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Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Starring Tilikum

In 2010 an experienced SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, working at their Orlando, Florida, park, was killed by Tilikum, a five tonne male Orca during a show. Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, intrigued by the notion that such an allegedly peaceful and intelligent creature could be responsible for a human death, investigated. The result of her inquiry is Blackfish, one of the must-see documentaries of the year.

The film moves like a thriller, almost a whodunnit – apt when you consider that Brancheau’s was not the first death that Tilikum had a flipper in, the big mammal having previously involved in two other fatalities (you may recall the 1999 incident, where morning workers at SeaWorld arrived to find a naked corpse draped over the whale’s back). However, Blackfish is not a tabloid-style expose of a dangerous animal; rather, Cowperthwaite uses the Brancheau incident as a jumping off point to indict the entire marine park industry – and SeaWorld in particular – for a range of failings against both the whales and dolphins that perform there and the apparently undertrained and unprepared staff that work with what are, no matter which way you slice it, wild and potentially deadly animals.

Cowperthwaite and company have amassed a wealth of interviews, archival footage and other evidence to support their claims, trotting out a seemingly endless parade of former marine park employees turned harsh critics who describe in detail the unsafe conditions and lacklustre preparation they had to contend with. Emotions run how when the family members of victims, such as the widow of Alexis Martinez, who was killed by a different whale at a Spanish park in 2009, speak of their experiences, or when a grizzled old sailor is reduced to tears when he recalls participating in a hunt for juvenile whales, separating them from their pods. It’s impossible not to be moved.

Wisely, the film doesn’t rely solely on pushing emotional buttons, also consulting a number of scientists and animal behaviour experts in order to delve into the root causes behind the Orcas’ aggression, coming to the consensus that the effect of captivity on such intelligent and highly social animals is invariably psychologically distressing, with unpredictable and dangerous behaviour being the inevitable result.

For all that, it does at times come across as polemical, with the lack of interviews with SeaWorld representatives and supporters being quite noticeable. We are informed by title card that SeaWorld declined to participate in the making of the film, but surely someone could have been found who took the side of the sea park industry?

That aside, Blackfish stands as an excellent film, albeit a distressing and troubling one. At the very least, it might make you rethink your next Gold Coast holiday itinerary.


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