Documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite never intended to make a film exposing SeaWorld. Before her stunning film BlackFish was pieced together, Gabriela took interest in the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed after orca whale Tilikum grabbed her body and dragged her into his tank. SeaWorld went on to blame Brancheau for her own death.
To Cowperthwaite this simply didn’t add up. How does an intelligent orca whale who is cared for lead to the death of a highly beloved and skilled trainer? The feeling that something was missing from this story would take the filmmaker on a two-year journey for the truth.
What the filmmaker has to show for her search is the eye-opening, emotional documentary BlackFish. The documentary unmasks the lies told by SeaWorld through the lens of an anti-captivity perspective. According to SeaWorld orca whales live happy lives with their families in spacious environments. What we then see in comparison is a horrifying account of an orca’s life at SeaWorld facilities.
Tilikum at 12,000 pounds is the largest killer whale in captivity, and has been involved in numerous attacks, which are labeled as incidents by SeaWorld. He’s stored in a space that’s comparative to a bathtub, with orcas that are captured from different continents of the world. It’s a small environment that quickly becomes hostile for the orcas. On a daily basis Tilikum endures wounds from female orcas declaring their dominance. The unjust treatment didn’t start at SeaWorld, in fact it goes back decades from when the orcas are ripped from their families for entertainment.
This is the story SeaWorld doesn’t want you to know, but it’s one worth watching.
The Inquisitr’s Niki Cruz spoke with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite about the driving force behind BlackFish.
THE INQUISITR: What drove you to make BlackFish? Was it right after Dawn Brancheau’s death?
GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE: As a mother I took my kid to SeaWorld so when I learned a trainer had been killed there in this beloved park, I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand why a very intelligent creature would bite the hand that feeds it. I guess I thought it was an accidental drowning, and I thought he might have been playing too rough. Only when I started to peel back the onion did I find that this was going to be a film that I didn’t realize I was making. I couldn’t believe what I was learning on a daily basis.
THE INQUISITR: Why focus the story on Tilikum? The profiling of the deaths of these trainers could have been a separate documentary.
COWPERTHWAITE: Exactly. What I decided to do was really focus on the story of Tilikum and in order to truly give this issue justice I can only do what I know how to do, and that’s to tell this story. I don’t come from an animal activist group so I couldn’t just shoehorn a bunch of facts in there. I thought if I could be disciplined and focus on a story about Tilikum that’s eventually told through the eyes of the former trainers that I would have a chance of creating an authentic airtight documentary that could leave the audience with a chance to make their own decision.
THE INQUISITR: Were the trainers hesitant talking about their experiences knowing what this film covered?
COWPERTHWAITE: Some of them were. A few of them had become vocal after the death of Dawn. They heard what SeaWorld was saying about the death, and they knew they smelled a rat. They knew it was off. They started speaking out, but there were also trainers that backed out at the last-minute and were uncomfortable delving into this landmine. There’s a lot of people who want to be able to work in these facilities. They were afraid that if there were upstarts in the captivity world that they would never be able to work again.
THE INQUISITR: Did trainers that are still employed by SeaWorld express a reaction to the film? Have you heard anything?
COWPERTHWAITE: No not yet. Nobody that I can say that’s working at SeaWorld. Sometimes I get anonymous emails but I can’t really corroborate where they’re coming from. It is our understanding that mostly everybody has seen it, and various trainers support for what it is we’re trying to do. The SeaWorld trainers are the ones who are putting themselves at risk on a daily basis for the love of the whales.
THE INQUISITR: Have you received any reaction from SeaWorld about the film?
COWPERTHWAITE: Yes they did issue a response to every film critic. They took issue with certain things in the film. They’re focusing on some strange details. We’re a little baffled by their response but we knew they had to do something. We knew there was going to be some damage control right before the film.
THE INQUISITR: How hard was it to find the footage of the attacks?
COWPERTHWAITE: Once OSHA took SeaWorld to court some of those videos were used as evidence in the court cases. Through the Freedom of Information Act I was able to get releases for the footage.
THE INQUISITR: I had such a negative perception of these whales from what I’ve heard in the media. These people don’t see the psychosis that happen to these orcas because of the conditions they live in. Do you hope this film changes the opinions on these whales?
COWPERTHWAITE: Yeah. I never intended it to be anything but a truthful story that everybody has the right to know about. Whether it would be an agent of change, I never even allowed myself to think that far. I come from the school of documentary film and we all tend to have very limited expectations for our films. Now that I see the attention it’s getting, I’m inspired that people will come out of the film not only angered and shocked but with questions themselves.
THE INQUISITR: After witnessing everything that the film uncovers, I wouldn’t go to a SeaWorld show.
COWPERTHWAITE: Yeah I know. I felt the same way after marching down this path for two years. I couldn’t believe that I took my kids there. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see through the veneer. I used to think that if I had to be an animal in captivity, I would probably be a killer whale. I thought they had room there to maneuver, their trainers love them and hug them, which that part I still think is authentic, but I thought they were all cared for and very loved. I was on the opposite end of the spectrum.
THE INQUISITR: Do you see this treatment of whales stopping at any time?
COWPERTHWAITE: I do believe that with SeaWorld being a $2.1 billion dollar a year industry, that we’re the only ones with the financial resources to change the industry. We think that they should turn their facilities into rehability relief. You can charge people money and show the animals while they’re in rehab. There’s also a sea tent alternative where you quarter off a part of the ocean and you semi retire the whales into that. Whales can’t be released into the ocean because they don’t know how to eat their own food. They don’t know how to chase down live fish, they’ve been eating dead fish, so they would die. If you put these animals in a controlled environment the trainers could monitor their health, and you can charge people to come and see these animals. It seems like it’s in our future but in order for that to happen they would have to end their captive breeding program. It all comes down to us.
BLACKFISH IS CURRENTLY OUT IN THEATERS.