Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SteveReviews: Blackfish

After taking a week long break to focus on more pressing matters, I’m back to tackle something a number of people have been asking for over the past 6 months or so. If you hadn’t guessed already, it is my take on the 2013 documentary film titled Blackfish. The documentary concerns a very complex issue: the captivity of cetaceans. As another branch of the mammal tree, many cetaceans are social animals with high levels of intelligence and ingenuity. They are essentially the aquatic versions of ourselves to a certain extent but unfortunately our history of mistreatment towards them goes back centuries to the beginnings of industrial whaling.

The main focus of the documentary is an orca named Tilikum who has been involved in the deaths of three people. Blackfish also explores the consequences of keeping cetaceans such as orcas in captivity. Work started on the shortly after the death of Tilikum’s trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando. This was an event that caught worldwide attention but was quickly swept under the rug, little did I know that it had happened before. Tilikum was a wild-caught individual being captures off the coast of Iceland in 1983 before being transferred to SeaWorld Orlando in 1992. Unfortunately he died in 2017 of a bacterial infection, a common cause of death in captive cetaceans.

The director Gabriela Cowperthwaite also explores SeaWorld’s claims that the lifespans of orcas in captivity are comparable to those in the wild. These are typically 30 years for males and 50 years for females, Blackfish argues that this is false and provides some evidence for. One of the things that caught my eye with Blackfish is the number of former SeaWorld trainers and employees that were willing to be on camera, to explain their side of the story and describe their experiences. It seems that attacks by whales on trainers wasn’t just restricted to Tilikum, there were many others which could be explained by extreme stress or other psychological problems.

The thing the surprised me most was as SeaWorld can’t legally catch wild-caught whales anymore, how do they keep their exhibits full? They artificially inseminate their cows as if they were on a diary farm and separate their calves from them as soon after birth as possible. This is barbaric enough in animal agriculture, undertaking this practise to a species in a confined space outside of it’s comfort zone with no conservation value and to just make money is highly unethical. The worst part is that SeaWorld manages to put a ‘conservation’ spin on things which again is highly upsetting.

Since the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld has seen ticket sales plummet due to a number of reasons including backlash. Lobby groups and the general public have questioned the ethical implications of keeping cetaceans in captivity. The future is looking bright for this group of animals. Not only are their wild number bouncing back after centuries of hunting but earlier in mid-2019 Canada passed a bill banning the capture and breeding of cetaceans for entertainment. It’s a step in the right direction, let’s hope many more countries make the same conscious decision (if they haven’t already).

Blackfish tackles a very hard ethical question and is certainly worth a watch if you work in any field conservation.

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