Direct by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish is an eye-opening, heart-wrenching documentary that explores the controversy and cruelty of holding marine mammals in captivity only for human entertainment. The story starts with the death of the SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was attacked and killed by an ocra named Tilikum in the summer of 2010.
Ocras, commonly known as killer whales, are the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. Ocras have long, rounded bodies with large dorsal fins on the middle of their backs (up to 1.8 meters tall). Their black bodies are marked with dark grey “saddle patches” on the underside and near the eyes. Although some people believe ocras are viscious because of their misleading name, ocras are actually quite friendly animals – unlike sharks, ocras typically don’t attack human (as long as humans don’t intrude their territories) and there are no known cases that a human has ever been eaten by a killer whale in the wild, although they do have the ability to take us down easily.
But Tilikum seems different. He is unusually aggressive, and in fact Dawn Brancheu – the SeaWorld Trainer who was brutally crushed and partially swallowed by Tilikum – is only its most recent victim. Tilikum had a bad history of killing two people before – so in the eyes of humans, Tilikum is not only a homicidal killer but also a “serial killer”, a term that sparked many TV show ideas. However, what’s more appalling is that Tilikum is not a unique case, other than that one life is gone; indeed – there have been dozens of cases in Sea Parks around the world that trainers or Sea World employees are attacked, jostled or injured by ocras. The huge behavioral difference between wild ocras and captive ocras makes us wonder: what turns the happy-go-lucky, kind and gentle marine animal into a killer.
The documentary reveals the answer. In 1983, Tilikum was captured in the seas near Iceland and taken from his family and ocean home when he was only two years old. He was kept in a cement holding tank in a marine zoo near Iceland for about one year before transferred to Sealand of the Pacific on the west coast of Canada, where he endured painful attacks from fellow captive ocras and ruthless training and performance that gave him stomach ulcers. In February 1991 he killed his first trainer, which caused Sealand to close its door and himself be sold to SeaWorld and transferred to the amusement park in Florida. In the park Tilikum began to exhibit repetitive aggression toward humans and finally lead to two deaths. During his long and tragic life, Tilikim has always been kept in tiny enclosures against his will that is no match to the expansive oceans he once swims with his families. It is the stress of captivity that makes Tikilum display such aggressive behavior, not to mention that killer whales are natural predators. Just as Jane Velez-Mitchell, a CNN anchor notes, “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?”
I highly recommend this documentary. It does make us question our decision to support such sea parks with a visit. I understand that nowadays parents like to take their children to Aquarium or Sea World because we want our kids to be more close to nature and understand the wonders of nature, but I believe the first thing we should remember is that we should respect other lives – plants, animals, all other living things in the world and allow them to live in their ways.
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