Growing up, I was fascinated by mammals, both on the land and in the sea. I have visited zoos, aquariums, and marine parks in my young life. Some of my favorite memories as a child occurred at these places, whether it be swimming with dolphins in Hawaii or watching the killer whales perform at Shamu Stadium in SeaWorld Orlando. I was always acutely aware that these habitats at zoos and marine parks were a bit small for certain animals, but I never really thought about it in great depth.
Over this past summer, I was browsing YouTube and stumbled across a trailer for “Blackfish,” a documentary which shines an unfavorable light on SeaWorld and marine parks around the world that hold killer whales in captivity. The film is a timeline of events that have occurred from the 1970s until 2010, when SeaWorld Senior Trainer Dawn Brancheau was tragically killed by Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity (12,500 lbs), during a Dining With Shamu show at SeaWorld Orlando.
“Blackfish” gives an honest and rather gruesome inside look at the lives of killer whales in captivity – an inside look that SeaWorld has for so long successfully covered up. Public records, footage and interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, behaviorists, neurologists and marine biologists help shape the anti-captivity message of the film.
Not only does the viewer learn about the mistreatment of the orcas, which include withholding food, separating families and cramped living conditions, but also how intelligent orcas are. According to neurologist Lori Marino, an MRI of an orca’s brain revealed that orcas have a limbic system in their brain more developed than humans. In short, this MRI suggests that orcas possess an emotional consciousness that may be stronger than our own. Evidence is backed up from disturbing footage of mothers and their calves being separated both in the wild and in captivity.
The viewer also sees the frustration orcas experience in captivity; the orcas “rake” one another with their teeth when they fight, and they lunge at the trainers, sometimes even pulling them underwater for several minutes. In the wild, there has never been a record of an orca causing harm to humans. Whale expert Dave Duffus describes killer whales in the film as “an animal that possesses great spiritual power, not to be meddled with.”
After my initial viewing of the film, I was hysterical. Not only was I deeply saddened by the mistreatment of these intelligent and beautiful creatures, but also angry about the cover-ups by marine parks regarding whale-trainer incidents. In every instance of a death at these parks, marine parks have blamed the trainer for not doing something correctly or an error with timing. The ones they truly need to blame are themselves. Orcas do not belong in small, concrete pools, and it is not our place to disrupt the lives of these animals for the purpose of cheap entertainment.