What’s Wrong With Blackfish?

By Isaac Wadd


A whale has eaten one of our trainers…” Anyone that has seen the movie Blackfish knows this quote. It plays back in your head over and over again. This is what the movie is trying to do. It is trying to pull at your emotions. It is trying to make you feel sorry for these sad and defenseless animals that are constantly swimming around in circles in a tiny concrete tank all day long. (Which they do not.)

FUN FACT: Propaganda — noun — information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular cause or point of view. This article that you are now reading has mislead you. The picture attached to the top with the killer whale with its mouth open leads you to believe that is taken at SeaWorld. When in fact, it’s taken at a whole different facility on another continent. It is that easy. Research must be done on a one sided issue such as this one.

What is Blackfish? Blackfish is a collaboration of ex- (disgruntled) SeaWorld trainers, ‘scientists’ and ‘experts’ coming together to fight for and provide a voice for the voiceless. Captivity is wrong, free the whales, empty the tanks! Right? Doesn’t that sound like the right thing to do after watching the movie? Wrong. Let me explain to you why —

Let’s start with the beginning of the movie and the ‘highly accredited’ trainers that speak throughout. It starts with a collaboration of 911 calls that were recorded at the Orange County Sheriff and Orange County Fire and Rescue service immediately following the attack and death of Dawn Branchaeu. The film used SeaWorld’s underwater camera system featuring a show from years before the attack that makes the viewers believe that Dawn is in the water with Tilikum and this is what is happening before Tilikum attacks her. Tilikum was never a ‘waterwork’ whale which means trainers never got into the water with him and swam with him, right away the movie is flat out misleading. We are introduced to John Hargrove a SeaWorld trainer from San Diego and San Antonio. He worked with SeaWorld San Diego from 1991 — 2001 and came back to work at San Antonio from 2008 — 2012. The reason for his break and switching of the two parks is not quite clear. Mr. Hargrove was demoted to Sea Lion & Otter Stadium for an incident that occurred with another trainer. After that happened, he shortly quit. He never worked of SeaWorld of Florida, where the movie takes place and never worked with Tilikum.

Samantha Berg. Ms. Berg has not worked at SeaWorld in over 20 years. Ms. Berg primarily worked with Dolphins and Sea Lions and little with Killer Whales. She was not assigned to Tilikum’s team and therefore never worked with Tilikum. She admitted that her knowledge about the training of the staff and protocol only extends to what was in place around 1993.

Kim Ashdown. Ms. Ashdown primarily worked with Beluga whales, Dolphins and Sea Lions. She worked with Killer Whales for approximately four months. She was never assigned to Tilikum’s team and never worked with Tilikum. She also never performed waterwork with any of the killer whales.

John Jett. Mr. Jett has not worked at SeaWorld in over 17 years. Mr Jett worked at SeaWorld from 1992 — 1996. He had limited interaction with killer whales. He was assigned to Tilikum’s team for a short while but was always under supervision of spotters and a senior trainer. He was never in charge of Tilikum’s training sessions or husbandry procedures. He was demoted to Sea Lion and Otter stadium for being a poor swimmer and disliked by the whales he worked with.

Dean Gommersall, speaks quite frequently about Tilikum. Dean worked with Beluga’s, Dolphins, Sea Lions and Otters. He never once worked with Killer Whales and was fired for kicking a Sea Otter on purpose during a training session.

Finally we are introduced to Jeffrey Ventre. Mr. Ventre has not worked at SeaWorld for over 17 years. He worked with killer whales for only three out of the seven years that he worked there. Mr. Ventre was fired for sticking his head inside the mouth’s of one of the whales known to be aggressive.

I know for a fact that I would not believe anything that these people have to say, just based off their backgrounds. We are not introduced to their backgrounds are we?

It is obvious what the film is trying to do. If you have no prior knowledge of SeaWorld or what the company does you would hate it and do everything in your power to stop this ‘evil’ company. Right?


In this next section I will touch on a few of the scenes that were most misleading and inaccurate to me.


In an interview with George Tobin, he claims that Ms. Branchaeu’s arm was completely swallowed — That is completely false. The Coroners report is clear that Ms. Branchaeu’s entire body including her arm was recovered. (Evidence: http://da15bdaf715461308003-0c725c907c2d637068751776aeee5fbf.r7.cf1.rackcdn.com/97af2028987a428cb315a357df8e7502_20brancheauorangecountysheriffreport.pdf)


SeaWorld has not captured killer whales in over 35 years — The film tries to make people who have no knowledge on the subject believe that these kind of captures still occur. No They do not. Before and under the ‘Marine Mammal Protection Act’ these captures swiftly became illegal. There was also never a court order banning SeaWorld from the state of Washington. SeaWorld voluntarily stopped capturing the animals even though the state of Washington gave them the permit to do so. (Evidence: http://da15bdaf715461308003-0c725c907c2d637068751776aeee5fbf.r7.cf1.rackcdn.com/da87573dc1104a1ab9d52a275ffbf534_28stateofwashingtonvseaworldstipulationofdismissal.pdf)


The film implies that the whales are food deprived and forced to perform— Here is a quote directly from SeaWorld —“This implication is false. Tilikum arrived at SeaWorld weighing 7,700 pounds, and currently weighs 12,000 pounds. SeaWorld has never deprived Tilikum of food for any reason, training or otherwise. Prior to Tilikum’s arrival at SeaWorld and continuing to this day, SeaWorld has only utilized operant conditioning, a scientific method that professional animal trainers have used for decades. Through rigorous efforts, trainers gradually increase the frequency of desired animal behavior, and minimize the occurrence of undesirable behavior, by encouraging the former with “positive reinforcement” and ignoring (and thereby discouraging) the latter. Punishment is never part of operant conditioning, and punishment is never employed at SeaWorld. SeaWorld pioneered and is the recognized world’s leader in the use of operant conditioning principles for the training of killer whales.” I have been to shows at SeaWorld when they were actually cancelled because the animals were not feeling like coming out to perform and you could still see the trainers feeding the whales regardless. John Hargrove, one of the trainers featured has came out and said that this claim is false. Operative conditioning/positive reinforcement is what SeaWorld uses to train their animals and nowhere involved with the training is there food deprivation involved for any reason. Any trainer that were to practice depriving the animals of the food they need was a poor trainer and was using techniques not taught in the SeaWorld system.


“They’re no recorded Orca attacks on humans in the wild.”— This is false. There are six recorded incidents of Orca’s attacking or showing aggressive behavior to humans. One of the injuries required over 100 stitches. A diver was nearly drowned from what he believed to be a killer whale when it grabbed ahold of his diving bag and wrist and dragged him under. (Evidence: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11208135)


Life Expectancy — The film claims that female killer whales in the wild can live to be over 100, this is not true. Scientists did not start recording lifespans until the seventies. They live shorter lifespans than humans in the wild and in captivity. One of the killer whales in SeaWorld’s care ‘Corky’ is 50 years old. Whales in captivity are free from pollution, sonar pollution, ship strikes, food depletion and oil spills. They also have a never ending supply of care and stimulation. UPDATE: The Oxford University Journal of Mammalogy has released a new peer reviewed study which finds that SeaWorld’s killer whales live just as long as those in the wild. (OXFORD STUDY: http://jmammal.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/07/09/jmammal.gyv113) (Evidence: http://da15bdaf715461308003-0c725c907c2d637068751776aeee5fbf.r7.cf1.rackcdn.com/df06ea77a1e7412e9aae67e29f003fdf_4canadianscienceadvisorysecretariatlifehistorypopulationdynamicsofnrkillerwhalesinbc.pdf)


Separation of mother and calf — SeaWorld does sometimes separate mother and calf, however only in extreme situations. This claim in the movie is misleading because it makes believe that they move the animals whenever they want. SeaWorld only moves mother and calf when forced. Kalina, a female killer whale who was nearly five years old at the time was disruptive to her mother and was also done feeding off her milk at the time. She was moved to SeaWorld of Ohio before being moved back to SeaWorld Orlando when the park closed. The movement of the killer whale Takara from her mother Kasatka occurred when she was 14 years old and had a calf of her own in which the calf moved with her. Kasatka still lives at SeaWorld San Diego with her calf’s Makani, Kalia and Nakai.


Keltie Byrnes death — The film mischaracterizes the events that led to the death of trainer Keltie Byrne at SeaLand of the Pacific, a park that was never owned or operated by SeaWorld. Tilikum was one of three whales in the sea pen at the time Ms. Byrne drowned, and the jury in the Coroner’s Inquest, which included the testimony of nineteen witnesses, could not identify which whale was the main aggressor in the incident. The film claims that Tilikum was the instigator and the cause, relying upon an interview given by two local residents that never gave their testimony to the sheriff’s office. Another key fact never explained or given in the film: David Duffus, who is featured in the film many times as an “expert”, was the foreman of this very same Coroner’s Jury that investigated the SeaLand incident. Mr. Duffus testified that it was inconclusive that Tilikum was the only whale primarily responsible for the death of Ms. Byrne. (Evidence: http://seaworld.com/~/media/ParkSites/OurCare/Blackfish%20Response%20Player/5SealandIncident6591VerdictofCoronersInquest.ashx)


Collapsed Dorsal Fins — In the film Mr. Ventre explains that dorsal fin collapse in captivity happens to all male killer whales and nearly all female killer whales. This is true in all but one male killer whale, Nakai. He also says that dorsal fin collapse happens in only one percent of killer whales in the wild. This is also not true. It is estimated that 1/4 of the male New Zealand population of animals have collapsed dorsal fins. A collapsed dorsal fin has nothing to do with the overall health of the animal and has been proven by scientists and experts. There are also a few males from the Southern Resident pod, one even having the nickname ‘floppy fin’. (Evidence: http://da15bdaf715461308003-0c725c907c2d637068751776aeee5fbf.r7.cf1.rackcdn.com/f2eaa3858192481291318ef3897ad9f8_38ingridvisserpaper.pdf)


Rakes and Violence — Rake marks are a way of showing who is in charge. Females regularly rake male Killer Whales with their teeth as a way to balance and establish their social structure and pod structure. This happens in the wild and this happens in captivity. Violence among killer whales is common and is seen in both captivity and the wild. (Evidence: Click same link above.)


Violence and Genetics with Tilikum — There is simply no evidence to support the theory that violence and anger is passed down in the Killer Whale’s offspring. Specifically those sired by Tilikum. There is no research conducted in the wild or in captivity that supports this.


Incident with trainer Tamarie Tollison and Orkid — Ms. Tollison broke SeaWorld’s safety protocols by not having a spotter watching her interaction and by repeatedly stepping on Orkid’s rostrum. The Film misleadingly portrays that this is a direct act of Orca aggression but when in reality this could of been completely avoided if she would of simply followed the safety protocols.


Incidents with trainers in general — The film claims that there are hundreds of reported incidents of killer whale aggression towards trainers. When SeaWorld fills out an incident report, they put every incident down. Whether it is from a scraped knee or cut on your arm to an act of aggression from a Killer Whale. Trainers are trained to spot pre-cursors on the animals that helps them better predict how they are going to behave. From the five years before the attack on Ms. Brancheau there were no incidents involving killer whale aggression. Not one. Out of the “100's” of incidents that they claim, only about 12 were from orca aggression. (Evidence: http://da15bdaf715461308003-0c725c907c2d637068751776aeee5fbf.r7.cf1.rackcdn.com/0d56ccc11b0f4391a5a8c5a392853d20_33charlestompkinsexcerptfromoshahearingtestimony.pdf)


Video of John Hargrove with a bloody face — This small part of the film misleads you to believe that a killer whale did this to him. When in reality he was sliding across one of the slide out platforms and hit his head on the concrete. In a correct maneuver he would of completely avoided this by keeping his head up. This was not an act of aggression from a whale.


Ken Peters Incident — The film fails to mention that Ken Peters heard Kasatka’s calf Kalia, vocalizing from one of the back pools and that was what probably set Kasatka off. When Peters crossed the net Kasatka did not follow him and he only suffered a broken foot. He still to this day works at SeaWorld San Diego and with Kasatka.


The film relies on animal rights extremists disguising themselves as ‘experts’ — The film relies heavily on the interviews of ‘scientists’ who for decades have not been supporters of SeaWorld or animals in a captive care setting, and also have no expertise on killer whale behavior in captivity. These scientists include Howard Garrett, Lori Marino and Ken Balcomb. Mr Garrett, along with cast members Samantha Berg and Carol Ray, joined with PETA in a previously filed lawsuit against SeaWorld. In this lawsuit they compared SeaWorld’s work with killer whales with slavery, asking for the animals to be freed under the 13th Amendment. Their case was quickly thrown out by the court. The film also relies on the statements of David Duffus, a professor of geography, in the area of killer whale behavior, whom OSHA’s judge Kenneth Welsch found “has no expertise in the training of captive killer whales.” (Evidence: http://seaworld.com/~/media/ParkSites/OurCare/Blackfish%20Response%20Player/10---Duffusdeposition.ashx)


Dawn’s Ponytail Theory — It was the Orange County sheriff’s office that said she slipped and fell into the pool. It was never SeaWorld who gave that report to the media. She was grabbed by her ponytail as already proven by the Coroner’s report, trainers on the scene and also by spectators. In this report, this woman says that Tilikum bit down on her ponytail and within two seconds was dragged under. (Evidence: http://da15bdaf715461308003-0c725c907c2d637068751776aeee5fbf.r7.cf1.rackcdn.com/65518100317b4d6fa7cf60f2ea743b62_13fredyherrerawitnessstatement.pdf)


All Captive Whales Have a Bad Life — “They are all emotionally destroyed, they’re all psychologically traumatized. They are ticking time bombs. Not just Tilikum.” This is downright not true. The trainers at SeaWorld love those animals like they are their own kids and often refer to them as an extension to their family. They build long lasting relationships with their trainers, are stimulated 24/7 via shows and behind the scenes interactions. If the animals did not want to perform in shows they would easily not do it. When you give killer whales plenty of fish and they have had their fill for the day, what else are you going to give them? More fish? They have had their fill. Their stimulation comes from all the activities involved in their daily lives. 85 percent of captive killer whales were born in captivity and the rest were taken from the wild a long time ago. Some of the whales are approaching 50 years old and are happy and healthy. Putting the orca’s back in the wild would quite simply not be logical. It would be like putting a newborn child in the middle of Times Square and asking it to fend for itself. We learned from Keiko, the star of the ‘Free Willy’ movies that this doesn’t work. Keiko was never observed capturing his own food. He swam directly past pods of orca’s and was even behaving aggressively towards and attacked when coming too close. He swam straight for Norway and made his final home in a Fjord where he constantly bumped boats and interacted with humans. Eventually he was brought back into human care and was cared for until he died in 2003 from what was believed to be pneumonia. Other factors could of played a card in this as well. It was recently revealed by Keiko’s former trainer, Mike Simmons that Keiko was only alone for twenty two days. He was almost always under the supervision of humans.

Killer whales were once used as target practice for bombs — In the 1950's an entire population of killer whales were eradicated off the coast of Iceland when the U.S. Navy dropped bombs on them. They were seen as dangerous and a menace to people and fisherman. We know now that this is not true. There was no SeaWorld back then. (Evidence: http://blog.seattlepi.com/candacewhiting/2012/04/25/whales-war-games-and-national-security-what-do-we-really-need/)


SeaWorld has rescued over 26,000 animals — SeaWorld is a leader in rescuing and rehabilitating animals. Their main goal is to rescue and eventually release the animals back into the wild. If the animal is not fit for return to the wild, which is decided by animal scientists, marine biologists and the NOAA, they have and enjoy a permanent home at SeaWorld. Organizations like PETA has killed over 29,000 animals since 1998. In 2015 SeaWorld rescued and rehabilitated over 800 California Sea Lions. (Evidence: http://www.petakillsanimals.com/proof, http://www.petakillsanimals.com/downloads/PetaKillsAnimals.pdf)


In the five years after Dawn Brancheau’s death there has not been a single incident involving killer whale aggression at SeaWorld. They have strictly revamped their entire training methods and the way they interact with the animals. They have put in place distance restrictions, rising pool floors that shoot up to the surface in under a minute, life vests that include spare air and a function that shoots a trainer to the surface instantly if something were to go wrong, removable guard rails to use in direct interactions and many, many more. Traveling to SeaWorld for the first time when I was eight years old, I was changed forever when I saw the Killer Whale show. I learned so much about the ocean, Killer Whale’s and every animal in the park. I left coming back to Minnesota with a new found passion to help animals and to help and protect the world in which we live in. We are all part of the same world and we all share it together and it is our duty to protect it before it is too late.

I encourage you all to watch Blackfish and come up with your own conclusions, but do not come to one without researching both sides first.