Blackfish: A killer whale gone very bad

This documentary thriller tells the tragic tale of an animal driven to the brink

A killer whale gone very bad

Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

Meet Tilikum. Weighing 12,000 lb., he’s the largest killer whale in captivity. He spends most of his time alone, drifting listlessly in a pool at Orlando’s SeaWorld. But each day, after the younger orcas dazzle the crowd with their high-flying stunts, “Tili” still makes an appearance for the grand finale, as he slides out of the water on his belly and flips his tail for the crowd. As he delights the kids, what they don’t know is that he has killed three people in the course of his showbiz career. This 27-year veteran of SeaWorld is the focus of a shocking documentary called Blackfish, which begins with an audio clip of a chilling phone call from a marine park employee to the local sherriff’s office in 2010:

“A whale has eaten one of the trainers.”

“A whale ate one of the trainers?”

“That’s correct.”

Blackfish unfolds as a documentary thriller, the portrait of a predator with a string of gruesome homicides on his record. But Tilikum is not cast as a villain like the shark in Jaws. This is a harrowing tale of humans exploiting a higher mammal with tragic consequences—not unlike Project Nim’s adopted chimp, The Cove’s dolphins and the man-eating bear in Grizzly Man. “I got into this as a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld,” L.A.-based director Gabriela Cowperthwaite told Maclean’s. “I thought I was going to do an entirely different documentary, about our relations with animals. As I began to pull back the curtain, I realized that was not the movie I had to make.”

Her story traces Tilikum’s sad life from his 1983 capture off the coast of Iceland, torn from his mother at two. He spent almost a year in a concrete holding tank before being shipped to Sealand of the Pacific, a shabby little marine park on Vancouver Island. There, he would spend 14 hours a day virtually immobile, locked in a dark, eight-metre-wide enclosure with the park’s two female killer whales, who viciously bullied him. (Females are dominant in orca society, and in the wild, males spend their lives with their mothers.) In 1991, during a Sealand performance, Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old trainer, fell halfway into the pool and a whale pulled her in. Treating her like a toy, the three orcas stripped off her clothes, mauled and drowned her. It took hours to recover the body. Eyewitnesses interviewed in the film say Tilikum was the instigator. There was no inquiry, no lawsuit. Sealand closed and its owner sold Tilikum to SeaWorld, where he was put to work as a performer and a breeder. Trainers weren’t told about his past.

One morning in 1999, a SeaWorld employee found Tilikum parading around his pool with a nude corpse draped over his back. Daniel Dukes, 27, had snuck in after hours and taken a fatal swim. “The public relations spin was that he died of hypothermia,” says Jeffrey Ventre, one of several former SeaWorld trainers interviewed in the film. “The medical examiner reports were more graphic. Tilikum stripped him, bit off his genitals, and there were bite marks all over his body.”

Tilikum’s most recent kill came in 2010, when he pulled one of SeaWorld’s senior trainers, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, into the water. SeaWorld first reported she slipped and fell, then claimed the whale had yanked her long ponytail, calling it her fault. Former trainer John Jett disputes that. “Tilikum grabbed her left forearm and started to drag her, and eventually did a barrel roll and pulled her in,” he says. “He completely mutilated that poor girl.” Brancheau had to be pried from his jaws; part of her arm got left behind.

Her death led to a court ruling that now forces SeaWorld to keep a barrier between its trainers and the whales. SeaWorld has appealed. But Blackfish suggests whale slavery is a crime that can’t be regulated, and that the stress of captivity creates psychotic behaviour. In the wild, killer whales live into their 80s, but in captivity, their lifespan is less than half that. No longer taken from the wild, they’re now bred in marine parks, forming a family with a dark bloodline. Tilikum has been kept on, thanks to his multi-million-dollar sperm. More than 30 orcas at SeaWorld, over half its collection, are his descendants.

Scheduled Blackfish screenings in Canada include:

July 19-25, 2013 Toronto, Ont. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Aug.2-5, 2013 Waterloo, Ont. Princess Cinema
Aug.2-11, 16-17, 2013 Vancouver, B.C. Vancity Theatre
Aug.23-31, 2013 Winnipeg, Man. Winnipeg Film Group Cinematheque
Aug.29-Sept.1, 2013 Regina, Sask. RPL Film Theatre
Sept.6-12, 2013 Saskatoon, Sask. Broadway Theatre

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