Redefining Killer in Killer Whale: Praising Blackfish

SeaWorld trainer posing with Tilikum before a show.

Tilikum is the largest orca whale in captivity, weighing 12,500 pounds and measuring over 22 feet in length. He was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 when he was two years old. Whales are a very familial animal. Tilikum, like all whales captured for captivity was torn from his family at a very young age. He was then kept in a cement holding cell for nearly a year before he was transferred to a marine park. This signified the biggest change he would encounter in his life. His home had changed dramatically from a place with the ability to travel a hundred miles a day with his family to a cramped pool, alone.

Rake marks found on Tilikum.
Drilled teeth found in multiples whales in captivity.

After the cell, he was eventually transferred to Sealand in Canada. He was placed in a 100-foot-by-50-foot pool and forced to adapt. Tilikum shared the pool with two other female whales that abused him when left alone. Due to the lack of familial connections causing social contention, Tilikum was found with rake marks along his sides — caused by one whale scraping their teeth along another whale’s side. After consistent pressure to perform, Tilikum developed stomach ulcers along with a collapsed dorsal fin.

Tilikum was scheduled to perform every hour on the hour, a total of eight times a day. During one of his performances on February 24, 2010, the killer whale went rogue. With his trainer’s back turned to the pool, Tilikum grabbed Dawn Branchaeu’s ponytail and submerged her in the pool. He whipped her in the water, thrashing her and tightly grasping her hair. Tilikum kept Branchaeu submerged long enough that she drowned in the pool. The autopsy determined that she died from blunt force trauma to the neck, torso, and head (Sasse). This was the third death reportedly caused by Tilikum.

The death of Branchaeu came as a shock to her colleagues due to the loving connection they claim she had with Tilikum. Gabriela Cowperthwaite wanted to solve the mystery of this tragedy and created the film Blackfish. As illustrated in the CNN film, this is the horrifying psychological effect captivity has on intelligent animals such as the killer whale. This film brought this continuous problem to the public’s view when it was released in January 2013.

The images and information in Blackfish (the live captures which started the industry; the physical and social stresses the animals, especially Tilikum, endure; the separation of calves from their mothers; and the aggression that occurs between killer whales and between killer whales and trainers) have surprised and shocked many viewers who have mostly thought of the Shamu show as lighthearted entertainment (Zimmermann).

The film, which focuses on the psychological effect of captivity on a killer whale, revealed the hideous truth about such a cultural icon.

Advertisement for the CNN film.

The captivity of orcas is not only killing the trainers, but the orcas as well. “Tilikum, the orca at the center of the Blackfish documentary, is suffering from a drug-resistant lung infection (likely bacterial pneumonia) and is close to death” (Marino). At the young age of 35, Tilikum is suffering from a fatal disease. SeaWorld claims the average age of orca whales in the wild is 50 to 60. They also claim the life they live in captivity is healthier, yet Tilikum is dying at the ripe age of 35.

The film has brought a voice to the silent killer. The illusion SeaWorld depicts of healthy, happy whales makes it hard to imagine captivity could be so harmful. After seeing Blackfish, viewers are informed of the truth. Frances Locke has always been a non-supporter of circuses and SeaWorld, but he claims he does not judge people who do because “most people are unaware of just how abusive they can be” (Locke). That is what makes Blackfish such an important call for action. After seeing the movie, Locke was inspired to be an active member in the fight.

The movie is creating an army of soldiers willing to fight. Wendy, a critic and viewer of the documentary, has developed a deep discontent with SeaWorld after her screening.

The things that really shook me, aside from the obvious poor treatment of Tilikum and all of the whales in general, were the breaking up of the family units and just the outright lying and deception by Sea World (the dorsal fin, the average age of them in captivity vs in the wild) (Locke).

The beauty of the movie is that it unravels all of SeaWorld’s lies and paints a horrifying story. It makes the issue personal by showing the negative effects on the whales as well as the human trainers.

The contrast between an orca’s life in captivity compared to the life of a wild killer whale is extreme. In the wild, whales travel hundreds of kilometers a day with their family, able to escape any social situation they are uncomfortable with due to the vast open water that is available to them. In captivity, the whales are placed in small pools with other animals they have no ties with. “As a result, social strife is common in captivity, including aggression, in which whales are cut, raked, and rammed, usually by members higher on the social ladder” (Martinez). With such close quarters and lack of connection between animals, social strife is common and dangerous. As shown in the film, Tilikum was a victim of social contention. The rake marks on his side cwere a result of female dominance.

SeaWorld commercial for their show ‘Believe’.

Quite contradictorily, a theatrical performance at SeaWorld gives the audience an illusion of a healthy, happy life in captivity. The commercial above is for SeaWorld’s show ‘Believe,’ one of their most popular performances. The clip depicts a nurturing environment for the animals and anyone who comes to see. Blackfish begs to differ. The film is a call for action to affect change in SeaWorld, and other animal captivity business’s policies. The continuous stream of horrifying facts relayed in Blackfish is to inspire a change. The gory images of not only beaten whales, but also deformed trainers are to enlighten the viewer of the weight of the issue.

Illustrated in the film, the cases of social contention can cause severe injury. In fact, it can escalate to death. “In one particularly brutal example, Kandu V, a female orca at Sea World of California (SWC), bled to death after 11.9 years (4332 days) in captivity when an artery was severed at the upper jaw” (Martinez). The injury was caused by an altercation between whales. After the attack, Kandu bled out of her blowhole for 45 minutes until she died. Most encounters occur while the whales are alone at night. During the off-hours, the whales are herded into a concrete holding cell. They are left there for a period of 14 hours.

Boredom, like social conflict, is another contributing factor to some health problems of orcas. To separate whales that are having aggression issues, trainers will put up metal gates. The whales often chew on the gates or jaw-“pop”, causing chunks of their teeth to fall off. If left untreated, the new gap can be plugged with food and can cause infection. To prevent such events from happening, “using a variable speed drill, trainers drill holes through the pulp and into the jaw via an endodontic procedure called a modified ‘pulpotomy’” (Martinez). This becomes a lifelong debilitation that needs to be monitored and treated daily. After the procedure, the bored hole needs to be cleaned two-three times a day to prevent infection. “These open bore holes represent a direct route for pathogens to enter the bloodstream where they can then be deposited into the tissue of various organs throughout the body, such as the heart or kidney” (Martinez). This opening is a common way for whales to get diseases, which is often the official cause of death.

Because these whales are such precious assets, the corporations try their hardest to keep them healthy. Every issue gets treated with medication. However, the constant consumption of medicine is detrimental as well. “The deleterious effects of chronic antibiotic usage is well established and include disruption of normal bacterial flora in the gut, malnutrition, and susceptibility of the host to opportunistic pathogens such as fungi and yeast,” (Martinez). All animals in captivity are in danger of being overmedicated, but because whales are such valuable assets due to size, cost, and incoming revenue they are often victims of over medication.

Such stress on the animal is shown by a collapsed dorsal fin. “Dorsal collapse is a phenomenon nearly exclusive to captivity as it is rarely seen in wild orcas. 100% of adult captive male dorsal fins have succumbed to gravity versus approximately one percent of free-ranging orcas” (Martinez). All of the whales in captivity suffer from dorsal fin collapse, whereas it is a rare occurrence in the wild. According to “Orca Dorsal Fin Controversy”, dorsal fin collapse can be caused by a number of reasons including warm water, circle swimming, resting at the surface, low hydration, or genetics with a lack of exercise. All of these show the drastic difference between living in the ocean and living in a swimming pool.

The difference between a collapsed dorsal fin of a captive whale and a whale in the wild.

Many people are shocked and surprised by the collapsed dorsal fin after their first visit to SeaWorld. Harri Kirby was so intrigued by the occurrence that he turned to the web for answers (Kirby). Students and adults know whales as having crisp, straight dorsal fins. Seeing such a noticeable difference is concerning. Questions flood Quora and Yahoo about seeing collapsed dorsal fins in captivity (Cause of Fin Collapse). The question reads: “What causes an orca’s dorsal fin to droop when in captivity? How can it not be a concern? Seems that if not physical or health related it would be a psychological issue” (Cause of Fin Collapse). The image brings concern to the visitors of the park.

SeaWorld has been trying to cover up this phenomenon since 1998. Dr. Visser was a scientist who conducted research for SeaWorld about the prevalence of collapsed dorsal fins in the wild. She reported that 1 out of 174 whales in the wild suffered from dorsal fins collapse, but SeaWorld instead reported to the public that 7 out of 30, or­ 23 percent of dorsal fins collapsed in the wild. Dr. Vesser has asked SeaWorld to correctly represent the data she collected on two different occasions, but SeaWorld has failed to comply (Meyers). The collapsed dorsal fin is an obvious deformity of killer whales in captivity. Customers often question what the cause is to which workers lie and say it is a sad genetic defect. This is just the tip of the iceberg and SeaWorld is trying to keep the real cause hidden.

A tweet by SeaWorld in response to the film.

The attack made by Blackfish was not received well by SeaWorld. Following the film, SeaWorld made statements to rebutt the movie. According to “A Brief History of SeaWorld’s ‘Blackfish’ Damage Control” posted on The Voice of San Diego, SeaWorld had an aggressive damage control plan that occurred on many different platforms including The New York Times and various social media websites. The company tweeted “Blackfish is propaganda. Learn the truth about our killer whale care at ‪” followed by a picture of a trainer with a quote “One thing I want people to know after watching the movie is that it’s not true” (SeaWorld). The company took the ‘any press is good press’ approach by drawing attention to the documentary.

Regardless of SeaWorld’s damage control, Blackfish has begun to create lasting effect on the animal entertainment industry’s profits. People are becoming aware of this forever-disguised issue, and they are acting accordingly. “According to the SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. Report, the theme park suffered an 84 percent drop in its net second-quarter income; after a $37.4 million haul in 2014, the park was only able to net $5.8 million in 2015” (Verhoeven). The documentary had a larger lasting effect than some predicted. “Total revenues for the quarter fell from $405.2 million in 2014 to $391.6 million, marking a 3 percent drop year over year,” (Verhoeven). After revealing the moral issues within the company, fewer people are willing to support the SeaWorld. Their second quarter report also showed that they received 100,000 fewer visitors in 2015 than in 2014.

The documentary has brought the public’s attention to the analysis of zoos’ and circus’ treatment of animals as well. The treatment of the orcas illustrated in Blackfish enlightened viewers on how captivity can affect animals, especially large mammals. The result has been coined the ‘Blackfish effect’ — people are avoiding businesses that provide animals as entertainment. The public is torn between the education zoos and aquariums provide and the harsh treatment the animals receive. Although the sales of SeaWorld have gone down, some people still plan on attending the parks because of their educational value. Laurie Marshall, a mom of two, thinks zoos and aquariums have an irreplaceable value despite her surprise when she visited SeaWorld. She said “It was startling when you see how big these creatures are and how small the tanks are,” (Wallace) but she does not plan on boycotting all similar establishments.

The decrease in Shamu Stadium’s popularity was monetarily big enough to change SeaWorld’s mind. After three years of social media campaigns to stop the breeding of killer whales, SeaWorld has finally decided to comply. They will not partake in captive breeding any longer. SeaWorld also plans to phase out their theatrical performances over the next three years, according to NPR News. SeaWorld will supplement the performances by “introducing new, inspiring, natural orca encounters rather than theatrical shows, as part of our ongoing commitment to education, marine science research and the rescue of marine animals,” as written on the company’s blog (SeaWorld New Inspiring). These new policies are a step in the right direction of a safer life for trainers and killer whales.

As stated in an interview, Cowperthwaite was once a mom who took her kids to SeaWorld (Kohn). The original focus for the documentary was to commemorate the death of a human, but as she peeled back the layers of lies she discovered that the real story was how we have created the killer. Cowperthwaite was shocked by her findings and was compelled to share it with the world. She is ecstatic about the movement Blackfish has invoked and hopes this is just the beginning. Learning the truth about SeaWorld may surprise you just as much as it did Cowperthwaite.


First of all, I would like to thank my groupmates Alexandria and Lindsay for providing a fresh take on my essay. They were a crucial part in developing my voice in the essay. I would like to thank Professor Harris for providing me with supportive critique throughout the whole process. Lastly, I would like to thank my Aunt Mimi for enlightening me on the issue of killer whale captivity and sparking the fire for this piece.

Author’s Note

After receiving the prompt, I was definitely intimidated by the complexity of the piece I was expected to produce. The hardest part seemed to be choosing the topic. I scanned through my most recent reads and chose a book that I loved at the time, but found that the reviews it received lacked substance. Needing to dig deeper, I searched for a more impactful piece and came upon Blackfish. I started by giving the reader background on the issue of killer whales in captivity. But as I worked more on the piece, I created more of a conversation about the ‘Blackfish effect.’ Now that it is complete, my favorite part was Tilikum’s personal story, which I opened the piece with. I feel my essay developed naturally throughout the process and I am pleased with the outcome.

Works Cited

Allen, Greg. “SeaWorld Agrees To End Captive Breeding Of Killer Whales.NPR. NPR, 17 Mar. 2016. Web. 02 May 2016.

Blackfish. Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. 2013. DVD.

Cause of Dorsal Fin Collapse.Quora. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.

Green, Catherine. “A Brief History of SeaWorld’s ‘Blackfish’ Damage Control.Voice of San Diego. N.p., 01 Apr. 2015. Web. 02 May 2016.

Kirby, Harri. “Planet Ocean: Why the Collapsed Dorsal Fin?Planet Ocean: Why the Collapsed Dorsal Fin? N.p., 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 02 May 2016.

Kohn, Eric. “Sundance Interview: ‘Blackfish’ Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Discusses Suffering Orcas, Trainer Death, and Why SeaWorld Hasn’t Seen the Movie.Indiewire. N.p., 26 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 May 2016.

Locke, Frances. “Horrifying ‘Blackfish’ Documentary Made Me Hate SeaWorld Even More.Mommyish RSS. N.p., 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 May 2016.

Marino, Lori. “Orca Suffers, Questions for SeaWorld.Planet Experts. N.p., 10 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 May 2016.

Martinez, Alexis. “Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity.The Orca Project. N.p., 20 Jan. 2011. Web. 01 May 2016.

Meyers, Cara. “SeaWorld Lies About Research: Killer Whale, Orca Dorsal Fins | Global Animal.Global Animal. N.p., 28 May 2014. Web. 01 May 2016.

Orca Dorsal Fin Controversy — Experts vs. SeaWorld.Ocean Advocate. N.p., 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 02 May 2016.

Sasse, Jeffrey. “SeaWorld Trainer Died of Drowning, Trauma.CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 31 Mar. 2010. Web. 10 May 2016.

SeaWorld (SeaWorld). “Blackfish is propaganda. Learn the truth about our killer whale care at ‪ ” 10 Feb. 2014, 10:09 AM. Tweet

SeaWorld’s New Inspiring Natural Orca Encounters.SeaWorld’s New Inspiring Natural Orca Encounters. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.

Verhoeven, Beatrice. “‘Blackfish’ Effect: SeaWorld Suffers Disastrous 84 Percent Drop in Profits in Wake of Documentary.TheWrap. N.p., 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.

Wallace, Kelly. “A ‘Blackfish Effect’ on Circuses and Zoos?CNN. Cable News Network, 24 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 May 2016.

Zimmermann, Tim. “First Person: How Far Will the Blackfish Effect Go?National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 May 2016.