Living in the Pacific Northwest, I have had the good fortune to see killer whales on several occasions from shore or boats. My dream is to view them underwater while scuba diving. Once after having surfaced from a dive in Saanich Inlet, I was told a pod of killer whales had swam past behind me. I was upset at the dive instructor who explained that he hadn’t informed me because he was afraid the other diver in our group might panic.
So I was particularly keen to watch the documentary on captive killer whales, Blackfish, which reminded me of La Planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) in reverse. La Planète Sauvage is a thought-provoking French animation from 1973. On this savage planet were humans, called Oms, but there were also giant blue humanoids, called Traags. The Traags would capture the Oms and keep them as pets. On Earth, many humans believe they have the right to capture animals and place them in zoos and aquariums for their viewing pleasure (and, in the case of the owners, for their profit). There appear to be no limits. Humans will capture large sentient sea mammals with brains that surpass a human’s brain in size, creatures that demonstrate complex thinking and exhibit a high level of communication.
Blackfish dove home the topic matter on the morality of killer whale captivity effectively, but its probing of related issues came off as shallow. Another quibble is the lack of labeling so the curious viewer could keep track of the various personalities interviewed in the documentary.
The killer whale has great spiritual significance for the First Nation peoples.1 The Nuu Chah Nulth Nations of western Vancouver Island called the killer whale Kakawin. Blackfish, a less common name for killer whale or orca, calls into question the morality of penning such magnificent creatures as killer whales for public entertainment and corporate profit. Moreover, the industry’s concern for the safety of trainers working with such powerful killer whales, is questioned.
It all started with the capture of the killer whales. How the whales attempted to elude capture demonstrated their intelligence while the eventual capture demonstrated human savagery. A perceptibly saddened John Crowe participated in the capture and described it as “the worst thing I can think of.” Throughout Blackfish, regret was a commonly echoed sentiment from those involved in killer whale captivity.
The film begins at Sealand in Victoria which housed killer whales in horrendous conditions. Sealand is very familiar to myself as my elementary class had made at least one field trip to the aquarium. Even as an elementary school pupil, I remember being taken aback by the smallish enclosure the whales (which are more correctly regarded as dolphins) lived in, especially compared to the wide sea that surrounds Vancouver Island. I remember wondering about the flopped over fin and being told by a trainer that it meant nothing.
Tragedy struck on 20 February 1991 when trainer Keltie Bryne was drowned by Tilikum, a male killer whale captured in the North Atlantic and transplanted among two local female killer whales. The media covered up the true cause of Bryne’s death, calling it an accidental drowning. Exposure of media and industry disinformation was a theme throughout Blackfish.
We learn from Blackfish, that the training of whales at Sealand was highly dubious and included practices such as food deprivation and isolation in a tiny, dark pool at night. As well, Tilikum suffered constant raking (teeth inflicted tracking wounds) from the smaller but more agile females.
Blackfish leaves the viewer with the impression that Bryne’s demise led to the end of Sealand. The role of the muliti-millionaire owner of Sealand, Bob Wright (whose name is unmentioned in the film), who kept the whales in a “little pond,” was discussed by University of Victoria whale researcher Dave Duffus: “I think he made the right decision [to close Sealand] for whatever reasons. I don’t think he is a bad guy, a bad man.” Sealand did not close until a year and a half after Bryne’s death in November 1992. UVIC, where Duffus is employed (unmentioned in the film), benefited immensely from Bob Wright’s profiting from keeping killer whales captive; in appreciation, UVIC named one of its buildings as the Bob Wright Centre for Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.2
Steve Huxter, former director of Sealand, said he “didn’t feel good” about keeping the whales in a “floating steel box.” Had this led to a psychological breakdown in Tilikum?
Tilikum was sold, supposedly into retirement as a breeder, to SeaWorld, owned by the Blackstone Group whose chairman and CEO is the billionaire Stephen Allen Schwarzman. (The SeaWorld corporate connections also went unmentioned in Blackfish. If keeping killer whales in captivity is immoral, then what purpose does it serve to grant anonymity to the sources profiting from immorality?)
At SeaWorld, Tilikum also suffered “whale-on-whale aggression,” which was called “normal.” Consequently, Tilikum had to be kept in isolation. In the documentary the trainers rationalized Tilikum’s bleak existence.
Tilikum’s partners fared little better. SeaWorld’s apparent cruelty was demonstrated in separating the juvenile cetacean Takara from its mother Kasatka who went into a deep emotional funk.
Former trainer Christopher Porter called the separation “heartbreaking.” He asked, “How can anyone … think that is morally acceptable?”
At SeaWorld, Tilikum’s homicidal streak would continue. He would be implicated in the death of a late night intruder, Daniel P. Dukes, and later, in 2010, he killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau, “completely mutilating” her. That brought Occupational Safety and Health Administration involvement and the case went to court.
Former trainer Mark Simmons asserted captivity does not affect the sanity of killer whales.
Neuroscientist Lori Marino, a specialist in dolphin and whale brain anatomy and evolution, comparative intelligence and self-awareness in dolphins, says all killer whales in captivity are “emotionally destroyed” … “all are psychologically traumatized.”
Jeff Andrews, a SeaWorld expert witness claimed, contrary to the evidence, “Tilikum is not an aggressive killer whale,” and a “mistake was made by Ms. Brancheau.” SeaWorld executive Thad Lacinak lied about how Tilikum grabbed Thadeau and also put the blame on the trainer.
Nevertheless, the court ruled against SeaWorld, and now all trainers must be behind barriers.
So why is it that Tilikum and other killer whales are still being held captive for human entertainment and corporate profit?3
- See Kim Petersen, “Tsux’iit: Understanding Indigenous Spirituality,” The Dominion, 20 May 2005. [↩]
- See “Great Moments: Bob Wright’s gift to the sea,” University of Victoria. [↩]
- The evidence is there that captive killer whales can be successfully reintroduced to wild habitat. See “Northern Resident killer whale A73 (Springer) spotted with a calf,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 8 July 2013. [↩]