Sea World VS BlackFish: The Truth

Tilikum stares at his SeaWorld trainers from his pool.

Los Angeles Times

Tilikum stares at his SeaWorld trainers from his pool.

The 2013 documentary Blackfish shocked its viewers by exposing the hidden atrocities behind Orcas were captured and treated, as well as uncovering the dangers they were willingly putting their employees in. Though this documentary talks about other parks and incidents, the point they really drive into your head is Seaworlds laziness and questionable decisions, as well as focusing on a violent orca named Tilikum. 

SeaWorld is a marine park corporation, with 8 theme parks and 5 waterparks. They hold shows with many different marine life and bring the ocean life to the people. One of their biggest attractions was their Orca shows, which is the topic Blackfish chooses to expose. 

The documentary starts by showing its main interviewees, all former employees of SeaWorld that come from different backgrounds, and most don’t have any sort of marine training. 

“Roughly out of the 1500 that apply, only 100 get invited to take the swim test. If you pass the swim test you then will go through a performance test and if you pass that, you then get to have an actual interview for the position. The swim test requirements were; swim 30 ft down and retrieve a brick at the bottom of the pool. Swim down and back in the dolphin pool (250ft) under a certain time 1:20. Hold your breath and swim under water one length of the dolphin pool (125ft roughly) and dive off a 10 foot wall. These were just some of the requirements,” Former SeaWorldtrainer Sonrisa Hasselbach said in a LinkedIn article. 

Though there isn’t any requirement academically to become a trainer like many believe, it is definitely much harder than the documentary makes it seem. 

Right off the bat we are shown how the animals were captured including the infamous Tilikum, The Orcas are taken from the wild and ripped from their mothers. 

“Between 1976 and 1989, at least 54 orcas were captured from Icelandic waters and sold to marine parks around the world. 17 of those whales ended up at SeaWorld parks in the USA. The captures in Iceland started after they were prohibited in the US Pacific Northwest in the mid 1970s,” said.

Tilikum was not originally sold to SeaWorld so it is unclear if they knew exactly how he was captured and it could be said that they were rescued by SeaWorld, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. 

“SeaWorld has not rescued any orcas, although it has provided financial support and advice when others have done so. The company lists three incidents where it claims credit for having rescued orcas,” said. 

Whether SeaWorld had good motivations or not, another criticism they received was taking and showing a dangerous whale. Before Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld he was involved with a trainer attack where a trainer named Keltie Burn was killed during a show. There were three orcas participating in the attack and the coroner’s reports does not state that there was one orca leading the attack, eyewitness accounts put him as the leader. Two are interviewed in Blackfish, who follow the same belief that it was Tilikum. 

“Tili was one of three whales held at Sealand, Nootka and Haida completed the trio. While eyewitness reports indicated that all three whales were involved in the trainer’s death, another eyewitness claimed that it was Tili who actually grabbed Byrne and yanked her into the pool,” The Dolphin Project said. 

The trainers being interviewed say that they were not aware of Tilikum’s past and felt like the people in charge were not telling them something. 

“I was under the impression that Tilikum had nothing to do with her death specifically,that it was the female whales who were responsible for her death. What I found really odd at first was the way they were acting around this whale and what they had told us seemed to me to be two different things. The first day he arrived, I remember one of the senior trainers at SeaWorld, Tilikum was in a pool and she was walking over a gate, and she had her wetsuit unzipped and it was tied around her waist. And she was making cooing noises and going, and one of the supervisors said, ‘Get her out of there!’ like they were so worried that something was going to happen. And I remember thinking, ‘Why are you guys making such a big deal out of this when he didn’t actually kill her?’ Well, clearly management thought there was some reason to exercise caution around him. You know, clearly they knew more,” Samantha Berg said to Blackfish reporters. 

Another trainer brings up a time he was filming a show and Tilikum lunged at a trainer. He was told to get rid of the tape completely. Both of these instances are incredibly horrifying to hear and shows how SeaWorld was sweeping important things under the rug. This is even more apparent when you are shown all of the accidents reported as trainer error, which definitely seems to be a corporation trying to keep their money maker going at the expense of human life. You are also shown a video where it is apparent that it was a trainer’s fault, but it feels unfair to watch. You see how comfortable she is and how shocked she was when she was pulled in. 

Tilikum’s next attack happens when a man breaks into the park. He is found dead on Tilikum’s back torn to shreds. The documentary leads you to believe that it felt like a cover up because the security cameras somehow did not catch any of the attack. This is only speculation however and there is no proof that SeaWorld disposed of the footage. 

The big lead up of the documentary is the death of a very experienced and perfectionist trainer, Dawn Brancheau. This again was labeled as trainer error and has many conflicting eyewitness accounts. But it is obvious that she was well respected and this death put the spotlight on SeaWorld. There is a video that is shown during the documentary of the minutes before the attack. She is doing everything correct and we are shown that this is truly a wild animal. He is getting agitated throughout the video through no fault of Dawn and it is heartbreaking to watch. 

“At first, SeaWorldreported that a trainer slipped and fell in the water and drowned. So that was the first report. It wasn’t until eyewitness accounts disputed that they had to go back in their huddle…The new plan is that he grabbed her ponytail. This is a subtle way of placing the blame on Dawn’s shoulders. She shouldn’t have had a long ponytail… They blamed her,” Interviewee said to Blackfish reporters. 

Another huge problem this documentary touches on is false facts given by SeaWorld. They talk about how SeaWorld tells people that the animals live longer in captivity because of the medical treatment they receive. They say that the age of an orca is 25-30 years which is inaccurate. Blackfish though does a similar thing by saying they live up to 100 years old, both are loosely based on fact. It is however apparent that orcas in captivity have a mortality rate that is 2.5 times higher. 

“In the wild, male orcas live to an average of 30 years (maximum 50-60 years) and 46 years for females (maximum 80-90 years),” said

Tilikum was brought in for more reasons other than just performing. Breeding was a huge reason for buying Tilikum. Tilikum was bred 21 times and seems to be one of the biggest reasons he was kept. Though there isn’t much research into the effects of breeding aggressive orcas, it is seen as flawed to breed any animal that shows aggression towards humans. Currently Tilikum is the Father of 44% of SeaWorld’s whales. 

Another thing breeding does is shoot down the argument that SeaWorld is rescuing the animals because they are adding to the captive population of orcas, as well as putting these animals in unsafe situations. 

“Killer whales live in family groups, or matriarchal pods, led by a dominant female. Each family has their own unique calls and they form strong lifelong bonds. Taking killer whales from the wild and placing them in captivity breaks these bonds, causing emotional stress. Killer whales are also moved around marine parks and constantly placed with different individuals so new bonds are formed and broken regularly,” One Kind Planet said. 

These animals also do not do good around members from other pods. They are often aggressive toward each other and it is shown throughout Blackfish the scars, cuts, and rakes the animals are covered in from each other. 

A reason one may believe that all of this is ethical would be for the benefit of the animal or the gain of knowledge about the animal. Neither of these things happen when we keep these animals in captivity. It is better to study them in the wild and to leave them there. 

“Captive studies are limited in what they can tell us about wild killer whales as the captive environment is artificial. Captive killer whales behave and react differently to wild killer whales and they also suffer from different health issues…most research published by marine parks focuses on captive issues such as wild capture and captive breeding techniques, looking after captive whales and how to treat their illnesses…This myth stems from the idea that keeping killer whales in captivity is good for education and thus conservation – why would you want to conserve an animal you know nothing about? But, marine parks focus heavily on entertainment and forcing marine mammals to perform for the paying public; there is little education. Research has also shown that whilst people may be inspired during their visit, they do little to help whales once they leave the park,”One Kind Planet said. 

One thing that is constantly said throughout the documentary is that you form a connection with these animals, and that they are incredibly emotionally intelligent. All of the trainers featured said that they had so much love for the animals that they worked with. These creatures are also friendly to people out in the wild. There has never been a reported case of wild orca attack but there have been 4 fatalities, and 153 reports of violent behavior in captivity. Though we can’t rely on either side to tell us the full factual truth it’s obvious that keeping them in captivity is not a safe viable option for anyone or animal involved.