Blackfish: A Considered Response

Ever since I first saw the film ‘Free Willy’ as a child, I have been fascinated by killer whales (also known as orcas). The idea of being friends with a whale, of getting so close to such a magnificent, wild creature was thrilling. But even then, I found the idea of being in the water with such a huge animal, however gentle, somewhat unnerving.

When I was a few years older, I began avidly watching BBC nature documentaries and unfortunately these programmes completely destroyed my mental image of killer whales being lovable, friendly animals. The programs showed that orcas are highly efficient predators, capable of taking on almost anything in the ocean – seals, penguins, other whales, dolphins and even sharks. One of the most horrifying scenes I have ever watched in a nature documentary featured a pod of killer whales hunting down a grey whale calf, separating it from its mother and drowning it. Almost the worst part of it was that, after all the effort they put in to catching it (around six hours in total), the orcas only ate its lower jaw and its tongue. There are also tales of a pod of killer whales off the coast of Australia in the early 20th century who helped whalers to kill other whales and were rewarded with the dead whale’s tongue and lips. I have no idea whether that story is in fact true, but if it is, it serves as a striking illustration of the two seemingly contradictory sides of the killer whales’ nature – they are fearsome predators, but can also be remarkably co-operative, particularly with humans.

Two years ago, I watched a documentary called Blackfish. And once again I was having to reconsider everything I thought I knew about these animals and our relationship with them. For those who haven’t seen it, I will outline the main points as briefly as I can, before discussing its impact and concluding with what I feel are the most important points highlighted by the film.

The history of killer whales in captivity starts in 1961, when the first orca was captured in California, only to die two days later. The second orca to be caught, (named Moby Doll), lasted 87 days, which was long enough to draw in huge crowds and establish that there was a market for putting the animals on display. Before this time, orcas had been viewed mainly with fear – people knew them only as deadly predators. But it soon became apparent that orcas were in fact sociable and friendly, not to mention smart. People began to recognise their potential value to the entertainment industry and started capturing them in large numbers. Pods of whales would be surrounded by boats and planes, bombs would be thrown into the water, nets dropped to separate young whales from the adults and these youngsters would be hauled out of the water and shipped off to various aquariums, chief among them SeaWorld, which became renowned for its pioneering work with orcas. It was not unheard of for whales to be accidentally killed during these hunts – and when several orca corpses washed up on a beach in 1970, their bodies having been deliberately weighed down by stones and dropped to the bottom of the ocean to prevent their discovery, the public began to realise something of the true cost involved in removing wild animals from their natural habitat.

But even this controversy was not enough to prevent the continued capture of baby orcas for the entertainment industry. After it became clear that this method of removal caused great distress not only to the young orcas being taken, but also to the adult ones left behind, catching orcas in Puget Sound (the main hunting-ground for collectors) was made illegal. Unfortunately, the collectors simply moved to Iceland (where there were no restrictions on orca removals) and began taking them from there. This is where a young orca, later known as Tilikum, was caught in 1983, along with two other whales. He was shipped to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, where he lived in a tank with two female orcas. The Blackfish film features interviews with former employees of Sealand, who state that the attraction was badly run and the animals’ welfare not a top priority. From about 5pm in the evening till around 7am the next morning (14 hours) the orcas were kept locked in a tiny dark tank with virtually no stimulation. This was done to prevent any saboteurs cutting through the net walls of their larger main pool and releasing them. It is still not known exactly how this may have affected the psychological health and wellbeing of the whales, but it is certainly not unreasonable to assume that this treatment must have had at least some negative effects.

In 1991, a young marine biology student and part-time animal trainer named Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into the main tank at Sealand, just after a show had finished. Horrified onlookers watched helplessly as she was dragged underwater by the three killer whales. She managed to reach the surface again and screamed for help, but to no avail. Divers finally retrieved her lifeless body from the pool several hours later, but it was too late to save Sealand’s reputation and it closed down a year later, having sold its three orcas on to SeaWorld. This was the first instance ever recorded of orcas attacking a human. It is difficult to say for certain what motivated the attack – were the whales being aggressive or simply playful? Did they understand that they were harming someone, or did they not know their own strength? This question has still not been resolved decades later and is source of fierce debate among animal behaviourists, aquariums and animal rights activists. One preventative method that can be used to prevent such attacks is desensitisation training – in which the whales are trained not to react when someone falls into the water. This is highly controversial, however, as it is virtually impossible to guarantee the trainers’ safety during the desensitisation process. Because of the risks involved, many theme parks and aquariums, including Sealand of the Pacific, have decided not to use desensitisation training.

Following his move to SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum spent the next few years performing in shows with other orcas. In 1999, a man named Daniel P. Dukes somehow managed to evade SeaWorld security, remained in the park after it had closed and then got into the killer whale tank. The next morning his body was discovered draped over Tilikum’s back. The autopsy report showed that the body had received numerous bruises and contusions, but the main cause of death was recorded as drowning. However, the report seems to suggest that several of Dukes’ injuries occurred before death, which means that Tilikum may have been responsible for his drowning. Although SeaWorld has several nightwatchmen and security cameras on its sites, no one seems to know for certain what really happened to Dukes and whether Tilikum did indeed play a significant role in his death. Despite the mystery surrounding this incident, trainers continued to do waterwork with Tilikum and he still regularly performed in the orca shows – until five years ago, when Dawn Brancheau was attacked.

Dawn was one of SeaWorld’s top trainers. She was passionate and enthusiastic, with many years of experience and she always had a keen regard for safety, carefully following procedures and protocols. One evening in February 2010, after finishing the last show of the day with Tilikum, she lay down on a flat ledge just under the surface of the water to do some quiet social bonding with him. Eyewitness accounts differ on exactly what happened next, but all of them state that Tilikum dragged Dawn into the water and refused to release her. Just like Keltie Byrne all those years ago, Dawn drowned while trying to escape from the tank. Her autopsy report makes even grimmer reading than that of Daniel Dukes. Some witnesses said that Dawn was pulled in by her hair (she had a long ponytail) and there is some evidence to support this, because a portion of her scalp was completely ripped from her head. Others said that Tilikum had grabbed her arm and there is evidence for this too – her left arm had been torn from her body, or “avulsed”, in the words of the autopsy report. SeaWorld’s official statement supported the hair-pulling scenario. Many sceptics pointed out that this allowed the company to blame Dawn’s own actions for her death – the official line was that she had been lying too close to Tilikum and the sight of her hair drifting in the water had been too tempting for him to resist. Following Dawn’s death, SeaWorld mandated that all trainers should keep long hair in buns, rather than ponytails. For those who claimed that Dawn had been pulled in by her arm, this change would make little difference to the safety of SeaWorld’s trainers. Yet again, the differing accounts of what happened make it difficult to come to any definite conclusions about why the incident occurred. Tilikum had missed a couple of cues during the show and had therefore not received as much positive reinforcement as he might have expected. Had he simply attacked Dawn out of anger and frustration? Or was the sight of her long hair drifting in the water simply a new form of stimulation that had to be investigated? I personally find it difficult to believe that he would never have seen a trainer’s hair in the water before, so the idea of it being a novelty doesn’t seem to ring true – having said that, I am definitely no animal behaviour expert, so it is difficult for me to speculate.

Although the Blackfish documentary focuses on Tilikum, there have been many other incidents between orcas and their trainers – not least the death of another trainer at Loro Parque, in the Canary Islands, which occurred only two months before Dawn lost her life at SeaWorld. Blackfish also shows footage of at least two other incidents that resulted in major injuries – in the first, an orca slams its whole body down on a trainer riding on the back of another orca. The trainer sustained numerous fractures that required extensive surgery. The second incident involved an orca pulling a trainer under the water for up to a minute at a time, bringing him back to the surface and then dragging him under again, before finally releasing him – and even then the whale came after the trainer as he escaped from the tank. Apart from the death of Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque, which was during a show rehearsal, all of the other incidents mentioned occurred during or after performances – hence the fact that they were caught on film. But many more injuries occur during training, rehearsals, or even everyday interactions, when there is no audience there to film them. Despite the fact that trainers are no longer allowed in the water with any of their whales and do not have any physical contact with Tilikum, he still takes part in performances – this video shows him performing in January 2015, just four months ago. He seems to move in a very lethargic manner in comparison to the other orcas, possibly as a result of his current isolation.

Having discussed the content of the documentary, I will now briefly mention its impact. Blackfish received critical acclaim when it was first released in 2013 and is reported to have been directly responsible for a subsequent drop in SeaWorld’s profits, with fewer people attending the theme parks. In addition, several major bands, including The Beach Boys and Barenaked Ladies, cancelled their concerts at SeaWorld venues during 2014. Two upcoming movies – Paper Towns and Finding Dory – have had their marine park scenes altered or completely cut as a direct result of Blackfish’s impact.

Unsurprisingly, SeaWorld denounced the film, saying it was “inaccurate and misleading”. Of course, to a certain extent this may be true. After all, while documentaries are supposed to be factual, each film-maker has a particular story they want to tell and it is possible to cut and edit interviews and footage to make things sound more sensational and dramatic than they actually are. Film-makers are also free to indulge in cherry-picking, choosing the most dramatic pieces of footage and the most affecting scenes from various interviews. It therefore becomes difficult to say with complete accuracy exactly what is going on. Ironically, SeaWorld has also used this ambiguity to its own advantage, in order to play down the nature of killer whale attacks and claim that they are simply rare and regrettable accidents.

However, it is impossible to deny that there have been orca-related deaths at SeaWorld, as well as long list of injuries, ranging from relatively minor to extremely serious. Furthermore, both Blackfish and other similar documentaries (see links below) have highlighted the fact that even with the best care that humans can provide and despite all the controversy – SeaWorld’s facilities are world-class – orcas just do not do well in captivity. Tilikum has sired 21 offspring during his time in captivity, but only 11 of them are still living. This poor survival rate is just one indication of how difficult it is to keep captive whales alive. Some of them, such as Lolita (now about 50 years old) and Tilikum (now 34), can live for decades, but this does not necessarily mean that their quality of life is particularly good, especially when compared to wild orcas.

Orcas are highly social animals and remain with their family for their entire lives. Male orcas, in particular, stay close to their mothers. The capture of baby orcas and subsequent separation from their family means that their social structure is completely disrupted. This, on top of the stress of living in a small, artificial space, is said to lead to unnatural behaviours that are almost never seen in the wild, such as attacks on humans, repetitive swimming patterns and prolonged inert floating. The famous flopped-over dorsal fin is also mainly associated with captive orcas. Studies of wild orcas have shown that the rate of fin collapse in British Columbia waters is 1%, in Norway it is less than 5% and in New Zealand it is around 23%. The reason for such a high rate of fin collapse in NZ waters is currently unknown. In captivity, almost all male orcas have collapsed fins, as well as some female orcas. These two pictures illustrate the marked difference between the collapsed dorsal fin of a captive orca and the tall, rigid dorsal fin usually seen on a wild orca.

Dorsal Fin Collapse

Dorsal Fin - Wild Orca

In an attempt to be as rational and clear-headed as possible, I have made a note of what I perceive to be the three main facts that Blackfish serves to highlight.

1) Captive killer whales can and do seriously injure or kill humans. It is unclear whether killer whales intentionally attack humans, or if they perhaps just don’t realise their own strength/misread signals/become over-stimulated. Blackfish asserts that the first assumption is true, while SeaWorld avers that it is one or all of the other possibilities. In either case, the point seems to be largely irrelevant. The fact that such incidents happen at all demonstrates the importance of the issue. After an incident in 2006 involving trainer Kenneth Peters and an orca named Kasatka, an OSHA report stated:

“The contributing factors to the accident, in the simplest of terms, is that swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn’t been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen. The trainers recognize this risk and train not for if an attack will happen but when.”

2) The unpredictable nature of such incidents makes it dangerous to be in the water with orcas. Blackfish seems to suggest that attacks are due to the long-term build-up of physical and psychological distress caused by being in captivity. SeaWorld would have it that such incidents are either accidents or due to ‘trainer error’. Whatever the cause, it seems to be virtually impossible to determine when and how killer whale attacks will occur – although whales that have shown previous aggression are, unsurprisingly, more likely to attack humans. Marine veterinarian Jay Sweeney wrote in the CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine in 1990:

“Aggression expressed by killer whales toward their trainers is a matter of grave concern…In a few such cases, we can attribute this behaviour to disease or to the presence of frustrating or confusing situations, but in other cases, there have been no clear casual factors.”

3) Orcas, on the whole, do not do well in captivity. All the evidence (based on observations of both captive and wild orcas) suggests that they are highly intelligent and social animals, who form strong familial bonds. Blackfish shows some absolutely heart-rending footage of orcas being captured in the wild, with the distress of orca family members being highlighted as particularly traumatic. It is also on record that SeaWorld separates babies from their mothers in captivity, something which can only lead to distress for the orcas, based on the strength of their family ties and the fact that they are already isolated from the rest of their natural family. In addition, there are reports of orcas self-harming or engaging in other unnatural behaviours, such as long periods of inertia (they can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild) and repetitive swimming patterns. SeaWorld, on the other hand, insists that it provides the highest level of care for its orcas and that the animals do well in captivity. Whilst there are some orcas who have survived many decades in captivity, a great deal more die at very young ages – this is clearly illustrated by this comprehensive list of orcas that have died in captivity. The fact that even SeaWorld (which has arguably the most advanced cetacean care facilities in the world) does not have a good orca survival rate shows how difficult it is to keep these animals healthy and happy in captivity.

In conclusion, the fact that orcas are such intelligent, social animals and are clearly aware of separation from their relatives, when it occurs, suggests that they are poor candidates for captivity and I strongly believe that the capture of wild orcas and the continued breeding of captive ones should be banned as soon as possible. Many protest groups have argued for the release of captive orcas such as Tilikum and Lolita, who have spent the vast majority of their lives in theme parks, performing in shows almost every day. However, even people protesting against captivity recognise that many captive orcas are not good candidates for release back into the wild. The early death of Keiko following his release – and his failure to integrate with a new pod of whales – demonstrates that captive whales may not always do well if they are put back in the wild. Having said that, Keiko was not reunited with his own pod – if he had been, he might have been able to re-integrate properly. In any case, the best option for many captive orcas is for them to be released into an open water sea-pen, allowing them to be back in their natural environment but still under human protection – a kind of retirement home for performing whales. This would obviously be an extremely expensive operation and would probably result in a significant loss of revenue for SeaWorld and all the other marine parks, so it is unlikely that they will be spending any of their billions of dollars on this proposal any time soon. However, the story of Keiko illustrates that it is definitely possible – and could be achieved with the right amount of financial support and backing from various organisations. A law that would ban keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity has been proposed and although it is unlikely to be passed in the near future, perhaps one day our only interactions with these magnificent creatures will be on their own terms, in the ocean where they belong.

N.B. Although Blackfish is not (legally) available to view for free online, there are other documentaries about killer whales available on Youtube, such as:

The Free Willy Story: Keiko’s Journey Home –
Lolita: Slave to Entertainment –

You can also watch a few clips from Blackfish, with director’s commentary, here:

And lastly, here is a link to a video of SeaWorld’s older killer whale show, Believe, when trainers were still allowed in the water:


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7 Responses to Blackfish: A Considered Response

  1. I think the main thigns to bear in mind are:
    – orcas are super-intelligent (among probably the half-dozen or so smartest things on the planet), and super-powerful. This makes them, by definition, super-dangerous to be around.
    – psychologically torturing intelligent things from a very young age is not only immoral, it’s liable to lead to unpredictability and hazard.

    I’d just like to point out one other thing, though: there’s really not a conflict between them being smart and sociable AND violent. Think of baboons, chimpanzees, wolves, or hyaenas, or indeed humans – social predators can be very ‘nice’ and cuddly and friendly AND sociopathic killers.

    Fortunately, most of these animals don’t look as pretty as orcas. Otherwise we’d gush over “trainers” playing around in hyaena pens… (briefly, before the horrible death bit).

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Thank you for commenting, I really appreciate it – getting feedback from readers is great! You make a very good point about sociability and violence not being mutually exclusive – thank you for reminding me of that!

  2. ashokbhatia says:

    A well-researched piece, as always. It is good to go through posts which are so very detailed and comprehensive in nature. Keep them coming!

  3. honoria plum says:

    What a great piece. Based on the information you’ve provided, I wonder if the deaths are simply a case of orcas — who are predators by nature — in captivity being in closer proximity to humans than they are in their normal habitat. I think there is a strong case for banning them being held in captivity. I’m not sure how many miles a wild orca would cover in a day, but I can’t imagine the captive orcas have anything near sufficient — however well they may be treated. And for social animals, the isolation is just cruel. I am sure businesses like Sea World can reinvent themselves and find other ways to entertain visitors.

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