“Blackfish”: The Film SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You to See

by on July 24, 2013 · 17 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, Health, History, Ocean Beach, San Diego


By Doug Porter

By the time the documentary film Blackfish opens on this Friday the 26th of July (Hillcrest/ Landmark Theatres) the SeaWorld public relations campaign should be reaching a crescendo. The way I look at it, any film that provokes this kind of backlash prior to its release is worth checking out.

The questions raised in the movie, which builds a narrative about the captivity of orcas (also known as killer whales) around the death in 2010 of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, cut deeply into the wholesome public image that the mega chain of water /oceanariums /marine mammal parks seeks to promote.

While spokespeople with SeaWorld refused to cooperate in any way with Gabriela Cowperthwaite during filming, the resulting film is, by all accounts (including SeaWorld’s) a disturbing look at the living conditions of the nearly half of the world’s orcas in captivity owned by the company.

The intensity of SeaWorld’s response out to gives a clue as to just how concerned they are:

“Although “Blackfish” is by most accounts a powerful, emotionally-moving piece of advocacy, it is also shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.”

What they are reacting to (and SeaWorld emailed most of the major film critics around the country) are advance reviews like this one in Salon:

“Blackfish” is a highly compelling film that’s already being touted as a likely Oscar contender. It uses the gruesome 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau, and the troubled life history of a six-ton bull orca named Tilikum – who drowned and partly ate Brancheau, and has apparently killed two other people – as the starting points for a disturbing and much larger story.

Through extensive interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, scientists and marine-mammal experts, Cowperthwaite builds a portrait of an intelligent but profoundly traumatized animal who was taken from his family in the North Atlantic as an infant, and has been driven to anger, resentment and perhaps psychosis after spending his life in a series of concrete swimming pools.

It’s worth noting here that Federal regulators have kept trainers at SeaWorld from performing in the Shamu shows since 2010, despite an active campaign by the company to allow it.

Here’s the kind of thinking that strikes at the core of the company’s business plan, from TreeHugger:

With science recognizing whales, dolphins and other cetaceans as sentient beings, with deeply intelligent minds and strong family bonds — not to mention that they need a lot of space — it’s hard for many to think that a life in captivity could be mentally or physically healthy for marine mammals, especially large and active whales like orca. But to what extent such a life is problematic,Blackfish tries to make clear. It will likely leave viewers wondering how places like SeaWorld can continue to exist.

And that’s just why SeaWorld is so worried.

SeaWorld’s points of contention with the film, and the filmmaker’s responses are available on Blackfish’s website.

Here’s the very powerful trailer for Blackfish:

… Meanwhile, SeaWorld Parking Makes the News

You don’t want to piss off Angeleno Nikki Browning, and that’s apparently what SeaWorld San Diego has done.

She’s on the warpath after having her locked SUV cleaned out in the Mission Bay parking lot at SeaWorld recently. Browning told a UT-San Diego reporter that park security didn’t seem to care:

“It was hot, and frustrating,” Browning said. “I know thefts occur. But you go to SeaWorld and pay $15 to park, you have a reasonable expectation it’s a safe place.”

She said a San Diego police officer who took their report told them car burglaries there were common.

Police said it appeared that the thief used some kind of electronic device to open the SUV locks.Police statistics showed 78 vehicle break-ins or thefts at the park last year, 50 in 2011, and 18 this year through June.

SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz said they park about 1 million vehicles a year in the lot.

What was most striking about the story was the comparison with the San Diego Zoo:

The San Diego Zoo has no mounted cameras in its free, city-owned parking lot, but police operate a mobile camera tower seasonally. The zoo lot had one reported auto burglary so far this year, one last year, and three the year before, police said. A zoo spokeswoman said they, like SeaWorld, have about a million cars a year in the lot.


The above is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s column at San Diego Free Press.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Susie July 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Close the Whale Jail.
Enough Said.


Debra July 24, 2013 at 12:41 pm

I agree. Release ALL of the animals and let them live as they were meant to.


Mr. Guahan671 September 15, 2013 at 5:36 pm

I visited SeaWorld once before and enjoyed the loud music and light shows pre, during and after the ‘Believe’ show I was however concerned for the whales and I knew this was a travesty, the music and lights were successful in that it created the perfect atmosphere for crowd interaction and participation, all the while removing our attentions away from the plight of the extraordinarily intelligent mammals and after viewing ‘Blackfish’ it only solidified my thoughts and views on orca captivity.

I have vowed never to return to SeaWorld and hope that others may see SeaWorld for what they truly are, corporate money making machines.

Lastly, while it is always a tragedy when a trainer or anyone for that fact is injured, maimed or killed and as much as I hate revealing this notion: “if it is a necessary evil for life to be lost by these creatures to open up our eyes and demand change and discontinuance of these programs to capture, breed and train killer whales – then so let it be.


John July 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm

How short the memories are… who was it that rescued hundreds of seals in the last year, cared for them and released them back into the wild? Who is it that cares for many birds every year that are found sick and diseased?
This is the kind of knee jerk reactionary environmentalism that makes me sick and is surely about appearances for those expressing support than it is for the big picture of conservation towards the actual wildlife.
Jump on the bandwagon attacking Sea World and dismiss the fact that their core mission is researching and saving these animals and educating the public about them.
What’s next, promoting the research of Timothy Treadwell?
Don’t get me wrong I do agree that putting people in the water with Orcas and having them perform tricks is not the best idea. But embarking on a cause to close Sea World is about as dumb of an idea toward helping these creatures as you can come up with.


Susie July 24, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Dear John,
Get off your high horse.
There is a reason why Enlightened people do not go to, use or support sea world.
Saving sea life and teaching the public is one thing, but Whale Napping orca pups is Quite another. While we all can agree that sea world does some good, they also do Harm.
Shows for money and crowds drawn there to spend money at a poor helpless creature is an abomination.
You must not have true intellect if you believe that my opinion is a knejerk,environmental
or jumping on the bandwagon. I have always known it is wrong to capture these creatures just so a place can make money. It Is wrong on so many levels.
I do think it is great they help save seals, sea lions etcetera, but Whales need more than a pool. They belong in pods. You need to do some research and learn. I have long been against sea world and in No. Ca, Marineworld/Africa/USA in Valllejo, CA. I went there in 1987, before I had educated myself. I saw all the Orcas. It looked like fun. I did research. Now, since 1987, I know better, so I do better. 9try it, you may learn something) Knowledge is power.
You, my dear are clueless, appear heartless as well as probably souless.
Do not confuse the issue with rhetoric.
Helping is one thing, stealing and heartlessness is quite another.
Close the Whale Jail means just that. STOP with the Orca Stealing. It”s wrong in plain english. No more Orca shows. Give them back to their home. The Ocean.
I Never allow my out of town guests to go to Sea world and I explain why. Most people from out of CA do not know what we know re Sea world. They are appalled when they learn the ugly truth.
Have a sea world day.


John July 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Meh. I have a hard time taking your reply seriously with so many unnecessary ad hominem insults added. You don’t need to be abusive to get your point across.

“I have always known it is wrong to capture these creatures just so a place can make money.”
“Shows for money and crowds drawn there to spend money at a poor helpless creature is an abomination.”

I suppose you don’t have a problem with people slaving away in the fields picking produce at below minimum wage so people can make money bringing food to your table.
I suppose you don’t have a problem with any of the demeaning tasks humans are virtually, and in many cases actually are, forced to perform on a daily basis all over the world just to feed themselves and put a roof over their head. Further, about that helpless creature thing…

Tell me, when an Orca snatches a seal, walrus or penguin off of an ice floe somewhere, as happens every day, is that demeaning for the seal or penguin? How many lives of seals or penguins were saved during the course of this killer whale’s life by removing it from the wild? Orcas also hunt and kill minke whales, gray whales, and rarely sperm whales or blue whales- and have even been observed devouring terrestrial mammals such as deer or moose.

Willy eats Bambi. Takes her away from her mother, leaving Bambi’s mother distraught and alone. Willy consumes 500lbs of Bambis and (more prolifically) marine mammals a day! Why now do I care that Willy is embarrassed to jump through a hoop and cannot be bothered to earn his keep like the rest of us?

Everything that lives, suffers, to one degree or another. I find your conclusive damning of Sea World for the suffering of a random apex predator, ignoring that it helps fund all the good things they do, silly and worthy of all due ridicule.

(note I have belittled your position and not your person)


OB Cindi July 26, 2013 at 7:38 pm

John–I can meet you half way in agreeing that those passionate about animals who work at Sea World, truly do love and care for their charges. But I have no idea what you are talking about with the mention of Bambi, and eating Bambi, and it just all seemed pointless and honestly, disconnected. I think you were trying to say that the killing of one Orca means that other animals it would have eaten, survive. What about the food chain? Do you understand that when you remove the top predator of a food chain, that the food chain becomes disrupted, and after many ongoing years, will affect the HUMAN environment and will possibly end in the loss of every living organism in that food chain? I remember when I was a kid, no one understood food chains or habitat destruction. Those were dirty words that would never have escaped into the classroom. But the few started questioning in the 80’s, and by the 90’s the few speaking out became the majority. So I don’t agree with you at all that removing an Orca from its food chain is a good thing….

FOR ALL OTHERS READING COMMENTS ON THIS TOPIC: Do you remember the TV show “Flipper?” Were you like me, going to Sea World as a kid and buying stuffed toys and books and going to bed tired and dreaming of Orcas and dolphins? However, once you have seen “The Cove” or read about the plight on the internet of ocean wildlife and learn the real story behind whale and dolphin trading, you know better, (and hopefully) DO BETTER by choosing not to be a part of the injustice of expecting animals to live in an Isolation Pool the size of a toilet (compared to their home, the ocean) in order to “entertain” humans. Human beings are being trafficked, whales and dolphins are being trafficked…nowadays, criminals make more in trafficking animals and people then they can get from the drug trade. Japan and the Faroe Islands call the murder of thousands of large marine mammals whose numbers are dwindling, “food resource.” The Japanese who fish for whales and dolphins have even used the excuse of killing whales and dolphins because, “They eat fish and the world population is growing and we need fish more than them.” How can anyone think that is a reasonable excuse? Blue Fin Tuna are also being farmed to extinction. So the next time you sit down for Sushi, think twice about ordering Blue Fin. If all nations would leave the Blue Fin alone for just 5 yrs, do you know that not only would their numbers come back, but they would DOUBLE. The problem is created by GREED. The Japanese and people of The Faroe Islands are keeping marine mammal meat stored in freezers and then when prices go up, SELL SELL SELL. It is like Ivory poaching in the 80’s but we have much more to lose now with habitat loss and destruction at critical levels. What excuse can possibly be made for stealing animals from the ocean, tearing families apart, and sending these living, loving beings to a life sentence of cruelty and inhumane levels of stress in what equates to a pool the size of an Isolation Booth. Studies and newspaper headlines prove that humans who spend any time in an Isolation Booth will more often then not go on to commit violent and sometimes deadly attacks. If putting a human in a tiny box is not good for a human, it is not good for any other living being on earth, including marine wildlife.

Parents, you know better now, so do better. Do not teach your kids that animals are put on this earth for our entertainment–and don’t kid yourself, that is EXACTLY what you teach your kids when you sit down to watch the seals blow you a kiss. If you MUST go to Sea World, ride the rides, but please do not take your kids to petting tanks or “shows.” Teach your children that the animals are there because of the negative impact humans have had on their environment. Use the time to explain that if the straw wrapper from their juice box falls to the ground and gets swept into the gutter and then out to the ocean, it will destroy the pretty animals they are looking at. Teach kids to want to see the animals in the wild, and to dedicate their life to habitat protection in both land and water.

Now go ahead and slam my two cents rabid Blue Fin Tuna eating, Seals out of La Jolla Childrens Pool ranting, name calling (I know you want to, so go ahead and give me a title like “environmentalist” or “tree hugger”) believers that marine life are at Sea World to entertain families, commentators….I stand firm in my belief that non-rehabilitation back into the wild for all marine wildlife deemed physically able, is nothing less than cruel and inhumane.


Debra July 26, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Couldn’t have said it better myself Cindi.


John July 26, 2013 at 8:25 pm

No I don’t get into name calling, you’ve mistaken me for someone else. To somewhat address your point, I hope you don’t actually believe that all the Orcas taken by all the marine exhibitions over the years- even doubled or tripled- has had any impact on world Orca populations or the food chain.
In the end the research into their physiology and health issues only possible by holding them in captivity will lead to conservation efforts that preserve their numbers. We wouldn’t know all these things we know about them if we hadn’t captured and raised some of them now, would we? (that’s not a question) Of course we wouldn’t.
“Teach kids to want to see the animals in the wild, ”
I’m guessing you didn’t think that through before you posted… or your offspring are spending summer vacation on a charter boat on a round trip to the Alaskan coast.
How much greenhouse gas emissions would we see if we made every child in America have to fly, then travel by boat long distances, to see killer whales, dolphins, and the like?
“I stand firm in my belief that non-rehabilitation back into the wild for all marine wildlife deemed physically able, is nothing less than cruel and inhumane.”
Did you read the linked article above about what happened when they “freed” Willy/Keiko?
No I’m not into name calling but I can speak about what you’ve posted. Your position seems entirely formed from emotion in your heart. Mine is formed by cold, calculating logic in my head. Each has its time and place, but you should consider that facts weigh more heavily in the outcome for those you care about than beliefs or desires.
Freeing Willy killed him.
Finally one thing I was getting at, you sort of touched upon. You’d have parents skip the mammals shows and ride the rides instead because it’s demeaning that they be forced to perform for us.
How about that twenty something kid operating the ride for a pittance above minimum wage? How about the guy who wears the Mickey Mouse suit all day in the hot sun, and has to wash all the drool and puke off from a thousand little kids who just stepped off Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?
That’s kind of what I was saying about the shows and why I don’t care that one Orca lives in captivity if there is great benefit to others and other marine life.
Not everyone can be “free”. It’s unrealistic to expect that no one suffers. Why do we put Willy on the pedestal and damn all humanity for his less than perfect life, when that perfect life damns the lives of thousands of other marine mammals?
So Willy’s less than perfect life means many, many more Willys will be healthy in the future. If the one whale’s indignity bothers you, look away.
Willy’s plight is little different from the indignity many humans must suffer just to exist.
As a coworker said after driving by the Church’s Fried Chicken on El Cajon Blvd one day in the 80’s where they paid a guy minimum wage to stand there in a feathered suit and wave the customers in…
“We all gotta wear the chicken suit at one time or another.”


Susie July 24, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Dear SANE ????
Anger issues much ?
Now, go take a nap and unplug. It’s too much in one day for you. Did u forget to take your medication today or do you have to get your per injection ?
There There…lol.

God loves you and me too.


Dan Shay July 24, 2013 at 4:33 pm

It looks like Sane’s posts were deleted for his ad hominem attacks on Susie.

His comments were something to the effect of; the whales don’t suffer or that he doesn’t care that they suffer. He was also adamant that killer whales cannot be released back into the wild after being captive. However, there is a documented case of Springer the killer whale that was successfully re-introduced to her pod in the wild after captivity:


And I think he made fun of people for being spiritual too.

To me, the only way to rationalize sea world and the zoo is the philosophical argument that the suffering of a few animals brings the public in contact with them. The public then appreciates the animals and wants to save the ones that are left in the wild. That’s what I always tell myself when i go to the zoo.


SaneVoice July 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Yes, it looks like my comments were deleted and that’s fine. I was out of line and I shouldn’t let me argument be clouded by personal politics, etc. I therefore apologize for making it personal.

But I must provide a counterpoint to your case of Springer the whale. Remember Keiko (the whale from Free Willy) ?


I will always take the words of scientists and those educated in the subject matter over those who just have a soft spot for animals. While I do agree that Sea World should get out of the animals as entertainment business and the corporate higher-ups are evil and profit-driven only, I can’t throw “the baby out with the bathwater” and act as if Sea World is just one big evil entity. There are people that work at Sea World who are quite passionate about animals and have devoted their lives to educating themselves and saving all living creatures. I believe we’ve all seen the stories when a seal pup comes up into OB and Sea World volunteers are there to provide medical attention and care.


John July 26, 2013 at 1:08 am

” I can’t throw “the baby out with the bathwater” and act as if Sea World is just one big evil entity. There are people that work at Sea World who are quite passionate about animals and have devoted their lives to educating themselves and saving all living creatures. I believe we’ve all seen the stories when a seal pup comes up into OB and Sea World volunteers are there to provide medical attention and care.”

This was entirely my point and a sentiment that is shared by most rational people.
Even if one wants to take it to the level of silly required to form the “we shouldn’t be exploiting these defenseless beautiful creatures” argument let’s get real about that- they’re killer whales, carnivores who consume marine mammals at the rate of 500lbs a day.
The same people who protest their treatment surely do not walk past the sea otter exhibit without falling in love with their cute faces and frolicking antics? Well sea otters are on the top of the list for killer whales diets. The Orca does not give a damn about the sea otter and swallows him with indignity. Why the love for the Orca and not the Otter?
If anything there is some noble magnificence in the very art of taming and interacting with such potentially dangerous creatures for those who dare, and that’s what the crowds pay to see. It finances the work of their marine biologists. Who else would have rescued all those seals?
I think the intelligent adult respects that you can find beauty in this world in so many ways, and that includes the struggles of man and his wars, his taming of great and powerful beasts, and his efforts of conservation to preserve them.
If unnecessary cruelty is eliminated from the equation, let the show go on.


Susie July 26, 2013 at 2:59 pm

You sound nuttier than a fruitcake. Quite the prattle and non sensical too.
I suggest you ger real and wake up.

PS I am noting your posistion, not your person.


John July 26, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Took me a minute to find my “Gibberish to English” translation book, but I dug it up.
Funny, even when you tried, you got it wrong. “You sound nuttier than a fruitcake” is a comment directly toward my person and not my argument. Even forgiving an obviously marginal skill set in English composition, the content of your reply seems merely to express your feelings of ire about me- and you’ve not provided a word of rebuttal about the things I said- which, toward the faults of your position on this issue, beg the question:
Why is your sole focus on the dignity of this killer whale? Killer whales may be intelligent within their own right, but they are virtual killing machines in the wild. As an apex predator they have no predators to fear. Why don’t you seem to care about the thousands of marine mammals an average Orca will eat in its lifetime, many of whom are equally intelligent and possessive of social structure? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the world’s marine mammal populations if we rounded up most of the killer whales- save enough that they not go extinct- and put them in pens or euthanize them so for each one thousands of seals, walruses and sea otters, and numerous species of whales, would not bye brutally murdered by them every year?
It’s not a “nutty” position. I want to know what the rationale is behind the sole focus on the welfare of killer whales with a complete disregard for those they prey upon and those who Sea World helps on a daily basis.
Is the thinking that we’re supposed to leave nature well enough alone? So that if a killer whale consumes a whole family of sea otters each week that’s fine as long as we didn’t see it happen?
How did that “leave nature alone” thing work for humans before Winchester invented the repeating rifle? Can you imagine facing a charging grizzly bear, who were prolific on the continent a few hundred years ago, with a black powder musket? Or earlier, with just a sword?
I would suggest you march right down to Sea World and dive into an Orca tank and say hello to one of your magnificent friends and share your noble morals about not “whale napping” pups and such. Maybe he will have a good chuckle as you slide down his gullet into his belly as he unceremoniously eats you.

(actually, from reading the above linked article about Willy AKA Keiko, he probably wouldn’t- he’s come to rely on humans and would see you as a friend. If he’d been left in the wild he’d devour you without a thought.)


OB Cindi July 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Thanks John for your ramblings…you gave more credibility to my stance on the issue of Orcas in captivity for the sole purpose of entertainment, and added value to my points about the food chain, habitat desecration, and that an Isolation Booth sized pool is no place for any living being. I appreciate the helping hand!


John July 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm

” an Isolation Booth sized pool is no place for any living being.”

You’ve obviously never rented a room at the Golden West Hotel on Fifth Ave. downtown. (not sure what it’s called now)


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