SeaWorld and Fans Avoid “Blackfish” by Changing the Subject

At 9pm E.T. on October 24th, “Blackfish” premiered nationwide on CNN and 1.36 million households tuned in to watch. Audiences were prepped for the premiere as CNN dedicated an entire week to the topic of killer whale captivity. The network featured a lengthy investigation of the issue by Jane Velez-Mitchell, interviews with “Blackfish” director Gabriella Cowperthwaite, and lively discussions on the topic between animal advocates and SeaWorld defenders.

After the premiere, audiences were asked whether they would take their kids to SeaWorld. 86% of respondents said no. Anderson Cooper followed the film with a special report focusing on killer whale captivity and questioning industry representatives like Jungle Jack Hanna. Twitter was dominated by #BlackfishOnCNN and SeaWorld Facebook pages lit up with comments from angry fans cancelling season passes and demanding answers from their favorite marine park.

SeaWorld has issued a couple responses toward the film since its theatrical release, but the answers they are giving the public in these responses are less than satisfying. One of the main arguments brought against “Blackfish” by SeaWorld and fans is that it does not mention the company’s work with conservation and rescue. This is an obvious attempt to change the subject. The ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity is totally irrelevant to conservation and rescue programs. Using these programs to justify killer whale captivity is a bit like defending an abusive person because they volunteer at a soup kitchen. The two are not related. Just because someone does something “good” does not mean that they are excused to do something evil.

In fact, the “good” of SeaWorld’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts have been called into question. The park mostly rehabilitates and releases manatees, sea birds and sea turtles which are not entertainment animals. It has been said that staff will train rescued entertainment animals like dolphins, whales and sea lions to see how well they take to doing tricks. Those that prove to be submissive performers remain in captivity, those that do not submit are eventually released. SeaWorld has also been criticized for their failure to follow up on releases to see if the animals they save actually survive.

Not only is the nature of SeaWorld’s rescue program under question, but it should be noted that these efforts to save wild animals are NOT funded by SeaWorld! The program is operated by a non-profit organisation, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, who funds these efforts with government grants. SeaWorld’s conservation fund is also largely supported by grants and public donations.

Since these efforts do not rely on money from animal shows, SeaWorld could easily stop keeping animals for entertainment purposes, and simply continue their conservation and rescue programs. In the meantime, we should continue to pressure SeaWorld and fans to provide answers to the topic at hand: the ethics of killer whale captivity, rather than allowing them to divert attention to an unrelated topic.

Blackfish: Myths and Reality

The new trailer for Blackfish has been released!

Just like last summer’s publication of Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish has been met with many questions, speculations, and criticisms by captivity supporters, including a petition to boycott the film. Tim Zimmermann has already written an excellent article addressing one individual’s criticism of Blackfish (you can read the article here). But I would like to highlight and address more of the myths about this film that are making their rounds with the trailer’s release.

Please keep in mind that I have not seen the film itself. My information comes from interviews with the director and cast, and reviews from those who have seen the film.

Myth #1: Footage of Dawn’s death is shown in Blackfish

private footage dawn

     The creator(s) of the film do want to respect Dawn’s family by keeping the death footage private. The tape is not used in the film.

“The footage of Dawn’s death is currently in litigation and the family is trying to keep that from the public, which I support. I don’t see any reason why anyone should ever have to see that footage. Even if it were available to me, it would never have been in my film…” – Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of Blackfish.

Myth #2: Blackfish disrespects and exploits Dawn’s life and memory

new becca

     According to those who have seen the film, Blackfish defends Dawn as a wonderful person and experience professional. There is no evidence to suggest that the film disrespects Dawn in any way. Furthermore, the documentary was not made in an attempt to make money off of Dawn’s death, as documentaries are created to spread awareness and information and generally do not generate much (if any) profit.

Myth #3: Blackfish portrays killer whales as monsters

jenna new

     This film does show attack footage and it examines the death of Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum. The footage is not included to portray killer whales in a harsh manner. In fact, it leaves an impression that paints killer whales as exactly the opposite: helpless victims of human greed. Not only that, but Blackfish features awe-inspiring facts on these animals as intelligent, complex, and magnificent creatures…not monsters.

Myth #4: The name “Blackfish” falsely refers to killer whales as fish

not fish

      No, the title “blackfish” is not racist, it’s not promoting the idea that black = evil, nor is it a clever way to depict killer whales as actual “black fish.” The name “blackfish” was given to killer whales by Native American fishermen at a time when whales were considered fish, and was probably derived from the fact that killer whales are predominantly black in color. The term is still used today, even by scientists, to refer to large dolphins.

Myth #5: The footage used in Blackfish was probably stolen


     Director Gabriela Coperthwaite is an experienced professional in film making. She does not steal footage, but has legally obtained it through fair use, the freedom for information act, and gaining permission from owners. She has explained this further in interviews:

“A lot of the footage is fair use. Anyone who knows documentary film making, knows this is something we sort of invoke; and that is the footage that we use has got to be in context, part of the story and educational to some extent…It took two years to make the movie and a good part of that two years was just waiting for footage to come…Usually it’s not so much getting the footage that takes so long, it’s waiting to figure out who owns it and who to clear it through.”

Myth #6: Blackfish isn’t going to affect SeaWorld

movie wont' do anything

     Some captivity supporters deny that Blackfish will affect SeaWorld, but others who have seen the movie claim that SeaWorld will be doomed after its release. Either way, SeaWorld isn’t taking any chances. When they filed for their Initial Public Offering earlier this year, both Blackfish and Death at SeaWorld were listed as risk-factors that could negatively affect business. Bad publicity and a shifting of public perspective on captivity can lead to fewer people patronizing marine parks and lost patrons means lost money, something that businesses cannot survive without.  Bad publicity and animal activism is, in part, what caused the collapse of the captivity industry in the UK. The notion that Blackfish will affect SeaWorld in a potentially devastating manner is very plausible and should not be denied or ignored.


     Though some captivity supporters refuse to watch the film, many are willing and even excited to see it in theaters on July 19th. One former captivity supporter, Lindsey Kopic watched Blackfish and gives a great review of the film here

If you come from a small town like I do, make sure to contact your local movie theater to request a showing of Blackfish, or search for a showing near you.

Secrets and Lies: Can You Trust Marine Parks?

According to the Animal Welfare Act, facilities that keep captive dolphins must provide education to the public. Because of this, all U.S. aquariums and marine parks pay lip service to educational efforts. According to Dr. Marino a scientist of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy: “Saying that something is educational is not the same as something actually being educational.” 

This can be illustrated in the form of a video which shows a Dine with Shamu performance in which the trainer blatantly lies to the crowd. After an audience member asks how long orcas live for, the trainer responds, “The average for a killer whale is about 25-30, but they can live more or less, but there is a whale up in San Diego and he is 45-50, so he’s getting up there”

The average age for a male killer whale in the wild is 31, and for females it is 46. For captive orcas these are not average ages, but maximum ages, as most captive killer whales will die in their teens or 20’s. The whale the trainer mentioned in San Diego is of course Corky, who is not a male but a female and is estimated to be about 46 years old.

This is blatant miseducation on the part of SeaWorld and is certainly not the first time a marine park employee has made a mistake on their facts. This summer, 2012, I talked to an educator hired to answer the public’s questions at SeaWorld Orlando’s dolphin nursery. When questioned about the orcas, the educator could not correctly pronounce the name “Tilikum.” One is forced to question whether or not the employees at marine parks are even qualified to give information to the public when they are not educated themselves.

From SeaWorld’s website. If children walk away from the parks calling beluga wha

les “giant ice creatures” you may want to re-think your educational content!

Another instance of miseducation in the captivity industry comes from an informative new article written by Candace Calloway Whiting. The article profiles belugas at Mystic Aquarium and includes several videos depicting the belugas jaw-popping at guests who are often seen banging on or standing close to the glass wall of the tank. In one video, a guest asks a trainer what the behavior means. With a bit of hesitation and an uncomfortable giggle, she explains: “Yeah it’s called jaw popping so what he’s trying to do is be like ‘I’m the king of this pool’, so when people are trying to make motion he’s like ‘no!’” As you can tell, this response is less educational and more  sugar-coated, fake, and almost childish. Why?

“An employee[of Mystic Aquarium] told me in confidence that they keep it a secret that the whale reaction is aggressive, because it can be interpreted as playful by someone who doesn’t know.” In other words, the facts are sugar-coated and childish to preserve the Disney-like atmosphere of aquariums and marine parks. A SeaWorld educator confirms this, and further states (quite arrogantly), that assumed ignorance of the public encourages dumbed-down responses from educators, and the use of buzzwords to cover up negative connotations.

“The problem with using some perfectly logical and scientifically valid terms on the microphone is that many guests hear bits and pieces of a narration and friggin’ RUN WITH IT in the entirely wrong direction. Because, as we know, ignorance is common. You can’t individually explain to thousands of people what you meant (and for some you gotta speak pretty slow). It’s best to keep it simple, stupid…As much as one might love being blunt and straightforward, you don’t want to encourage negative thoughts. You want people to like these animals and be inspired to protect them. It’s pathetic, but you do have to sugar-coat some things.”SeaWorld Educator

It seems as though one has to go searching for science at an aquarium or marine park. Facts are often located on plaques around exhibits which are often passed over by tourists. The dolphin shows certainly do not contain any information themselves. In fact, the industry is moving away from educational content in favor of theatrics. “The goal was to really move from an educational presentation/show to a 100% theatrical show. In a support to change the way to act with the animals and the change from animal trainer to actor, we hired Precision Behavior.” — Marten Foppen MBA, General Manager | Dolfinarium, Harderwijk, Netherlands.

Thad Lacinak is the man who founded Precision Behavior and was responsible for eliminating the education in Dolphinarium Harderwijk’s dolphin show. He was the head of animal training at SeaWorld and was instrumental in extinguishing education in their shows by developing the first entirely entertainment themed orca show at SeaWorld: Believe.

Do people actually walk away from marine parks like SeaWorld with new information? SeaWorld guests were asked in this 2001 poll, what facts they had learned at the park. “That dolphins do not learn their tricks” was a more popular response than “How smart dolphins are.” Of course the park has evolved since then, but according to guests, the shows’ contents, and even captivity supporters, it is now less educational than ever! Education that guests take the time to seek out involve facts about how much the animals love to do their tricks and dance for audiences. This shows that very little of what SeaWorld teaches is scientific and can be applied to wild cetaceans.

Not only can miseducation be guaranteed at marine parks, but so can outright censorship of information. Guests on certain VIP tours at SeaWorld are told not to take photos behind the scenes. A photographer filming Halyn’s birth claims: “while I was at SW Texas, I was asked to film Halyn’s birth w/ my own camera, but because Kayla tried to kill her, SW confiscated my tape…”  It is also speculated that SeaWorld turned off their live “Shamu Cam” to keep the public in the dark regarding Nakai’s recent injury. Marine park supporters often embrace this kind of censorship, and close themselves off to any anti-captivity information (perhaps out of fear that it may damage their perception of marine parks.) They often openly speak out against industry secrets being leaked. An instance of this was the release of the book “Death at SeaWorld” which sparked so much hostility in the pro-captivity community, that petitions were being formed to ban and burn the book.

“Determining (or thinking we can determine) what the public can and cannot handle at the very least smacks of elitism…I feel if we hold things back, keep secrets, have locked back rooms beyond those necessary for security, we are really looking for trouble. We are public institutions and if we do not want to serve the public, then we should close the doors and call ourselves a laboratory…If we are public institutions then we must be public.” – Roger Caras 18th president of the ASPCA on the topic of Zoos and Aquariums.

Are aquarium educators to blame for the misinformation in the industry? Hardly! In fact, employees of the captivity industry are also victims of secret-keeping. As guests, the public is allowed to ask questions about the animals, but the industry seems to be more intolerant to questions by insiders. According to her friend, Cathy, a former Discovery Cove employee reported that, “no one was allowed to talk with the trainers about the animals and if they did they would be fired.” I can say from my experience volunteering at an aquarium, questions about where animals come from, how they feel about captivity, how they are cared for, etc. are quickly shut down. I was told on more than one occasion that the husbandry department was “like the CIA.” In other words, it was all top secret and confidential information that would not be released even to the educators in charge of providing facts to the public.

Mr. Caras is correct. If a public facility is going to claim to be educational (and it must legally be educational), then it cannot expect to keep secrets concealed behind the scenes, and it certainly should not propagate misinformation or lies in an attempt to preserve its pleasant image.