Theme parks would have us believe they’ve been tamed. But a new film, 'Blackfish', says killer whales are being driven mad in captivity – with deadly consequences.
On February 24 2010, news channels across the world reported that Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer of killer whales at SeaWorld
Orlando, had been found dead in the pool. A huge male orca, Tilikum, had leapt out of the water as Brancheau had been talking about the creature to a group of visitors, grabbed her with its jaws and dragged her under the water, where she drowned.
Initially, there were calls for the “rogue” whale to be put down. But as the facts began to emerge, the story grew darker and more complicated, as revealed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s astonishing new documentary, Blackfish. “I first heard about the story on the news,” the director told me, on a visit to London. “I didn’t understand it. I had a lot of questions.” Those questions led Cowperthwaite to an extraordinary human drama, framed by the greater drama of our troubled relationship with animals that we claim to love, yet which we allow to be treated in appalling ways.
Brancheau was a marathon runner; she’d been growing her hair to donate as wigs for cancer sufferers. Tied in a ponytail that day, her hair became a toy to Tilikum. As the whale grabbed it, Brancheau broke free. But he grabbed her again, dragging her to the bottom of the pool. The audience were quickly led away as the horror played out.
Tilikum scalped Brancheau. Her fellow trainers had to prise open the whale’s jaws to release her body. Part of her arm came off in the animal’s mouth, which he then swallowed. It was a terrible scene. SeaWorld
reported it as a tragic accident. But Cowperthwaite’s film suggests it was more than that.
I saw my first whale in the unlikely surroundings of Windsor Safari Park in the early Seventies. In those days of the “Save the Whale” campaigns, my sisters and I had become obsessed with whales, and pestered our parents to take us to Windsor. We arrived in time to watch the opening act, a troupe of bottlenose dolphins. I remember feeling uneasy as they balanced balls on their beaks, jumped through hoops, and caught their reward, a fresh fish. The sight of these wild animals in what amounted to an overgrown municipal pool disturbed me. But not as much as what came next. A big black gate opened up at one end of the pool, and in swam Ramu.
The killer whale – or orca – is a truly magnificent creature. It can reach 30ft in length, and with its black-and-white markings and conical, sharp teeth, it is a beautiful, highly intelligent and social animal. In the wild, orca swim in close-knit family pods. Their society is matriarchal; males stay with their mothers all their lives, and females may outlive males by two decades, reaching 80 or more.
As my sisters and I watched, this alpha predator patrolled the pool. Then it went through the same routine as the dolphins: jumping through a hoop, balancing a ball on its nose, catching fish in its fearsome mouth. Most pathetic of all, Ramu’s 6ft dorsal fin flopped over its back, a symbol of its emasculation. In the wild, only one per cent of males suffer dorsal collapse; in captivity, 100 per cent do.
As Tim Zimmermann, who wrote the screenplay for Blackfish, notes, the trade in orca began in 1965 when Ted Griffin of Seattle Marine Aquarium
spent $8,000 on a 22ft killer whale that had been accidentally caught in fishing nets off Namu, British Columbia. As Griffin and his team towed “Namu” south in a floating pen, the rest of the whale’s pod, including his mother, followed behind. Young whales were taken because they were easier to manage. In Cowperthwaite’s film, men who took part in similar “kidnappings” weep on camera as they recall separating young whales from their families. Later, in an even more upsetting scene, an infant orca born at SeaWorld
is taken from its mother, who then begins to make sounds never heard before. Analysed by experts, they were found to be long-distance calls: she was trying to reach her calf, now hundreds of miles away in another oceanarium.
Namu died within a year, but that did not deter Don Goldsberry, Griffin’s partner. “A blunt, hard-driving man”, he saw a business opportunity. Setting up his operation in the North-West Pacific, he trapped 15 orca in Puget Sound, selling one female, named Shamu, to SeaWorld
in San Diego for $70,000.
Goldsberry’s trade “helped SeaWorld turn killer whales into killer profits”, says Zimmermann. But the dealer went too far when he used explosives to drive orca into his nets at Olympia, Washington state, in 1976. Public outcry at reports of the terrified whales and their screams led to a lawsuit, filed by the State of Washington, contending that Goldsberry and SeaWorld
had violated permits that required humane capture and, as the bad publicity built, Goldsberry switched operations to Iceland, where killer whales were plentiful. It was there, in 1983, that Goldsberry caught the young whale that would kill Brancheau.
Tilikum – which means “friend” in Chinook, the language of the North-West Native Americans – was kept in a tank near Reykjavik for a year. As Zimmermann says, all he could do was “cruise slowly in circles or lie still on the surface. He could hear no ocean sounds, only the mechanical rush of filtration.” It was the equivalent of solitary confinement for a human – and probably the start of the whale’s psychosis.
In 1984 Tilikum was shipped to Sealand, Vancouver Island
, along with two females, Haida and Nootka
. But the “attraction” lost money, and Sealand sold its whales to SeaWorld. Tilikum’s transfer fee was $1million. He was as valuable as a football player – not for his ball skills, but for his semen. His future was as a stud whale: today, 90 per cent of SeaWorld’s captive-bred orca bear Tilikum’s genes.
Conditions for Tilikum seemed much better in Orlando. But, according to Cowperthwaite’s film, he was bullied by Haida and Nootka
, and left wounded, trailing bloody “sky-writing” as he swam around. He was then moved to a smaller pool, on his own, which also added to his stress.
John Jett, a former trainer, told me how, like me, he fell in love with cetaceans as a boy. After acquiring a science degree, he applied for a job at SeaWorld, where he became an apprentice trainer. “You learnt on the job,” he says. But Jett was soon disabused of his idealism. He claims SeaWorld was more concerned with training its staff in how to respond to “sceptical guests” than in encouraging scientific research. “You got media training on how to deflect awkward questions – told how to put a positive spin on things,” he says. He felt intimidated and was convinced that if he complained he’d be punished by being moved to work with the sea lions. SeaWorld says this is simply not true.
In Jett’s account the organisation’s hold over its employees was akin to that of a cult. Dedicated young trainers were emotionally blackmailed, he claims, by being told that the whales would suffer if they made a fuss. SeaWorld, again, says this has “no basis in fact”. But another former trainer to whom I spoke, John Hargrove, echoed much of what Jett told me. The company, he said, “used us to craft their image. The public would see how much we loved the animals – so they left happy, under that illusion.”
They claim that the reality was rather different. Jett spent a lot of time working with Tilikum, who he says was already in a bad state. “Many of his teeth were broken and infected – he was on antibiotics most of the time. He got the c--- beaten out of him by the other animals. He actually dragged his flukes on the floor of the pool – he was longer than the pool is deep.” SeaWorld admits Tilikum has tooth problems but says he is only given antibiotics “when his condition requires it”. He is not a “regular target of aggression by other whales” and “experiences the full range of social interaction”. Nevertheless, Jett was so appalled by what he witnessed at SeaWorld that he resigned in 1996.
Despite SeaWorld’s news management, there was a disturbing undercurrent to its corporate image of happy animals working in harmony with their trainers. Incidents involving “misbehaving” whales peaked on February 20 1991, when 20-year-old Keltie Byrne fell into a pool occupied by Haida, Nootka
and Tilikum. Grabbed by one of the whales, she surfaced twice, then drowned. According to members of the audience, it was Tilikum who “went after her”, easily identified as “the one with the floppy fin”.
In 2009 another trainer, Alexis Hernandez, died at a marine park in Tenerife after a whale exhibited unusual behaviour, but it was Byrne’s death that should have rung alarm bells. After that, it was clear to orca experts such as Ken Balcomb that Tilikum had become “psychotic”, a diagnosis based on a range of reported behaviours, from grinding his teeth against metal pool gates, to opening his eyes wide and emitting distress vocals. In Blackfish Balcomb tells Cowperthwaite the whale’s disturbed state of mind meant another “accident” was just waiting to happen. When it did, the story went global. SeaWorld’s response suggested Brancheau’s death had been a tragic abberation, in no way connected to its treatment of its whales.
But, as far as John Hargrove is concerned, the company – which was sold to new owners recently for $2.7billion – is too concerned with profit. “They’d willingly spend $1.2million on lighting for one of their sets, but what about the animals? The paint was peeling in the pools, and the animals would pick at it with their teeth and risk infection. It’s just corporate greed.” This is part of the power of Cowperthwaite’s film – as much a drama about human greed as animal abuse, and one reason why it was acclaimed at this year’s Sundance Festival.
For its part, SeaWorld insists the welfare of its animals, along with the safety of its guests and employees, are its “highest priorities” and it points out it is regularly inspected by experts in animal husbandry and “held to strict standards of federal and state laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act”. During the making of the film, Cowperthwaite says she lived in dread of what action SeaWorld, and its lawyers, might take. “They could drain my bank account in half a day!” Yet, as she points out, it is money that gives opponents the ultimate power of protest. “SeaWorld is a commercial company. We can directly impact their bottom line – by not going there.” Jett agrees. “The same thing happened with circuses; people just stopped going to them.” As he says, it’s taken 40 years of keeping cetaceans in captivity to educate the public. It is a terrible notion: that those generations of captives were sacrificial animals, doomed to accomplish that enlightenment on behalf of the whales to come.
People are wiser, in this internet age, Jett hopes. “They aren’t so easily fooled."