'Blackfish' Documentary Bites Into SeaWorld's Reputation
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

As it turns out, Shamu holds a grudge. Airing this month on CNN, the documentary 'Blackfish' examines why captive orcas – popularly known as killer whales – are killing and injuring trainers at aquatic parks like SeaWorld. The movie opens with the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, who was repeatedly pulled underwater by Tilikum – a 32-year-old, 12,000-pound orca – before dying of blunt force trauma to the head and neck and drowning. As director Gabriela Cowperthwaite learned, Tilikum was also responsible for two previous deaths at water parks dating back to 1991. Three years after Brancheau's death, SeaWorld maintains Tilikum "had become interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail in his environment" and pulled her in, but Cowperthwaite disagrees. "They paint it as something innocuous," she says, "but once I peeled back the onion, I realized how deliberately the orca attacked Dawn. Killer whales don't make mistakes like that. If they want to kill you, they'll kill you."

Featuring interviews with former SeaWorld trainers and marine biologists, and a slew of footage (some taken by SeaWorld with its own cameras and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act), 'Blackfish' contends that captivity distorts killer whales' personalities, causing the animals to disobey trainers and fight among themselves for territory – behavior uncommon in the wild. "They don't have a lot of space or social partners," marine-mammal scientist Naomi Rose says. "This really builds up frustration, and every once in a while that frustration manifests itself."

Given the natural differences among killer whales, breeding them at parks is contentious. "SeaWorld states it's saving an endangered species, but that's bogus," Ken Balcomb, senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research, says. "They make up stories about their lifestyle, social structure, and life span and try to sell it as fact. It's like Disneyland telling a mouse biologist the way it is. It's horseshit."

Before 'Blackfish' premiered in July, SeaWorld went on the attack by rebutting the movie in a letter to the media. " 'Blackfish' focuses on a handful of incidents at the exclusion of everything else," SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs says. "Human beings have interacted safely with killer whales hundreds of times a day, every day, for nearly five decades." For SeaWorld – a public company said to be worth $2.5 billion – the damage to its brand is considerable. It's been fined $12,000 by OSHA for safety violations, and its visitors have posted YouTube videos of orca tricks gone bad at the parks. The Obama administration recently rejected an Atlanta aquarium's request to import 18 beluga whales from Russia – some of which would have been on display at SeaWorld.

Despite the buzz of 'Blackfish,' parks like SeaWorld still have little incentive to stop breeding more killer whales. "Having a baby Shamu in your park is a big boom – it's 60 or 70 percent of their income," Cowperthwaite says. "Who doesn't want to see that?"