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Key Issues Raised in 'Blackfish'

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Chances are, you have probably visited an entertainment park such as SeaWorld, a birthday party? Excursion? You went to visit the cute adorable animals, in a tank with derived food, forced training regimes and a torture-filled life that they didn’t choose. ‘Blackfish’ directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite depicts the endless battles these killer whales must fight in order to please humans. This chilling documentary opens eyes to unknown truths left behind closed doors. The murder of three trainers leaves behind no hope for large companies in the animal entertainment industry, such as SeaWorld. ‘Blackfish’ depicts the traumatic experience of the former SeaWorld trainers, and the animals who were held captive for their whole lives.

Lies, fake evidence and overly exaggerated ‘facts’ lands SeaWorld in a world of pain when the facts and stories are leaked through former trainers. Cowperthwaite develops the villains and victims of the story. Tilikum, killer whales as a group and trainers develop to become the victims of captivity, manipulation and exploitation. Meanwhile SeaWorld is positioned to be the villain. Interviews with former trainers explain how dangerous and untrustworthy these wild animals can be, however, it isn’t just about the deaths that occurred. Tilikum, the main victim was kept in captivity for the majority of his life, dying at 35, when most whales his size die at 70. On top of this, the average death age for orcas living in captivity is just 14, over 50 years premature as opposed to whales in the wild.

SeaWorld proclaimed: “The whales are documented in the wild living to be about 35, mid-30’s. They tend to live a lot longer in this environment because they have all the veterinary care”. That was proven to be false 6 years later, when it was found that they live equivalent to human life spans. This evidence is sickening, how anybody, any company, any organization is able to spew false information openly and ‘honestly’ is appalling.

Close zooms of the trainers with the whales are effective in showing the loving relationship they share. Other ways include placing the camera at a standstill when authorities working for SeaWorld are in the scene. This places a stop-start approach for audiences, showing the weakness of SeaWorld. As well as this, symbolism of majestic whales jumping through the water on a bright sunny day, brings the audience back into focus when the plot is changing.

SeaWorld set an expectation that it was the place to be… From carnival food to ‘never seen before’ acts. Trainers who were in close relation to former SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, one of three killed explain: “She captured what it means to be a SeaWorld trainer”. This proves how dedicated and inspirational the trainers became and how connected to the whales they truly were. This documentary forces them to question what they were really saying and how it impacted the future of these animals. When talking about whether the animals really wanted to be part of the stunts and tricks. SeaWorlds script had trainers tell the crowd, “They are doing it because they want to”. This perfectly depicts the consistent contradicting statements said in front of thousands of people.

It’s interesting to see, the mentality of the trainer’s changes from the start to finish. The underpinning attitude to get back into the water after being attacked. This belief is directly related back to Dawn; she displayed the pinnacle of what every SeaWorld trainer wanted to be. Yet at the end of the story, there is a remorse within the trainers and the guilt within is dragged out.

This classic villains’ verses victim’s technique enables audiences to connect to the characters on an emotional level. Feeding the victims perspective allows the audience to have compassion for them, and furthermore create a generalized assumption that the trainers and killer whales were the victims of SeaWorld’s evil approach to keep the animals captive.

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Story arc, a common tool to unfold a story is expertly used within the documentary to enhance the perspective; furthermore, making the audience reconsider their attitudes and beliefs towards trainers. This is the story about Tilikum. Caught at 2 years of age in 1983, off Iceland, he was already 11.5 feet long. The documentary leads the audience in with various interviews, enhancing the realness of this true story. The first being John Crowe, a former whale capturer. Crowe explains the challenges he faced when capturing pods of whales, in particular, Tilikum. He explains that he “can’t think of anything worse than that”. Justifying it’s the worst thing he has ever done, enhances the reality and brutality this man faced. Interviews with witnesses, former trainers and whale researches explain that “It’s not only inhumane… He’d kill”. Defining the dangers and consequences Tilikum’s capable of.

Cowperthwaite strikes the first attack Tilikum makes, where audiences are making sense of why captivity is so cruel. February 20, 1991, Keltie Byrne, a 21-year-old trainer was killed while training with Tilikum. This is the first of three major incidents. Using story arc portrays these incidents, which awakes audiences to accept the given perspective that keeping wild animals in captivity is cruel, inhumane and immoral.

Due to controversy and unwanted media attention, Tilikum was then removed and moved to SeaWorld, Orlando on the 9th of January 1992. On the 6th of July 1999 Tilikum showed no sign of stopping, killing 27-year-old Daniel P. Dukes. Dukes was not a trainer, he was found dead, after visiting SeaWorld. Even so, SeaWorld continued to cover these murders, twisting the plot and creating conspiracy. Tilikum’s aggression worsened when 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau was killed. This technique cleverly used by the director aids to the way the perspective and contention of the documentary is displayed. Using story arc and camera angles impacts the viewers perspective that animals should not be held in captivity or captured in the first place.

The perspective of the documentary, that whales should not be kept in captivity is reflected well through the perspectives of the former trainers, authorities and case studies. The miss treatment of whales is obviously a very real issue and this documentary falls into the same field as well-known movies such as ‘Free Willy’. Willy is kept in captivity, and evidently is freed; it also shows the cruel separation from his family. This is much the same as ‘Blackfish’. The documentary expels the perspective of SeaWorld, to force the audience to accept the perspective fed by the documentary.

‘Blackfish’ sparked protests and controversy over the captivity of these animals. It opens the door, to what is behind closed doors and exposes SeaWorld. The guilty words of “the whales aren’t doing that because they have to, the whales are doing that because they really want to” are exposed. Are the whales forced into this life or do they choose this? SeaWorld give the impression that the whales are not forced… If this is the case, why was there a need to hire a whale capturer?

Just as most documentaries use cherry-picked information, SeaWorld did the same to shadow the real evidence. They tried to hide the incident with Dawn, that the whale was not predicted to jump out of the water. “SeaWorld proclaiming there was no expecting Tilikum to come out of the water, because they had witnessed him coming out of the water and it’s written in his profile” (SeaWorld trainer). The shadowing of the other side of the story was very successful.

The story elements within this documentary portray the overall perspective of whales shouldn’t be captured, kept in captivity or used as entertainment for human purposes. It is a win, lose situation. Humans win, for free and whales pay the cost of it all. This documentary has successfully raised attention and sparked controversy and consideration around this issue. Tilikum died on the 6th of January, 2017, he rests with lost trainers and other whales killed during this brutal time.

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Key Issues Raised in ‘Blackfish’. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from
“Key Issues Raised in ‘Blackfish’.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023,
Key Issues Raised in ‘Blackfish’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Jun. 2023].
Key Issues Raised in ‘Blackfish’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Mar 01 [cited 2023 Jun 8]. Available from:
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