Blackfish: Documentary or Propaganda?

Official Poster from Sundance Film Festival

There are many examples of crafted activism in psuedo-documentaries. The iconic Super Size Me is a premiere example of this covered in skeptoid episode 88. Recently I came across a “documentary” called Blackfish. It is about the famous killer whale named Tilikum. Tilikum’s fame stems from a deadly attack on a trainer at Orlando SeaWorld February 24th 2010. This Orca has been implicated in two other deadly incidents as well, but is best known for the SeaWorld death. I watched this film about the history of attacks by this animal as well as the treatment of all captive orca. It provoked a strong emotional response, making it a good film, but not necessarily a good presentation of the facts. I was bothered by the title “Blackfish” — deceptive and scientifically wrong. Irrelevant for a work of fiction, but a not so subtle alliteration in a documentary. Blackfish is a colloquial name for Orcinus orca. Like the more commonly used term Killer Whale, it is incorrect. Orcas are neither fish nor are they all black. Actually killer whale is equally incorrect; they are not whales, killer or otherwise. Orcas are in fact the largest member of the dolphin family. After watching the movie I had some lasting questions beyond the title and decided to take a close look at the film and see how much was fluff and how much was fact. 

Movie Summary:

The documentary focuses on the captivity of Tilikum, a killer whale involved in the deaths of three individuals, and the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity. The coverage of Tilikum includes his capture in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, purported harassment by fellow captive whales at Sealand of the Pacific, incidents that Cowperthwaite argues contributed to the whale’s aggression and includes testimonial from Lori Marino, Director of Science with Nonhuman Rights Project. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld‘s claims that lifespans of whales in captivity are comparable to those in the wild, typically 30 years for males and 50 years for females,[3] a claim the film argues is false. Interview subjects also include former SeaWorld trainers, such as John Hargrove.

The film it is a very compelling and emotional narrative. It gives you the undeniable impression of a animal that has a pattern of unpredictable aggression. An animal that has caused multiple deaths. The film proposes that the animal was obviously dangerous and SeaWorld has mostly ignored or misunderstood the danger. In addition, SeaWorld failed to have properly warned/prepared animal trainers for this animal. They draw a marginal conclusion that the animal is probably mentally ill in some manner, and that it poses a insurmountable danger that Sea World ignores.

The film is compelling and disturbing. Skeptically watching the film, I found some of the conclusions weak, especially about the behavior of the animal. The movie completely convinced me that Sea World had poorly trained staff that was ignorant of the danger. A disturbing truth the film portrayed was the trainer’s paucity of education. There was a consistent impression of personnel that had absolutely no formal education in marine biology or any formal marine mammal behavioral education. They appeared to be “on the job” trained. Which I found surprising. I had always assumed that the people in the wet suit were marine biologists. In retrospect, slightly naive.

I had other impressions. There was an obvious bias from the interviewed staff and “biologists”. I found their negative testimony about SeaWorld in particular to be less than credulous. I had a strong emotional response to the scenes involving the capture and segregation of the animals and to the “eyewitness” testimony from the Sealand of the Pacific incident.

Orca in the wild

Clearly, others have had a similar reaction. The movie has become a rallying cry for the ethical treatment of these marine mammals and their exploitation by SeaWorld. It is the basis of a boycott/shutdown movement surrounding the SeaWorld amusement parks. Notably, a California politician has introduced a bill that will effectively shut down SeaWorld San Diego.

SeaWorld San Diego would have to end its killer whale shows and remove 10 orcas from their tanks under a bill inspired by a documentary blasting the marine park’s animal welfare practices. The California Assembly is holding its first hearing on AB2140 Tuesday morning. The bill’s backers say killer whales are too large and intelligent for captivity, while SeaWorld says the animals are well treated and help conservation through research. The 2013 film “Blackfish” blames attacks and deaths of SeaWorld trainers on the mistreatment of the animals, increasing their aggression. SeaWorld calls the film anti-captivity propaganda. The bill by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom also bans the import and export of orcas. Under his measure, SeaWorld could keep the animals it has in a larger sea pen until they die.

Is Blackfish an anti-SeaWorld propaganda film or a compelling view of the exploitation of marine mammals? To be fair, my feelings about the orcas in captivity are conflicted, and I may have some bias. In my opinion it is illogical to think that an intelligent, social, apex marine mammal would enjoy living out their life in what amounts to a small pool. I also know that SeaWorld (and others) have profited from forcing these animals to perform tricks for people’s amusement. Yet I have been in those audiences on occasion, and I have been amazed and thrilled by these animals. My feelings about captive orcas are, as I said, conflicted.

So what about the movie? What does it really add to the debate about these animals? As with many of these social documentaries, there are too many factual inconsistencies to feel that this movie is a fair evaluation of the animal, the trainers, or the park.

There is evidence of fabrication of facts, or at least of editing to produce a consistently biased narrative.

  1. The film depicts a killer whale collection in Washington State that occurred 40 years ago.  It leaves viewers with three false impressions:  (1) that SeaWorld continues to collect whales from the wild to this day; (2) that Tilikum himself was collected by SeaWorld; and (3) that the collections done four decades ago were illegal.  None of this is true.  SeaWorld does not collect killer whales in the wild, and has not done so in over 35 years. Tilikum was not collected by SeaWorld.   And the collections four decades ago were conducted in compliance with federal laws, pursuant to federally-issued permits at that time.
  2. The film highlights two separations.  In one instance, involving a whale named Takara, the film leaves you with the impression she was a calf when separated.  In fact, Takara was 12 years old when she was moved.   In the second, involving a whale named Kalina, the film misleadingly shows footage of a calf that is only days old.  Kalina was moved when she was 4 ½ years old because she was disruptive to her mother and other whales.
  3. The Film includes a SeaWorld video of a female trainer riding a killer whale, while one of the cast members, Samantha Berg, talks about her “experience” at Shamu Stadium.  This segment misleadingly implies that Ms. Berg had relevant experience when, in fact, the video used in the film was shot 10 years after Ms. Berg had left SeaWorld.  The trainer depicted in the video is not Ms. Berg but rather is a current SeaWorld employee.   Of just the 3 years Ms. Berg spent working at SeaWorld, she spent only one year working with killer whales and she never conducted direct training with Tilikum.
  4. The film misleadingly cobbles together separate pieces of innocuous training and performance footage, synced with the actual 911 calls, to mislead the audience into believing it is viewing the actual footage of Ms. Brancheau swimming with Tilikum prior to the fatal incident.  In fact, the opening sequence does not depict either Ms. Brancheau or Tilikum, or an attack of any kind.  From the date Tilikum arrived at SeaWorld, no one was allowed to swim in the water with Tilikum, and Ms. Brancheau never did so.
  5. The film includes a recording of an EMT technician, subsequently proved to be mistaken, suggesting that Tilikum swallowed Ms. Brancheau’s arm during the incident. This is false.
  6. The Sealand of the Pacific incident was mischaracterized and several key facts were left out. Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old marine biology student and competitive swimmer, slipped into the pool containing Tilikum, Haidi II and Nootka IV while working as a part-time Sealand trainer. The three orcas submerged her, dragging her around the pool and preventing her from surfacing. At one point she reached the side and tried to climb out but, as horrified visitors watched from the sidelines, the orcas pulled her screaming back into the pool. Other trainers responded to her screams, throwing her a life-ring, but the orcas kept her away from it. She surfaced three times screaming before drowning, and it was several hours before her body could be recovered from the pool. Both females were pregnant at the time, which was not known to the trainers. Which may have made them aggressive or more dangerous.
  7. SeaWorld does not starve their animals to train them. They are fed the same amount every day performing or not and have a very precise diet. It is true that other parks have used starvation method.

Beyond twisting the facts, I have a problem with the major unstated premise of the film. Namely, that getting in water with any marine mammal can be completely safe. Even well fed apex predators are unpredictable. Trainers know when you get in the water with a 22 ton marine mammal you are at their mercy. The filmmakers make a strong case that lethal orca attacks only occur in captive animals. That is technically true. I would not agree that this is somehow a result of mental disease due to captivity. In almost every case the extremely powerful animal seems to be playing with the people. I don’t mean in a kind, fun way. I mean wild orca often play with their pray; flinging them around, dragging them under the water. The wild orca eventually eat the prey or share it with other orca. In all of the human cases, there was deadly injury and drowning, but no eating. This behavior  could be characterized as normal for a wild orca, or as boredom. Hardly unusual behavior for this animal.

There is good scientific evidence showing that orca steer clear of humans for the most part. Obviously daily human exposure in a show is far more often than any wild animal will ever experience. Simple statistics dictate that if you swam daily with wild orcas for years it is likely at some point you would get hurt, possibly killed.

Orcas do not perceive us as prey. We know from wild observation that orca are very selective eaters. Food is based upon the pod society. In the wild, animals seem to have a fairly strict culture involving behavior and food preferences. This behavior is so strong that occasionally it is negative for the animals. While there are about 50,000 orcas worldwide, the Salish Sea’s residents are down to fewer than 90 animals—and social mores appear to prevent them from mating outside their group, creating an inbred population. When some resident orcas’ preferred food, chinook, is scarce, the orcas’ upbringing are reluctant to eat sockeye and pink salmon, which are abundant. It is true that far as we know in the wild, there have been no fatal attacks on humans, probably because humans are not around a lot and we are not on the menu for a predator that sticks to a strict diet.

Humans tend to think of this animal leaving us alone as some type of mammalian kinship. That is just plain false. Orca systematically hunt and kill many intelligent mammals similar to them: whales, dolphins, and sea lions to name a few.

Despite movie statements to the contrary, there is evidence for wild orca on human aggression:

  • In the 1910s, the Terra Nova Expedition recorded that killer whales had attempted to tip ice floes on which an expedition photographer and a sled dog team were standing.[7] In this case the whales may have mistaken the dogs’ barking for seal calls and grown curious.[7]
  • On June 15, 1972, the hull of the 43-foot-long (13 m) wooden schooner Lucette (Lucy) was stove in by a pod of killer whales and sank approximately 200 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. The group of six people aboard escaped to an inflatable life raft and a solid-hull dinghy.[8]
  • On September 9, 1972,[9] a Californian surfer named Hans Kretschmer reported being bitten by a killer whale at Point Sur; most maintain that this remains the only fairly well-documented instance of a wild orca biting a human.[10][11] His wounds required 100 stitches.[11]
  • In August 2005, while swimming in four feet of water in Helm Bay, near Ketchikan, Alaska, a 12-year-old boy named Ellis Miller was “bumped” in the shoulder by a 25-foot transient killer whale.[10][12] The boy was not bitten or injured in any way. The bay is frequented by harbor seals, and it is possible that the whale misidentified him as prey.[12]
  • During the filming of the third episode of the BBC documentary Frozen Planet (2011), a group of orcas were filmed trying to “wave wash”[13] the film crew’s 18-foot zodiac boat as they were filming. The crew had earlier taped the group hunting seals in the same fashion. It was not mentioned if any of the crew were hurt in the encounter.[14] The crew described the orcas as being very tolerant of the film makers’ presence. Over the course of 14 days they filmed over 20 different attacks on seals, many of which the film’s series producer Vanessa Berlowitz describe as training exercises for the young calves in the group.[15][16]
  • On February 10, 2014, a free diver in Horahora Estuary near WhangareiNew Zealand was pulled down for a duration of over 40 seconds by a killer whale that grabbed the catch bag attached to his arm. The bag, which contained crayfish and sea urchins, was attached to the diver’s arm by a rope which eventually came free. He then undid his weight belt and returned to the surface with his last breath. His arm was “dead” and he could no longer swim, but his cousin was nearby and helped him float to some rocks where the feeling in his arm returned.[17][18][19]

Overall I found the film to be a concentrated effort to paint captive orca as slowly going mad. It painted the orca as a captive human with increasing anger and mental illness. Systematical editing and narration portrayed Sea World and captive orcas in the most emotion provoking and detrimental view. It evaded issues to evoke sympathy for captive orca, and anger at a corporate entertainment venue.

Captive orca represent a complicated issue. They are an intelligent social animal that probably shouldn’t be locked up in a tiny marine cell. That said, there are actual positives for the species and possibly for the current captive animals.  The current animals in captivity have either been out of the wild for their adult life or born into captivity. They cannot be released; we are incapable teaching them what they need to know to survive. Removing them from the show would make us feel better, but realistically only decrease the mental and physical stimulus they receive. No tickets, no money. How long would we feed them, give them vet care in their slightly bigger but less interesting new tank?

To the activists, I would say that a small number of captured orca are of tremendous benefit to the race as a whole. We are their only real threat in the world. Generations of kids have seen these animals, love them, have stuffed animals and dream of working with them. There is no better way to humanize these animals. Humanity equals emotional attachment, and emotional attachment means preservation. If you take these animals out of the public consciousness, how much good will is lost for all marine mammals, especially the great whales?

Bottom line: if you follow the evidence you will see a consistent pattern of bias and manipulation. It doesn’t make it a bad film, just a bad documentary.

References:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/understanding-orca-culture-12494696/?no-ist

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/california-bill-would-end-seaworld-killer-whale-shows-n74351

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/killer-whale/

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