Blackfish: Whale Tales or Truth?

Last July my family and I visited Disney World. We planned to spend two days of our trip at two different theme parks, one of which was SeaWorld. I was beyond excited and shared with my co workers and friends that I would be visiting SeaWorld again; the last time I was there, my parents were pushing me around in a stroller. Everyone was excited as well and asked me to bring back pictures.

Just days before we were set to leave, a Facebook friend posted a very intense, yet ambiguous, status. “DON’T GO TO SEA WORLD”. Immediately, I checked the comments. Most people referenced a movie I had never heard of called Blackfish, and how it exposed the cruelty that Orcas experience at SeaWorld. Naturally, I had to check it out.

I had always seen posts and pictures about SeaWord and found myself caught up in the Shamu-hype, especially after I left SeaWold. To see such large creatures doing such amazing things (that ultimately came pretty naturally to them) was exciting. The whales were so beautiful and seeing them interact with each other and the trainers melted my heart. The night of my visit was when I decided to sit down and watch Blackfish, but by the end of the movie, I wished that I had watched it before my parents paid for our visit there.

In 2013, CNN Films released a documentary called Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. It tells about the lives of Orca whales and their lives in captivity. Blackfish is centered around TiIikum, an Orca at SeaWorld Orlando.

Since its release, Blackfish has received great amounts of criticism: “[Blackfish] is enough to enrage anyone with the slightest bit of compassion in their hearts[…] However, […] it’s the film’s presentation of the facts that raised my eyebrows” (Brevet); “…Blackfish is misleading, unoriginal, and stupid” (Smith); and, of course, Sea World could not remain silent upon being attacked. They called Blackfish “propaganda, not a documentary.” They added that “the film conveys falsehoods, manipulates viewers emo-tionally and relies on questionable filmmaking techniques to create “facts” that support its point of view” (SeaWorld).

Merriam-Webster defines ‘documentary’ as: “a movie or television program that tells the facts about actual people and events”. ‘Propaganda’ is defined as: “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.” There is a fine line between the two definitions. Although Netflix lists the movie under many categories, such as Science & Nature Docs and Documentaries, a separate detail of the movie reads: “This movie is emotional”, which seems to be an effort to merge the two.

The first moments of Blackfish are an emotional roller coaster. It begins with audio recordings of the 9–1–1 phone calls made from SeaWorld Stadium when a trainer was killed by one of the whales. After the calls, the video moves onto personal stories from seven former SeaWorld animal trainers. Kim Ashdown says that after she visited SeaWorld and saw the trainers swimming with dolphins, she knew she wanted to be an animal trainer. John Jett comments on the relationship he developed with the whale he performed with. “When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home. Somebody’s looking back,” he says. Within seconds, the video jumps to the former trainers gathered together reminiscing on their past, watching videos from when they were traitors.

Cue footage of Dawn Brancheau.

The footage from fourteen years ago creates a bittersweet atmosphere. She was a former trainer at SeaWorld Orlando who was killed by one of the whales in 2010. The trainers watching the footage begin to talk about their memories with her, until the movie makes a hard right and plays audio recordings from a court case involving OSHA against SeaWorld.

Based on the first eight minutes of the movie, Blackfish appears to be more of propaganda rather than documentary, as commented above by SeaWorld. The word ‘propaganda’ actually encompasses all the above criticism — the misleading aspect of the movie, the controversial manner in which the “facts” are presented, and the emotional manipulation.

Tilikum was captured at only 2 years old

As the movie continues, John Crowe, a diver, talks about his emotional experience with capturing whales. He says that he was instructed to capture the little ones because of “shipping costs”. However, taking a child away away from its mother and watching its family stand by as he loaded it onto a stretcher brought tears to his eyes. Viewers then get a small dose of victory when Howard Garrett, an Orca researcher, shares that eventually the divers were prohibited from hunting whales in Washington. But the emotional roller coaster takes them on a plummet when he follows up with, “Without missing a beat, they went from Washington to Iceland and began capturing there.”

Rake marks are caused by biting and scraping with teeth, usually done out of anger or frustration

Viewers are then introduced to Tilikum, or Tilly, and are taken on a journey of his life. He was captured when he was just two years old and shipped to Sealand. The head trainer there executed a training system involving punishment. Tilly was sent to learn behaviors with superior whales. If he failed to learn them, the trainer would neglect to feed Tilly and the older whales. Those older whales would then get angry with Tilly and rake him with their teeth, causing deep cuts (pictured left) and sometimes bleeding. The compliments, the video footage of Tilikum playing in the pool and with his trainers, the “emotional” interview with John Crow, on top of the harsh treatment by the trainer, allow viewers to develop a relationship with him — a strategy of propaganda.

Two women who visited Sealand in 1991 share their experience and give an eye-witness account for the death of Keltie, a trainer killed by Tilikum. While walking along the deck, Keltie’s foot slipped into the pool and Tilikum dragged her underwater. The other whales in the pool joined in the commotion (Blackfish). Viewers, who have developed sympathy toward Tilly, respond and react somewhat impassively to Keltie’s death. The relationship that viewers were able to form with Tilly diminishes the severity of his behavior.

Tilikum performing “One Ocean” on January 18, 2015 at SeaWorld Orlando

The music and graphics alone also contribute to the emotional manipulation of viewers. There is a constant back-and-forth between moods of somberness and jubilee. One minute, information is being present in white letters on a black screen with intense bass music playing in the background. The next minute, upbeat instrumentals play while bright pictures and videos of whales are shown. This demonstrates the emotional roller coaster that viewers ride while watching Blackfish. The roller coaster grabs and maintains the attention of viewers. Perhaps at first glance, a documentary about whales seems boring. The director had important information and a powerful issue of which to make people aware, and its presentation causes viewers to give the film a chance.

While there may be some validity to the criticisms about emotional manipulation, viewers are left to decide for themselves how they will respond to the information presented in the film. The criticisms lead readers to believe that Blackish is a movie built from lies for the sole purpose of stirring up people’s emotions. But that is far from true. While there is a fine line between “documentary” and “propaganda”, I offer that just like Blackfish, any documentary can possess characteristics of both types of films. Many may argue against such a suggestion, but, after all, what documentary have you seen that has had no emotional component to it?

The argument that Blackfish presents “facts” is an interesting one. Whether critics have used the quotation marks to suggest that the information is not factual or that the information is presented as propaganda does not change that the movie contains facts: Tilikum was an accomplice in the death of Keltie Byrne (SeaWorld of Hurt), Dawn Brancheau was a trainer at SeaWorld Orland who was killed by Tilikum on February 24, 2010 (Fox News), OSHA did sue SeaWorld Orlando after her death (Department of Labor); the list of facts continues. The intended purpose for the use of the quotation marks also does not change that the movie has had a significant impact. After watching Blackfish, I shared with my parents all that I had learned and expressed to them that I would not like for them to pay for any more family trips to SeaWorld. I also shared with my friends on Facebook the things I had learned and my dissatisfaction with SeaWorld’s level of comfort when it came, and still comes, to deceiving their guests in countless ways. Here is what I said:

On Monday I visited SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida with my family and some family friends. If you go to SeaWorld, you HAVE to see the show at Shamu Stadium. In fact, that was the only reason I wanted to go to SeaWorld.
Prior to my visit, I was informed about the controversy over keeping whales in captivity and whether or not the whales at SeaWorld were truly living luxuriously compared to those in the wild. However, it was too late to change my mind because I was already in Florida, and I like to see things for myself.
While waiting for the show to start, I researched information about whales: how many are in captivity, how many in captivity are alive, how many have been released, how long whales in captivity live, etc. I wasn’t too swayed by anything I read, so I decided to save my limited data (thank you Verizon Wireless) and wait out the next few minutes by watching a few whales move from pool to pool. I enjoyed the show and enjoyed seeing these “killer whales” do flips, jumps, waves, etc, especially an exceptionally large whale whose name I learned later on — Tilikum.
I went back to my suite later that evening and watched a documentary that I was encouraged to watch called “Blackfish”. In this documentary, I learned the horrific history of Tilikum and the terrorist as which he has come to be known.
Tilikum was captured in 1983 at 2 years old, already measuring 11.5ft and weighing 4,000lbs. He was transported to SeaLand where he would become a big hit. At nighttime, he was stored in a 20x30ft pool with two other female whales who raked him with their teeth. Tilikum’s whole body would be covered in scrapes and scratches. Aside from the bullying, Tilikum was also starved by a trainer when he did not learn a task from a trained whale.
While at SeaLand, Tilikum and two other female whales grabbed hold of a trainer’s foot when it slipped into the pool. She was dragged and tossed around and eventually drowned. Tilikum is the sole whale blamed in her death. After the tragedy, SeaLand was shut down and Tilikum was sold and shipped to SeaWorld Orlando.
While in Orlando, Tilikum managed to take the lives of two others. One victim was a mentally ill man who entered the park after hours, stripped naked, and swam with him. The other was a senior trainer whom Tilikum pulled into the pool during a show and tossed around.
Tilikum’s behavior cannot be called aggressive because he is an ORCA WHALE, a TOP PREDATOR. While they are beautiful and intelligent, they belong in the wild with their families.
It is entirely unfortunate and horrible that SeaWorld cares more about a profit than the lives and well-being of their employees, and their reputation. SeaWorld claims that you are helping them to rescue injured animals, which may be true, but the whales being taken from their families and forced into “new families” while in captivity deserve help too. And the best help they can receive from any human is to be left free.

As you can tell, I was highly upset to have found out such terrible, yet true, things about SeaWorld.

Original article from 1991 reporting Keltie Byrne’s death

To continue with prime examples of SeaWorld’s deception, Samantha Berg, a former Orca trainer, shares that she was instructed to make a specific statement during each show: “The whales aren’t doing this because they have to; they’re doing this because they want to.” She laughed after sharing her experience. I laughed too. I’m not sure how much say a whale has in whether or not it will perform especially since it will be treated according to its decision. I am also baffled and enraged at knowing that SeaWorld has often blamed the victims for the attacks and injuries involving the whales. During a show on November 23,1987, a trainer was crushed between two whales. A spokesperson from SeaWorld claimed, “It was a timing problem, it was absolutely not an aggressive act on the part of the whale” (Blackfish). Tillikum, the focal Orca in Blackfish, has been involved in the deaths of three different people — Keltie Byrne at SeaLand (Blackfish), a 27-year-old man whose name has remained anonymous (Sentinel), and Dawn Brancheau (Fox News). All three victims are faulted for their own deaths; not once was Tillikum held accountable for his actions. I imagine that SeaWorld has refrained from blaming the whales for the incidents to keep from losing business by “protecting” the reputation of their whales, and likely their own.

It is funny that the scientific name for these whales is Orcinus orca, but they are often referred to as Killer whales. Has anyone ever wondered why? For starters, they eat just about everything, from harbor seals to sharks (NOAA). They violently attack their prey, and sometimes each other (MarineBio). Although Orca whales have positive attributes such as being highly social (NOAA), it cannot be denied that they are aggressive. SeaWorld can continue to refuse to acknowledge the aggressive traits of the whales, but it would definitely explain the unpredictable attacks and murders. On top of their natural aggression, the whales are practically kept in bathtubs. Following the death of Dawn Brancheau, a segment on CNN featured Jane Velez-Mitchell who voiced her frustration with the lack of compassion from SeaWorld for their trainers and the emphasis that they place on ticket sales and profits instead: “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little irritated, aggravated, maybe even a little psychotic” (YouTube)?

Whales in captivity experience extreme confinement and swim much less than free-range whales

Regardless of the criticism and controversy regarding the classification of the film, the facts presented and the method in which they were presented has not tainted its impact. Protesters and animal rights activists coined the phrase “Free Tilly”. They have purchased merchandise with the phrase printed, stamped, and engraved, and sported them proudly. This has furthered the impact of the movement. Recently, SeaWorld has decided not to capture or breed any new whales; they are holding captive their last generation. To some people, this is a victory, to other people, it is not. I consider it a compromise. Many animal rights activists might like for SeaWorld to release the whales into the wild. If they were to do that, it would only be a matter of time before those whales were hunted, killed by other whales, or simply died. The whales have lived in captivity for so long that they would not be able to survive in the wild. So, although the whales currently living at SeaWorld will not be liberated, no new whales will become subject to the harsh consequences of living in captivity.

Critics may claim that Blackfish presents funky facts in a manipulative manner, but viewers are able to decide for themselves how they feel about the information gained from watching the movie and how they will respond to it.


I would like to thank Professor Harris for challenging me as a writer. This prompt caused me to think carefully and to step outside of my comfort zone. Professor Harris was intentional, yet careful, as he did not want to offend me when sharing with me that “neutrality is boring”, in so many words. I would also like to thank my group members: Kody was very upfront with me about making sure I was making the critical conversation clear and Marissa provided me with inspiration, whether she knew it or not. I would also like to thank Casey for bringing to my attention silly spelling errors and inconsistencies in my essay, and suggesting where more information may have been needed to eliminate or minimize confusion among readers.

Author’s Note

I had a difficult time deciding what I would write about that others had written or spoken about. I had a difficult enough time trying to figure out what that even meant. I switched pieces; originally I was writing about a song, but I quickly discovered that there was not much to say about it. I have no explanation or theory for how the idea to see what people were saying about Blackfish came to mind, but it did. From there, I grouped the criticisms into a broad category — the suggestion that Blackfish is a bunch of lies packed into a film for the sole purpose of manipulating people’s emotions. I tried to remain objective and neutral when commenting on the specific statements, but I was informed that it made my piece sound robotic, and that it would really help my essay if I chose a side and took a stance on the issue myself. So I did. I made sure I included my opinion, supported with facts of course, and my essay became much better.

Works Cited

Brevet, Brad. “My Problem With ‘Blackfish’’.

Fox News. “Whale Kills Trainer as Horrified Crowd Watches”. FoxNews.

Marine Bio. “Orcas (Killer Whales), Orcinus orca”. MarineBio.

Merriam-Webster. “Documentary”. Merriam-Webster.

Merriam-Webster. “Propaganda”. Merriam-Webster.

NOAA Fisheries. “Killer whale (Orcinus orca)”. NOAA Fisheries.

Orlando Sentinel. “Nude Man Found Dead On Killer Whale’s Back”. Orlando Sentinel.

Netflix. Blackfish. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. CNN Films, 2013. Netflix.

Pagnotta, Francesca Marie. “The Truth About SeaWorld”. Captivity Kills.

SeaWorld. “Why “Blackfish” is Propaganda, not a Documentary”. SeaWorld Cares.

AskSeaWorld. “What is the size of SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale habitat?”. SeaWorld Fact Check.

SeaWorld of Hurt. “Over 30 Years and Three Deaths: Tilikum’s Tragic Story”. SeaWorld of Hurt.

Smith, Melissa. “Why Blackfish is Misleading, Unoriginal, and Stupid”. HubPages.

U.S. Department of Labor. “US Labor Department’s OSHA cites SeaWorld of Florida following animal trainer’s death”. United States Department of Labor.

User. “Blackfish — Dawn Brancheau”. YouTube.

User. “Killer Whale Video: Jane Velez-Mitchell and Jack Hannah Shout Over Shamu Tragedy”. YouTube.

User. No title. Twitter.

User. “One Ocean w/Tilikum (Full HD) Jan 18 2015 11:30am - SeaWorld Orlando”. YouTube.

Welsh, Jennifer. “This chilling movie is probably behind SeaWorld’s decision to close a killer whale exhibit”. Tech Insider.

“What’s on Netflix?” Netflix.

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