In the Mind of an Orca: Blackfish looks below the surface

A review of the film Blackfish, a documentary looking at the death of a SeaWorld trainer.

Blackfish deliberately evokes a sense of foreboding from the first seconds. A phone call to the Miami Police Department, a captioned date and time – all very CSI (or Crimewatch, if you’re British). But you’re very much in crime drama territory.

Here you know from the start that the killer is no ordinary suspect – it’s a whale, an Orca, and one of the performing stars of SeaWorld aquarium in Florida. From here, we relive the events leading up to the death, and it’s an engrossing, heart-wrenching ride which somehow leaves one feeling slightly grubbier as a human being, somewhat guilty, and completely in awe of the whales.

But if Blackfish is a crime drama, what’s the mystery?

Was the death of the trainer – and others that have gone before –one-off accidents, or an inevitable result of the conditions and confinement imposed upon these mammals? That’s a central question of the film, and you’ll make your own mind up. You’ll also be thinking about the role of aquariums, and by extension, zoos, in terms of whether they do a good job educating and informing the public about wild animals, against the restrictions they put on the animals themselves.

Another thought-provoking mystery is this. In law, some defendants plead not guilty due to mental instability – that they were not responsible for their actions. Can we look at the whales in the same way? But to do this, we have to assign a level of intelligence to them – we can’t simply categorise them as ‘beasts’ – things to be hunted, used, bent to our will.

Blackfish offers some evidence. While Sea World no longer takes orcas from the sea for its centres (breeding means it doesn’t have to, but many other aquariums still do), it certainly used to. The film produces a grizzled, almost stereotypical sailor, bearded, tattooed, and clearly with military experience. He recounts a whale capture, first the way the whales deliberately tried to divert the boats away from the mothers and young – the whales knew what the men were after – and then the capture itself. As the babies are taken from the sea, the older whales, though free to go, stayed in line, watching.

“You understand then what you were doing. It was like kidnapping a little kid from its mother,” says the man, visibly upset.

This, to me, is the real mystery within Blackfish. Do whales think? Do they feel? And to what level? The evidence, from this film, and other sources, continues to build to indicate that orcas have an emotional intelligence that matches, if not surpasses, our own.

If that’s true, or even partially true, then what on earth are we doing containing them in tanks barely large enough for them to turn around, purely so we can watch them do tricks a couple of times a day?

So Blackfish will leave you thoughtful, angry, or perhaps bullish in opposition to the story it presents: surely Seaworld will have a different view on these events? Indeed they do, though they apparently refused the chance to appear in the film several times. But they have issued a statement to official movie reviewers of the film, disputing many of the points it raises. You can read that statement, along with a rebuttal by acclaimed journalist David Kirby, here. Make your own mind up.

As a wildlife charity, we’re fully aware of the impact tourism can have on animals. Millions, upon millions, of animals. This kind of thought-provoking questioning of the ‘norm’ – it’s fair to say that SeaWorld specifically and aquariums generally are seen as ‘normal’ – is essential to ensure that we are not doing harm for our own ends.

Through Care for the Wild’s www.RIGHT-tourism.org website, we offer tourists the facts on every aspect of ‘animal tourism’, whether it be a camel ride, swimming with dolphins, eating ‘bushmeat’, or visiting aquariums. The aim is to get people to stop and think for a moment – once you’ve got the information, then you can decide.

Will Blackfish stop people from going to SeaWorld and other aquariums? Yes, many. Will SeaWorld close its doors? No – not while the money rolls in. But if we can continue to make people aware that animals are not ‘unthinking blobs’, and are not ours to play with, then we’re heading in the right direction.

Blackfish opens in UK cinemas on 26 July – click here to find a screening: http://blackfishmovie.com/screenings