “screw SeaWorld” trend.
Think for yourself please.
Annie Lane says
If you had bothered to read the entire article, you’d see that the author makes your point exactly when she says that SeaWorld is taking the brunt of criticism for an entire industry. It’s always a good idea to scroll down the page a little before jumping on the everyone’s-a-stupid-lemming train.
Theresa Pugh says
Amen Annie. These are facts undisputed. LOl, lemmings. That is exactly what these people do to the Orca’s and dolphins. Pack them into metal boxes and pools near half their size and to perform like sea circus clowns. Why doesn’t $eaworld sue, Enstein? You didn’t even use the term oxymoron in the proper context. Educate your small brain and read “Death At Seaworld”, watch “The Cove” and “Blackfish” But you are probably too ignorant to open what little mind you have. These facts come from current and ex trainers who had all this information documented. Pick up your payceck from $eaworld, we’re not going away! We are Blackfish!
I read and saw all of those and I am 100% against killing dolphins in Asia. “Pools near half their size?” That makes sense.
Thanks, Annie. Couldn’t say it better myself.
And for the record ACM, the “facts” are facts. I did a lot of research before writing this piece. Which is why I only bring up a handful of claims the film makes. I will not repeat things that cannot be substantiated.
So Eva, why is it ok to go to the SD zoo?
I never said it was ok. Going to the zoo makes me sad. Although I will admit I love seeing the elephants, it pains me to see them in such a small space and the giant cage they go in at night. I am with Annie in that I prefer the wildlife reserve or national park setting to a zoo. However, it’s not like the elephants have to do tricks.
There is a larger conversation that needs to be had here. (As stated in the piece.) It is something I am likely to write about again as I educate myself more on the issue. There is evidence of abuse at zoos, including here in San Diego, and that should be stopped.
This piece is Blackfish specific because the film is what inspired me to write it and learn more on the topic.
San Diegan for 39yrs says
There ain’t nothing ‘suddenly hot’ about this ‘screw SeaWorld’ trend. Activists have been protesting Sea World to end captivity for nearly 30 years! Blackfish finally gave the Orca’s a voice.
YES! Just because the message has made it to the masses again (think “Free Willy”) doesn’t mean that no one has been paying attention the rest of the time. Public attention waxes and wanes on all issues; this is no different.
Naomi Rose says
Thank you, San Diegan, for making this point. I have been working on this campaign for 20 years and while I am grateful beyond measure for the high profile that “Blackfish” and Gabriela Cowperthwaite have finally given it (a profile that started to rise with David Kirby’s book “Death at SeaWorld” last year), there is indeed nothing new about this effort. It is older even than my time in the game. I cannot begin to thank all the new activists and voices that have begun speaking out, but for years I and my colleagues in the animal protection world were voices in the wilderness. This is not a fad. This is a movement and it is finally gaining real ground.
ACM, put yourself in a four foot by four foot cell with a person telling you what to do, when to eat, how much to eat, milked for sperm(if you’re male) or artificially inseminated(if female), have your child taken from you(if you are female), bashed by other inmates thrown in with you from other countries who don’t speak your language, for one year and then come back and complain that blackfish is one sided.
The ONLY thing learned from putting wild animals in captivity….is that it’s OK to put wild animals in captivity. Boycott all forms of wild animal captivity. Go to a sanctuary instead. Animals are not to be collected and we weren’t put here to be tyrants. PERIOD. And don’t be foolish….You can’t call the documentary one sided when it’s chalk full of photographs and video that are physical evidence.
free them all says
ACM SAYS…The documentary is completely one-sided and your “facts” aren’t “facts” they are the hypotheses of the documentary film maker (“facts from the documentary” — funny oxymoron). And do you think the elephants, leopards, cheetahs, gorillas, bears, zebras, rhinos and hyenas are happy over there in the San Diego zoo?
WOW…..Thanks for making our point!!!! BTW…The Zoo DOES NOT blast rock and roll music and have the animals prefeoming tricks for a couple dead fish…and you call US STUPID…
This is what i have never understood.
Why do we ‘have to learn’ from animals in captivity? What does the word captive mean in the dictionary?
Why are humans so arrogant?
Here is an idea – how about living these animals alone, in the wild to get on with their lives?
Seaworld may have done some good things – but keeping dolphins and whales isnt one of them. They need to change their business model now. They could keep going down the theme park route that they have been doing – but without the captive whales, dolphins and other animals.
Change has begun. It is the very beginning but the end of captivity has now begun. I reckon Seaworld have got 50 years of killer whales max. Inbreeding has begun.
They know this too.
When killer whale captivity does come to an end in america and it will, it will be largely down to Tilikum.
IMPRISONED AUSTRALIAN DOLPHINS DESPERATELY NEED OUR HELP
Could you please sign the petition to help rehabilitate and free the dolphins at Seaworld on the Gold Coast in Australia and then could you visit and ‘like’ Facebook page………. ‘SEAWORLD SHUT DOWN’ …….
Annie Lane says
Thank you, Eva, for the article. I, too, have been putting off watching Blackfish, but it has become apparent that it needs to be seen. I haven’t been to SeaWorld in years and have had a hard time justifying a trip as I’ve gotten older and more aware.
I recently went to the San Diego Zoo and while it was neat to see the animals up close I couldn’t shake the sadness over seeing them caged. I have seriously mixed feelings about that place. I hadn’t been to the Zoo in 20 years, and not since I’d gone to the game parks in South Africa. There, something as small as a dung beetle has the right of way (they literally have dung beetle crossing signs), and there are acres and acres of free space. Sometimes you see something and sometimes you don’t. It would be nice if there was such an alternative here because it truly is an educational and awe-inspiring experience.
Anyway, thank you again for this article and for giving me the push I needed to see the film.
Thanks, Annie! Please follow up and let me know what your thoughts on it are.
What an amazing article. Thank you for writing this piece. :)
Steve Zivolich says
Sea world has countered several of the documentary findings. However, what cannot be countered is the loss of human life. Putting workers at risk is criminal.
I linked to their ad countering some of the findings. There is no doubt this has to be a two way conversation. (This would have been easier if they had agreed to be in the film.)
As far as the employee risk goes, OSHA is fighting that battle. Hopefully SeaWorld will have to make substantial changes and won’t be able to use the company’s political clout to get their way. (Again.)
Sarah Kishler says
This is the Oceanic Preservation Society’s response to the ad. When I posted this link in the comment thread for SeaWorld’s “open letter” on its Facebook page, I got blocked from the site (they really love banning people from their FB page, and, no, it’s not just people making inflammatory comments or using offensive language that they block). They really do make a two-way conversation hard to hope for.
And Eva, this is a wonderful, thoughtful fair-minded piece. Thank you. I’m of the mind that SeaWorld doesn’t need to close down entirely. It just needs to make HUGE changes. Starting now.
Please stop the immoral exploitation of living creatures. Are you proud to effectively torture sentient mammals for as long they are useful? If you were in their situation, I surmise you might prefer an early death. Do your employees continue to make intentionally misleading statements regarding lifespans for killer whales in captivity and those that are free?
Julian Christian says
If SeaWorld could just stick with rides, aquarium fish, penguins and even the seals I would have no problem with it. I would even renew my annual pass which I have since torn up. It’s just keeping orcas and dolphins in those tiny tanks and having them do those stupid tricks is just out dated and wrong. They don’t do well in captivity. They are kept on constant doses of antibiotics, ulcer meds and have to be fed gelatin because they can’t stay hydrated on the frozen fish they are fed. SeaWorld has lied for years about the health and mental well being of these animals. Most people still believe these mammals are all rescues.
I think that would be a legitimate compromise, Julian. We should demand freedom for the larger mammals and more transparency.
I am positive that they are capable of making changes that would improve the lives of the animals, the safety of the employees and their public image. But I think it is going to take real public and political pressure that has to move beyond Twitter and PETA.
Do you have any ideas, Dana?
If SeaWorld actually wanted to educate the public about orcas in a way that was both safe for the animals and truly informative about these magnificent, intelligent creatures , one option would be to produce a 3D movie of orcas in the wild. That way, visitors would be able to see pods hunting, interacting, and travelling in their natural habitats, thereby learning the reality instead of the fantasy. People would still get the sensation of being there with the whales if the film was well produced.
It would be highly cost-effective for SW, as well, since they could (should, MUST) phase out their captivity program. Film production costs would be minimal compared to the cost of housing and caring for the many whales they currently hold.
A long time friend of Corky, I stand with her at this time…I too have memories of her mother, sister, brothers, and her incredible wild world. We both dream of home. Join me 12/29 13, poolside with Corky. Visions of home, green water, life. All the things I know keep her strong and hopeful. Open your heart… we will be there!
Alfredo Kuba says
Our civilization should have progressed beyond the point were we are “amused” by wild or domestic creatures who are stripped of their dignities and coerced to do demeaning acts on command.
All theme parks that hold captive and imprison other species on the pretext of “conservation” or “education” are nothing more than animal prisons for profit. You can not “save” species by imprisoning them thus destroying their abilities to evolve and robbing them of everything that it is natural to them. The only thing one can learn from seeing animals captive, imprisoned and contained, dominated and manipulated by one dominant, oppressive species is that they are lesser and that we can do whatever we want with them. The public relations machine for these industries have done a great job in conditioning people with a consumer mentality that animals are commodities that we can exploit as we see fit under the fallacies of “conservation” and “education”. It’s all a sham! Just follow the money and you’ll discover the horrors animals endure on these places. Humans destroy nature in a futile effort to try to replicate it. What an absurd and arrogant animal humans are. And how easily manipulate people are into thinking that they are seeing “happy animals” when in reality they are anything but happy.
Very smart and pointed argument. Thanks for drawing attention to this important issue.
“Maybe we don’t have to close it. Maybe we can just get them to free the whales. And dolphins. And seals.”
Not so sure that’s a great idea. These animals were born in captivity and have lived that way their whole lives. While I have no argument against the fact that this shouldn’t happen in the first place, but the fact is they WERE born and raised that way and I really doubt they would survive in the wild if set free.
Dana Levy says
So your comment is that since they were born in captivity it is justifiable that they should be continually subjected to super stressful conditions and denied any freedom at all and all the while forced to do tricks and entertain “us”? Setting them free may not be ideal but setting them free into a supervised setting and allowing them to come and go as they please, even to Sea World (the home that they know), sure is better than what is going on now and who are we to subject other animals to such inhumane treatment with a clear conscious? That is what Eva is relating to. The zoo may not be the perfect setting either but I do see valuable lesions being taught to all that enter and they don’t require the “captives” to do stupid human pet tricks for the multitudes. The education and research done at and through the SD Zoo and Safari Park is miles ahead of what Sea World does world wide. The movie Free Willy was the tipping point and it is way beyond time to be going backwards again what with all we now know. I think it is incumbent on Sea World to find a suitable solution rather than be leading the charge on the denial train. It also appears to me that profit to the corporation supersedes any other consideration other than keeping the animals alive and performing. San Diego must to be in the forefront in demanding better from the “renters” of our bay property.
I didn’t say anything what so over to give anyone that impression. All I said was because they were born and raised in captivity that releasing them into the wild would not be a good idea. In doing so I don’t think their chance of survival is on the plus side. Nowhere did I say they should continue to be forced to do stupid tricks to entertain us. I don’t have an answer as to what ultimately should become of Sea World.
I just wanted to let you know that many scientists have a clear and workable plan to release several of the orcas into large sea pens, as they did with Keiko. Everyone agrees just “setting them free” is not a bright idea. Retirement into an area where they have far greater room to swim, fresh ocean water, the feel of the tides again, etc., that is the plan.
And Eva, thank you so very much for such a fair article. I believe if SeaWorld had a leg to stand on, they would have responded to her many requests to be included. It seems very clear to me that many of their responses are outright lies, such as saying orcas live as long in captivity as not… completely, provably, patently false. Also that family groups are not torn apart… complete lie. There is something here that stinks to high heaven… smells like money… lots of it.
And yes, it is great that they perform rescues, but did you know that for every one hundred of the BILLIONS of dollars in revenue, they spend ONE PENNY on rescue/rehab/release? Yikes.
I was like you and was afraid to watch this film. I hadn’t been to SeaWorld since learning in the 80s that Jacques Cousteau was dead set against sea mammal captivity… that was enough for me, so I figured I didn’t need to learn more. I am very glad I did. SeaWorld is pooling those of us uniting against this into some sort of fringe-wacko camp. I resent that and hope it backfires. They expect this movement will blow over again this time, as it did with “Free Willy”… I hope they are wrong.
Thanks again for being so fair minded in your review.
An excellent article. Public pressure here in the uk led to changes in the law that meant all dolphinaria in the country being closed by 1988 and they have never reopened. In recent times more countries have followed suit. I have no issue with zoos with good welfare and for captive breeding programs to rescue species (such as the successful rescue of przewalski’s horse, but some animals are simply unsuitable for captivity and all dolphin species including the orca fall into that category.
Thanks, Matt. I hope that the US is headed in the same direction.
Anna Eriksson says
what an amazing article! You said it, what I was thinking but it’s to huge for me to put it into words.
I have also been putting off watching this movie. Not because I ddn’t want to “know” but simply because I DO KNOW and I can’t stand it.
When I grew up my father was the highest boss at one of Europes biggest Animapl Parks, Kolmården in Sweden. I spent a lot of time at that place.
Kolmården had the first dolphinarium in Scandinavia. I was there for the fortst bottlenose dolphin twin birth in captivity, I was 12 years old.
I remember arguing with my father about the desicion to bring belugas to Kolmården, a decision that was later revoked.
Ever since then I have known in my heart it is so wrong to keep these animals in captivity and make them perform for us and breed for us.
With the movie the Cove I gog a greater knowledge about the dolphin hunts and I have been working really hard to spread awareness about this autrocity. IWith the movie Blackfish it is alot easier to spread awareness about WHY we should not inprison these magnificant animals.
But I also see that SeaWorld takes the blame when there is so many places that needs to be targeted and shut down. But… we do need to start somewhere and if the downfall of SeaWorld spread to other places then that is the way to go.
I also strongly oppose things like the orcas and dolphins being siplayed at the Soji Olympics.
I would love for Sea World to set their whales, dolphins and seals free and continue working for preservation and rescue only, but I fear that will never happen.
To much money in it.
I have gazed into those dolphin eyes up close. I have hold a dying dolphin newborn baby in my arms. I will never forget it. I will never stop fighting for these precious souls.
So thank you for your very discerning piece. Thank you.
Thanks for that first person perspective, Anna.
Joe Stebbins says
Seaworld is over, they just don’t know it yet. An industry founded and sustained entirely upon lies will not withstand the elucidation of social media.
People mention why not protest zoos. They do. On lots of occasions. This just happens to be the big thing at the moment. It’s also a stepping stone to greater achievement. Why spread yourself thin trying to change everything at once when you can focus on a big change now. After that it’s easier and easier to make the other changes with elephants and so forth.
OB Mercy says
Did anyone see or hear about their float in the Rose Parade on NYD? They had to have over 20 security police around it and it got booed when it came down the route!!