Before there was Making a Murderer, there was Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s critically heralded documentary that meticulously mapped how an average orca became an actual killer-whale. Debate may linger about the guilt of the subject of the popular Netflix mini-series, but Blackfish knows Tilikum the performing Sea World orca killed three people. The mission of documentarian Cowperthwaite is to uncover who’s truly to blame for these deaths.
The facts are these: In February 2010, a SeaWorld trainer was drowned when Tilikum pulled her into his tank. As her death drew national attention, SeaWorld attempted to chalk it up to “trainer error,” blaming her off-uniform ponytail for her “accidental” demise. But as an unseen detective, Cowperthwaite unearths disturbing evidence that not only proves Tilikum willfully killed Dawn Brancheau, but also how SeaWorld pushed him to it.
The film begins like so many shows on Investigation Discovery, with the tease of a terrible crime. A man’s tired voice tells a 911 operator, “We need a response for a dead person at SeaWorld. A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” Leaning shrewdly on crime doc tropes, Cowperthwaite interviews people who were close to the victim and her killer, in this case trainers from SeaWorld, and from Tilikum’s first place of captivity, an abysmal marine exhibit in British Columbia. Rather than psychologists, marine biologists and a neuroscientist are given space to speak to the killer’s psychology in a way he could not vocalize.
Cowperthwaite leads rapt audiences back to the beginning. Before SeaWorld, there was the open sea and the day that Tilikum’s fate was forever changed as a team of poachers chased him down and ripped him away from his wailing mother. Still haunted, a tattooed and tattered seaman remembers her cries as they “kidnapped” her child. “I’ve seen some things that are hard to believe,” he growled, “But this is the worst thing I’ve ever done, is hunt that whale.”
Avoiding nosy narration, Cowperthwaite guides us through Tilikum’s formative years in captivity, the claustrophobic conditions, the abuse at the hands of his trainer and fellow captives, and the first murder, easily swept under the rug as an accident though it still haunts the tourists who witnessed a teen girl dragged to her death. The director/detective details the countless tortures—physical and mental—that Tilikum suffered before SeaWorld. But her sharpest criticisms come from the massive corporation that knowingly endangers the well-being of its animals and the lives of its workers every damn day.
There’s no shortage of SeaWorld footage. The parks are studded with cameras to capture footage of their trainers interacting with seemingly friendly sea creatures, partially for security, partially for promotional materials. Commercials paint the attraction as a dream world where Shamu and his friends frolic and gladly gambol for audiences. But interviews with several former SeaWorld employees reveal a heinous corporate culture that put profits from cuddly toys and ticket prices above the safety of its animals, and the lives of its employees, and—in one fatal incident—even its guests.
Cutting from the wide-set and earnest grins of twenty-something trainers to their shattered expressions decades later as they detail their disillusionment is one of Cowperthwaite’s slyest moves. We are like these trainers: we loved SeaWorld without question! WHO DOESN’T LOVE FUN WHALES!? But as the curtain is pulled back, the terrible truths surface, and leave us all splashed with shame.
Though they come from all over, these trainers stories are similar. They love animals. They thought being a whale trainer would be a dream job. They bought into SeaWorld’s scripts about the health and behavior of whales in captivity, hook, line and sinker. “I spewed out the party line in shows,” one recalls, a hard blush ripping across her cheeks. “I’m totally mortified now.” Another concurred, sharing how she’d parrot false “facts” about how orcas live longer in captivity, and concludes with a choked laugh, “”I was blind. I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing… Why would they lie?”
Cowperthwaite digs into that question with a dogged zeal, surfacing with stunning truths that SeaWorld has vainly refuted for years since the doc’s release. Perhaps SeaWorld suspected the public’s love of the park and their declining interview requests for the film would sink Blackfish. But the director with a dark doc has been winning the war despite the company’s grand wealth and wide world of fans.
Blackfish shattered our collective delusions about the lives of creatures in captivity, and SeaWorld has been deeply changed because of it. In the wake of the film’s release, park attendance has sunk. Musical acts have refused to play at their locations out of protest. Senators have enacted bills banning orca captivity. And intense public pressure has pushed the parks to officially announce the end to their orca breeding program as well as the closing of their killer-whale shows.
In a recent New York Post update, one expert estimated it’d take SeaWorld Entertainment ten years to recover from the damage to their reputation this little doc has caused. Plans to salvage good will are focused on showing how SeaWorld is ” the only for-profit company that saves animals.” Of course, with the world now watching, SeaWorld will need more than “smiling” whales and merciless myth to sell that story.