09Apr06TilikumOstensible subject is the capture of an Orca calf at age 3 & how SeaWorld failed to warn staff that as an adult he had a history of attacking humans, but Cowperthwaite is after more. By the end, Tilikum is almost shouting “I am Spartacus.” New chapter in the age old story of people with power exploiting both human & natural environments for their own profit. Click HERE for our haiku. Not yet seen by Rich.


On February 24, 2010, an experienced trainer at SeaWorld Orlando named Dawn Brancheau was attacked and killed by a male orca whale named Tilikum in full view of a large audience. So much for all those cuddly stuffed animals in the gift shop!

Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite was intrigued. She had been working on projects for cable channels like Animal Planet and National Geographic for over a decade by that point, but she was also the mother of twin boys. So she felt a personal connection to SeaWorld, having already visited several times with her kids.

Cowperthwaite’s gut told her that Brancheau’s death was her call to a larger story and she was right. Using Tilikum’s biography as the spine of her story, Cowperthwaite has crafted a superb documentary that moves easily from microcosm to macrocosm and back again, forcing us to ponder enormous questions about human nature and man’s role in the universe as we leave the theatre and reenter our own lives. Once again we have seen the enemy and it is us.

Tilikum was captured in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off the coast of Iceland in November 1983. At that time he was approximately 3 years old and still very attached to his mother. He was sent clear across the world to a park in British Columbia called “Sealand of the Pacific.” Once at Sealand, Tilikum was housed with 2 older females who physically abused him (probably because they considered him an intruder in their space). At the end of every day, the 3 whales were herded into separate metal holding modules where they were kept, alone and in solitary confinement, until the start of a new day of command performances. InTheWild

In 1991, after an incident at Sealand which resulted in the death of trainer Keltie Byrne, Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando. In all those 8 long years, no new accommodations were ever designed for Tilikum as he grew to the edges of his holding module. Nor were any of the SeaWorld Orlando trainers ever given a full account of Keltie Byrne’s death, and even after another incident in 1999, Tilikum continued his regularly scheduled performances for his new SeaWorld Orlando audiences. (The second victim, Daniel P. Dukes, was someone who paid for admission to SeaWorld Orlando, but then stayed after closing time, so there was no one at the park to witness his actual cause of death.)

When Tilikum attacked Dawn Brancheau on February 24, 2010, many people were there, both in the audience and on staff. That’s when OSHA got involved. There was a hearing, and SeaWorld Orlando was fined and required to change various procedures. (For example, Tilikum continues to perform, but the trainers no longer do tricks with him in the tank.) SeaWorld Orlando contested the OSHA fine, but declined to comment further when Cowperthwaite requested their input for Blackfish. Meanwhile, Tilikum’s sperm has been used to artificially inseminate numerous female orcas, and Cowperthwaite has a chart showing how many whales all around the world now carry Tilikum’s genes.

So that’s the microcosm: the biography of a sleek, gorgeous, intelligent creature captured in infancy and forced to live his entire life for the amusement of some humans and the profit of others.

But the name “Tilikum” does not mean “blackfish.” Cowperthwaite tells us it is a word used by the Chinook people of the Columbia River Basin (slightly south of Sealand), and it means “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people.” Calling her film Blackfish is one of the ways Cowperthwaite redirects our attention away from the specific story of Tilikum, implicitly asking us to see Tilikum as a “slave,” and thus opening the door to questions about power and dominance as practiced from time immemorial in the human world.

Since these macrocosmic questions have no easy answers, Cowperthwaite doesn’t insist. But after seeing Blackfish, the cinefiles among us are sure to hear the refrain “I am Spartacus!” echoing in our heads for days.

Note that, when I first read about Blackfish, I didn’t want to see it because I thought it would be too gory. It isn’t. Cowperthwaite keeps the violence implicit and she never exploits either Tilikum or his trainers. Brava!

Click HERE for more information on the Blackfish website.



Top Photo Credit: JL/SipaPress/NewsCom (4/6/09)

Middle Photo Credit: Orca whales in the wild.

Bottom Photo Credit: Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando.

Blackfish photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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