Blackfish the movie

Killer whale I saw in the wild off LA’s coast

Last weekend I saw the movie Blackfish and since then the entire film has been rattling around in my head. For people not familiar with Blackfish, it’s a documentary about killer whales in captivity and in particular it’s about Tilikum, a performing male killer whale that has killed several people, including SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010.

For anyone who loves the ocean and whales, this is a must see movie. Actually, everyone should see this movie. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail because I really want people to see this film for themselves. Instead I will tempt you to see it with a couple tidbits of information. I was disturbed to learn the following (and believe me this is mild compared to other things you will learn from the movie):

  • SeaWorld staff provide visitors with incorrect factual information about killer whales. The movie included footage of SeaWorld employees explaining to visitors that killer whales live about 25 to 30 years in the wild and about 35 years in captivity because they have access to veterinary care. (Don’t quote me on the exact numbers, but it was something pretty close to this.) The movie also featured experts who said that researchers have known killer whales have lifespans similar to humans since the early 1980s. To be safe, I checked my marine mammal bible, the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals Second Edition edited by William Perrin, Bernd Wursig and J.G.M. Thewissen, and here’s what it said: “Mean life expectancy for females is estimated to approximately 50 years, and maximum longevity is 80-90 years…Mean life expectancy for males is estimated to be about 30 years, with maximum longevity of about 50-60 years.” So while the average life expectancy for killer whales isn’t as high as humans, the maximum longevity is pretty close. SeaWorld employees also told visitors that it’s common for killer whales to have a folded-over dorsal fin in the wild, this is not true.
  • Not one of the former SeaWorld trainers interviewed for the movie (or at least the trainers featured in the film) had any training in marine biology or animal behavior. All the trainers were hired based on their ability to perform. At first this really surprised me, but later I realized that SeaWorld is a business and of course a company is going to hire people who can help sell tickets, entertain a crowd and put on a great show. Bookish marine biologists and scientists probably aren’t their top pick for amusing a crowd.

Overall, the movie confirmed what I already believe, killer whales do not belong in captivity. Seeing the movie also had an unexpected outcome. My husband, who is not even close to being as ocean obsessed or whale enamored as me, announced after the movie that he would no longer be seeing any wild animals forced to perform tricks for human entertainment whether it was at the circus or at SeaWorld. I agreed.

After the movie I kept thinking back to my first and thus far only experience seeing killer whales in the wild. This is a direct quote from the post I wrote after seeing them: “What’s most amazing about seeing killer whales in the wild is feeling the raw natural power they emanate. There’s nothing quite like it that I’ve experienced before. In the the presence of killer whales, it becomes clear that they truly are the ocean’s top predator, they rule the seas and graciously accept us as guests, but they could just as easily choose not to.”

And despite everything we’ve done (see Blackfish) they still graciously accept our presence today. There is no record of a killer whale ever attacking humans in the wild, ever.


  1. says

    Great article, Carolyn. To expect Seaworld to say anything other than how wonderful they treat their captive animals is like wondering when Walmart will come clean on how they can keep their quality and prices so low (by paying correspondingly low wages to employees and suppliers).

    I am on a photo shoot in Alaska right now photographing bears but in a few days, I will be trying to find Humpbacks and Orcas. A bent dorsal fin on an Orca does occur naturally but now often. I came across one a few years ago in Monterey Bay with a SEVERE bent on its dorsal fin but it did not affect the animal at all. I don’t think I will see Blackfish. Too depressing and outrageous to pay and hear the captors talk BS. Take a look at my photo depicting a more encouraging movie, Free Willy.

  2. Bryan says

    Hear! Hear! Another great post. Yes, this film did have an impact on me. Places like Sea World offer the public a distorted idea about these amazing animals and their relationship to humans. Surprise surprise they are all about turning a profit, not engendering a true sense of awe and respect for killer whales and dolphins. Because that would mean acknowledging they’re not our pets and aren’t here to entertain us. They should be allowed to live freely in their natural habitats. Hope this film gets seen by families who will think twice before putting Sea World on their vacation itineraries.

  3. Izzy says

    Great and much needed article. There seems to be some disconnect with us humans and the oceans and marine life. I never hear protests about seaworld as much as I hear protests about zoos. I never hear “oh, that poor whale/dolphin it belongs in the ocean not in captivity” as often as I hear, “oh, that poor lion it belongs in the ocean not in captivity”.

    Is it because we are land dwellers and so can relate more to/feel more sympathy for land animals? Do we not appreciate the ocean enough because it’s not as easy for people to get to as a park is? Or is the education in schools lacking so we don’t understand what a vital role they play in our survival and well being?

    We also seem to demonise fish/marine mammals a lot. The great white shark (also known as white death) has been demonised to the limit and so have piranhas. I’m not sure on the origin of the title but I think whoever named Orcas “killer whales” didn’t help either.

    Would love to read a blogpost on these issues from you and what we can do to tackle these problems.

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