Film review: BLACKFISH, from Built For Speed

Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

Release date: 21st Nov 2013

Running time: 83 mins.

Animal acts in circuses and marine fun parks in which trainers cavort with wild creatures, derive a lot of their entertainment from the threat these powerful and unpredictable animals pose to humans.  The fascinating and at times disturbing documentary, Blackfish, suggests that the danger for trainers may be greater than we have been led to believe.

The title, Blackfish, refers to Killer Whales or Orcas and the film contends that these whales, when placed in captivity at aquatic parks often become unacceptably dangerous.  The film features interviews with former Sea World trainers, whale experts and a current Sea World representative as well as unsettling footage of orcas body-slamming trainers, chomping on their limbs and dragging them underwater.

The film focuses on a whale named Tilikum, who killed a young aspiring whale trainer named Keltie Byrne in 1991 at a park called Sealand of the Pacific.  Surprisingly, Tilikum was subsequently purchased by the bigger and more lucrative Sea World organisation for their Orlando Florida park.  There, Tilikum killed two more people: Daniel Dukes a member of the public who was mysteriously found dead in Tilikum’s enclosure and Sea World’s star trainer Dawn Brancheau.  The film contends that Tilikum, who had a particularly brutal early life having been forcibly separated from his mother and thrown into a tank where he was attacked by other whales, should never have been allowed to work with humans. 

According to the film, whales live in complex communities with close family structures and communication systems that act like a collective consciousness so that when they are separated from family, the whales are seriously traumatised.  The film suggests that Killer Whales are naturally gentle creatures and have never harmed a human in the wild.   The film doesn’t indicate, though, how often humans interact with Killer Whales in the wild.  Similarly, it doesn’t provide figures on the frequency of whale attacks in aquatic parks and if they represent a miniscule or significant proportion of human/whale encounters.

The film comes down to an argument over whether keeping whales in captivity – particularly in small swimming pools with non-family members – causes erratic, aggressive and potentially deadly behaviour.  As the film shows, this question was tried in court following the various trainer injuries and deaths.  The film unashamedly sides with the whales and the trainers suggesting that the whales are innocent creatures brutalised by captivity and that the trainers have in some cases not been provided with adequate warnings, safety procedures or vital information about specific whales.

It’s not an entirely impartial or balanced documentary but it is a sobering reminder of the power of wild animals, the need for rigorous safety around them and the perils for both human and animal of keeping these magnificent creatures in captivity.

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