‘Blackfish’ and the ugly reality of orca captivity
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that’s a flat-palm smack on your forehead: Wake up! And you do — partly because it stings, and partly because you’re stunned. So it was for me when I happened to select “Blackfish” from Netflix one random night.
I love orcas, and I recalled that a SeaWorld trainer was killed by one a couple years back, and sure, I’m a bit curious, so why not watch the movie.
My forehead still stings.
What unfolded was not simply the recounting of an orca gone rogue and overpowering a relatively helpless human being. It is not simply the story of an animal turning on its trainer. It’s so much more complex than that. It was about Tilikum, the largest orca ever held in captivity, and how he ended up in a watery jail at SeaWorld in Orlando. The overarching theme is that Tilikum was under so much stress for so long that he finally snapped, just like any human would, and lashed out. Sadly, it cost a young woman her life. Even sadder, it took a human death before anyone started paying attention to the ugly side of keeping orcas in captivity. And, before seeing this film, I was part of the problem. Maybe you were too.
I’ve been to both Six Flags (formerly Marine World) in Vallejo and SeaWorld in San Diego multiple times. I’ve always loved dolphins, but once I saw an orca, well, I was awestruck. The first was at Six Flags. There was an orca performance, where the whales do all sorts of tricks, and leap into the air and soak the audience when they splash back in, and it’s not until you see an animal the size of a semi-truck trailer do this with your own eyes that your jaw drops in amazement.
There is this gigantic creature, swiftly and gracefully leaping 40 feet into the air to bump a ball on a pole, flipping in the air, sliding up next to the trainer on a little platform to pose, and the sheer size makes you wonder if you’re hallucinating. The show left me breathless. Afterwards, I had to go down to the lower deck and stood staring through the glass wall into the orca pool. I let my husband move along with my children, and just stayed there, mesmerized, looking at an orca that looked back at me. It was spiritual. There was a being on the other side of that glass.
Besides awe, I also felt sad knowing that these amazing creatures were imprisoned. In the wild, they swim miles in the course of a day, but at these marine parks, they’re crammed into an area much too small for them to move their bodies properly. Imagine keeping a horse in a 10-foot square stall and never letting it out again. We wouldn’t think of doing that to a horse. But we do it to orcas and blindly, blithely help fund this torture by visiting marine parks.
Although I felt badly about the orcas at Six Flags that day, I consoled myself with the belief that the were probably rescued after being injured or abandoned, and taken in to live a circus animal’s life rather than die in the ocean. At least they’re being cared for. Turns out, everything I believed was erroneous. “Blackfish” shattered my fantasies.
I thought I knew about orcas. I didn’t. Before watching “Blackfish,” I didn’t know that orcas can pass information from generation to generation. That they team up and brilliantly coordinate their strategies when they hunt. That whale pods stay together for life and each has its own unique language, just like humans, and a whale from one pod can’t communicate with one from a different pod. That whale offspring stay in the same pod with their mothers for life. That their lifespan is equivalent to a human’s. That the limbic system in an orca brain is larger and more complex than in a human’s, giving orcas the capacity to feel emotions unknown to humans — yes, their brains may be superior to ours. That the term “killer whale” is completely undeserved — there isn’t one confirmed incident of an orca in the wild ever killing a human.
One of the most disturbing things I learned, however, is that the orcas at marine parks aren’t found injured or sick and then nursed back to health in captivity. They’re hunted down in the wild and corralled, and the young ones trapped, placed in a sling and flown away to amuse humans. Even more disturbing — the whales know what’s happening. When the corral nets are removed, the pod stays there, poking their heads above water, calling to the trapped youngster. Not just the mother. All of them.
Because we are an arrogant species, we assume that we alone have the capacity for abstract thought and deep feeling, or to experience grief, stress, depression or full-blown insanity. Because we are an arrogant species, we don’t mind subjecting “lesser” beings to those feelings if it gives us 15 minutes of entertainment before we move along to stroke the bat rays in the petting pools. In particular, we don’t mind if we can make a mountain of money doing so.
I’m ashamed to discover that I was a participant in this outrage and abuse, but I can assure you I never will be again. “Blackfish” changed me. It gave me information that I’m not comfortable ignoring or sugar-coating. So I won’t. I discovered a group called Voice of the Orcas, that’s also on Twitter, and I’m going to get involved. The next thing I do after writing this column will be to email their contacts. Among their recommendations for combating orca captivity is to never support SeaWorld, or any other marine park that keeps or breeds orcas.
Another recommendation is to encourage others to watch “Blackfish.”
Please. Watch Blackfish. I won’t say another peep. I won’t need to.