Friday, February 21, 2014


by Susanne Dietze 

Blackfish (2013, now available on Netflix) is one of those documentaries that haunt you long after you finish watching. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of ethical treatment for animals, or you're pro- or anti-captivity of wild animals, this film will challenge and move you.
Black-and-white picture of an orca (killer whale) with the title Blackfish and credits underneath
Magnolia Pictures

As the film explores the astonishing intelligence and animal culture of Killer Whales (orcas), it also focuses on Sea World’s policies and one orca in particular, Tilikum, a bull whale involved in (if not responsible for) three human deaths, although he is not the only whale who has attacked or killed a trainer.

I grew up outside of San Diego, California, home of one of the Sea World parks, where the crown jewel in the collection is Shamu, the Killer whale. In my lifetime, I have probably seen more than two dozen Shamu Shows. I grew up loving Sea World. I appreciated how its exhibits and shows entertain as well as educate, and the corporation’s dedication to rehabilitating wounded or orphaned animals.

But after watching Blackfish, I don’t know if I’ll go again.

Producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite set out to make this film after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park (supposedly because the 40-year old, experienced trainer wore her hair in a ponytail, which the whale confused for a fish—a line Sea World used that didn't sit well with me when I first heard it). After Brancheau's death, OSHA got involved, and snippets of the case against Sea World are included in the film, as are interviews with OSHA expert witnesses, orca experts, and former Sea World orca trainers (young people who, to my surprise, didn't have science degrees or experience training animals).

And then there's Tilikum, captured off Iceland in 1983.
Tilikum at Sea World, Orlando, Milan Boers

It's hard not to be moved by Tilikum's history. He was bullied and bitten by the matriarchal females with him while at his first home in Victoria, Canada, and the movie’s participants argue that such treatment might have contributed to Tilikum’s aggression with humans. After the three whales (or perhaps Tikilum alone, depending on who you ask) killed a female trainer during a show, they were sold, and Tilikum was bought by Sea World and shipped to Orlando.

As I mentioned, however, dozens (yes, dozens) of other attacks on trainers have occurred, and not just by Tilikum. I could list specifics, since after viewing the film I did some research of my own. Suffice to say, attacks on humans by orcas in captivity seems to have been occurring since the beginning, to varying degrees of injury (even death, as in the case of a Sea-World trained orca killing a trainer in the Canary Islands in 2009). 
I had never heard of most of these incidents. Dawn Brancheau’s case is perhaps the most famous because she was killed before an audience, and OSHA responded with fines and a lawsuit against Sea World, claiming it is unsafe to work in the water with orcas.
Trainer "surfing" Katina, Public Domain

If the movie is one-sided, it might be because Sea World declined to participate in the film. Could the producers have included more interviews with individuals who were pro-Sea World's stance? Absolutely. But the film’s goal is to shed light on what it believes to be a fatal flaw within the marine entertainment industry. I do not accept everything the film states as fact, nor did it change how I feel about zoos as places of research and education as well as entertainment. However, watching the documentary provoked me to research, discussion, and prayer, and I'm still pondering my response.
File:Orca collapsed dorsal fin.jpg
Tilikum has a collapsed dorsal fin, a problem that occurs in the wild but is quite common to orcas in captivity.

But despite the lack of balance in the film, Blackfish broke my heart.

For the trainers who loved the whales and recognized something wasn’t right in the system.

For the families of the people who have died.

But for the whales, too. They are intelligent, problem-solving, nurturing, astonishing animals that have vocalizations, hunting techniques, and behavior patterns specific to their particular group (in fact, orcas may actually be made up of 3-5 separate species). What must it be like for creatures wired by God to live in a community with a specific culture, where a young whale never leaves its mother’s pod, to be taken from her and confined with whales that don't vocalize the same?
File:Killerwhales jumping.jpg
Orcas in the wild near Alaska, public domain
OSHA fined Sea World over the death of Dawn Brancheau, and now, it's my understanding trainers do not enter the water with orcas during shows. For his part, Tilikum still performs.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the PG-13 rating, earned with a swear word, graphic imagery (including blood and the gathering of whale sperm for artificial insemination), and disturbing video footage of trainers caught by whales.
It’s not a movie for the faint of heart, but I’m glad I saw it. Questions and thoughts are percolating as I continue to ponder these amazing animals and how humans should (and do) interact with them.


Let's go back to third grade and ask: what's your favorite type of whale?


 Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others to the glory of God. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. She won first place in the Historical category of the 2011-2012 Phoenix Rattler, and her work has finaled in the Genesis, Gotcha!, and Touched By Love Contests. Susanne is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. You can visit her on her website,


  1. I shudder to think what revelations will come to us about our treatment of living creatures—human AND animal—on this planet when we stand before the Lord.
    Thanks for the review, Susie!

  2. It's not an easy topic, is it, Niki? The difficulty in a situation like this is compounded when we consider how much love and respect the trainers have for the animals. The trainers shown in the movie--and in my albeit limited experience of the classes I took at Sea World--truly love the animals and want their best, I believe. Figuring out what's best can be complicated.

    1. I agree, they do love the animals. And the other side of this issue is that have those precious orcas in captivity raised awareness for them and probably inspired thousands of thousands to love sea creatures.

    2. You have an excellent point, Suzie. Captivity has raised awareness and education (I, among thousands, have benefitted from educational programs through Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and what used to be called the Wild Animal Park. Education and awareness lead to action on behalf of the oceans and its creatures.

    3. Oh absolutely! It's a mess... the people who have gone into that field, the trainers and caregivers, do so because of their love for those creatures, I think. And, in their defense, they've probably saved a number of animals from death and destruction. It's rough. Living in an area where hunting is popular, I had to come to a place where I realized that since humans killed off most of the natural predators, if no one hunts the deer and elk, they suffer from overpopulation and starve to death in the winter. Yuck. But then, we're back to humans... *sigh* It's a miracle God puts up with us.

    4. Lol, Niki. It is so tough. Many species on the brink of extinction can only be found in zoos. Thank God there are people committed to protecting them.

  3. To answer my own question: my favorite whale is the beluga. I've always liked them. They're the only kind of whale that can turn its head.

    1. Belugas are so precious. They always look like they're smiling. And that makes me smile.

    2. Yes, they do look smiley! And now I have "Baby Beluga" stuck in my head. Sweet little song. <3

  4. My sad heartbreak. I hurt so bad over it, I can't bring myself to watch Blackfish. For those who've read my book, True North, Tilikum, poor precious Tilikum, *is* the whale that inspired my son's dream to see Orcas in their true habit. And it was that dream that inspired my book. When he killed the trainer in BC, it was horrifying. Investigators at the time said he'd been neglected for several days and that when the trainers finally got in the water with him, he was so excited to see them, that he played too rough. It was heartbreaking.

    Do they talk about that in the movie, Susie?

    Thank you for sharing this very important film, even though I can't bear to watch it.

    1. I meant to add, when I said "neglected", they didn't mean it in the sense that he wasn't fed and cared for. They meant thettrainers hadn't been able to swim and play with him for several days. Orcas are very social creatures.

    2. Suzie, I love your tender heart. I remember the inspiration for your book, and I thought of you the entire time I was watching.

      The movie touches on the reasoning authorities at the marine parks give for the whales' behavior that results in accidents, but I can add my own experience: when the orca trainer in San Diego was "riding" one whale and another unexpectedly leapt out of the water and landed on him, I heard official response that the whale was exhibiting playful behavior that whales show in the wild to show affection. This was, according to what I remember, the whale's way of "loving" the trainer--but after that only one whale was in the tank at a time during shows. Again, this is what I remember and I could be wrong.

      When Brancheau died, I remember hearing that Tilikum confused her ponytail for a fish. But lots of female trainers have ponytails so I didn't think that sounded right. Especially when it came out that Tilikum grabbed her by the arm, not the ponytail, and I knew he could tell the difference right away that he didn't have a fish.

      Growing up with Sea World such a big part of my life, I believed in the caring bond between whale and trainer. Whales are social, intelligent animals.

      My understanding is that in British Columbia, the trainers never entered the water with the orcas. I could be wrong, but that's what I recall.

      I also recall the young trainer who died slipped into the pool during a show and the whales submerged her. She got away and was climbing out of the pool when one (Tilikum?) bit her and drug her back down.

      Regardless of the incidents, this film gave me a greater understanding of orcas in the wild. They are truly smart, amazing animals.

      Is Tilikum dangerous? If he is, my belief is that he didn't start out that way.

    3. Wow that was a long essay. Sorry, gang.

    4. It's been so long, but I know they said the orcas hadn't been played with for a while. I don't know if that meant with toys and wands without the trainers in the water, or if they actually did get in the water. I know it wasn't during a show, and I couldn't say that I remember for sure why they were in the water that day. But it's all so sad. And yes, I agree. If Tilikum is dangerous, he didn't start out that way.

  5. This is the first year I haven't watched the winter Olympics, and it makes me very sad. But it all centers around my sweet orcas, and the ones that were captured to display in Sochi. I know the outcry was so great they weren't put on display after all. But they were taken somewhere else. Four total were captured, and two sold to China. I know my not watching is not going to make an impact on the orcas, or the people who captured them, but I can't bring myself to watch. And I sure do miss watching the figure skating.

    1. I hadn't heard about this! Oh wow. Sad.

      I hope you can catch some of the skating online. I missed a lot of it, but I sure enjoyed our ice dancing team, Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

    2. I know. It's heartbreaking.

      Figure skating is the one sport I love almost as much as baseball. I follow it closely, but missed this season for other reasons. So I'm extremely sad not to watch this Olympics. I'm so happy for Charlie and Meryl. :)

    3. Let me know if you catch any online! I love the ice dancing.

  6. Thank you for your post, Susie- there is certainly much to ponder.

    1. The film definitely gets one thinking. Thanks for coming by, Karl.


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