Here’s something not many people know about me: I was a SeaWorld baby.
I grew up in Central Florida, a short drive from the Orlando SeaWorld theme park. While other children flocked to Disney World or Universal Studios when I was young, my default was always SeaWorld. I was fascinated by marine life and even managed to persuade my parents to send me to a “So you want to be a marine biologist?” camp at SeaWorld for a couple summers.
So when I first heard all the buzz surrounding “Blackfish,” I was skeptical, even a bit defensive. I’ve been behind the scenes at the park time after time. I have friends now who work there. I feel a special kinship with SeaWorld.
(This is me, partly blinded by the sun, celebrating my 21st birthday at SeaWorld Orlando while embracing a Shamu statue.)
But, as a journalist and documentary lover, I felt I had to give this new film a fair chance. And so I watched it.
"Never capture what you can’t control,” reads the ominous tagline for Gabriela Cowperthaite’s documentary “Blackfish,” a film that examines the treatment of marine animals in captivity — focusing specifically on killer whales.
Using the tragic story of bull orca Tilikum, who has been involved in the deaths of three people while in captivity at marine parks since 1983, “Blackfish” makes a damning case against theme park giant SeaWorld.
The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19 and was later released in select U.S. theaters on July 19. Then, on Oct. 24, “Blackfish” made its television premiere on CNN.
Ratings showed the film was No. 1 among cable news networks shows during its time slot, making it CNN’s highest-ranking film this year. It’s also been met with overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim and currently has a 98 on Rotten Tomatoes.
(In this Feb. 27, 2006 photo, a killer whale and trainer are shown performing in “Believe,” the Shamu show that explored the connection between humans and killer whales. AP Photo/SeaWorld)
According to one reviewer, Barbara Vancheri of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the movie “does what a good documentary should.”
“It takes you behind the scenes, assembles people who are knowledgeable or were witnesses to key events (often with video proof), asks important questions and fuels further debate about whether creatures should be caged for our enjoyment and education,” she wrote.
And the beauty of the film’s premiere and encore showings on CNN is the enormous additional exposure it has received, and will continue to receive.
“In the theater, the audience is already going to see a documentary that challenges some of the ideas they have,” “Blackfish” director Cowperthaite said. “What I think is exciting about CNN is having someone who has given no thought to animals stumbling across a documentary and being drawn into” it.
The documentary thoughtfully and methodically investigates many key issues of keeping animals in captivity for entertainment’s sake, and it makes a compelling case against continuing this practice. However, it does so without any comment from SeaWorld, which declined interview requests. The result is, unfortunately, a one-sided viewpoint of a complicated story.
(In this Feb. 27, 2006 photo, killer whales perform in “Believe,” the Shamu show that explored the connection between humans and killer whales. AP Photo/SeaWorld)
Although it has no voice in the film, SeaWorld has responded by issuing a statement.
“Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues. To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld — among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world’s most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research”
Cowperthaite said when she set out to make this film, she only hoped to answer some questions about trainer Dawn Brancheau’s 2010 death. Instead, she wound up “profoundly changed” by what she learned. And as a result, she has issued a call to action, a hope that “Blackfish” will inspire a movement for captive killer whales to be retired into sea sanctuaries.
"My crew and I are all profoundly changed by the experience. I know that killer whales are not suitable for captivity. I am dedicated to spreading the word. The early deaths, the grieving, the boredom, the daily fighting and the attacks — what we learned over two years is impossible to shake. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
SeaWorld has stood firm in their opposition. In response to the documentary, Michael Scarpuzzi of San Diego SeaWorld insists:
“The tragedy of Dawn’s death cannot and has not been ignored, but neither should the literally millions of safe interactions we have had with killer whales over that span of time. “Blackfish” focuses on a handful of incidents over our long history at the exclusion of everything else. … There is no acknowledgment anywhere in the film of the great things SeaWorld does every day or the simple fact that our animals are healthy and passionately cared for," he wrote.
The bottom line is that this film could have a huge impact on tourism and revenue for SeaWorld parks. However, the effects could — and seem likely to — extend beyond Cowperthaite’s intended target.
According to a New York Times report, Disney-owned Pixar animation studio has altered the ending to an upcoming movie in response to the controversy “Blackfish” has created.
"The script for ‘Finding Dory,’ which is still in the early stages of production ahead of its planned 2015 release, initially had an ending that involved a marine park, according to a Pixar employee. But as a result of the sometimes harsh ‘Blackfish,’ directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and the resulting publicity battle SeaWorld has had to fight, Pixar decided to restructure that part of the story so that the fish and mammals taken to its aquatic center have the option to leave,” Brooks Barnes reported.