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.