Rethinking SeaWorld post-Blackfish

During the panel after the screening of Blackfish, former SeaWorld trainers and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite mentioned that a recent IPO update for the company that owns SeaWorld had to list the release of this movie as something that could potentially devalue the property. It’s funny that a movie which to date has screened to three film festival audiences, the most recent one Friday night at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, could be marked as such a threat to a multi-billion company, but if anyone doubted this film’s potential to create real problems at Shamu Stadium, the reaction from the Sarasota crowd should erase that.

Unlike when Blackfish screened at Sundance, or even in Miami, the crowd at the Purple Cow on Friday night was one intimately familiarity both with the orca shows at SeaWorld and the shocking news story of a whale killing a trainer in 2010. As I sat in the room in advance of the film, I wondered: How many of these people have annual passes to SeaWorld tucked in their wallets right now? How many have taken their kids or grandkids to see Shamu, maybe dozens of times? I had such a pass once, and couldn’t even guess how many times my children have rushed into the Splash Zone just as Tilikum the whale started a pass around the tank, tossing his fin through the surface and casting sheets of water on youngsters shrieking in delight.

But then, that history makes the experience of watching Blackfish a mere two hours away from International Drive so much more haunting. The Floridians in the audience, including many of use who have enjoyed the Shamu show since we were children ourselves, recognize much of the archive footage that Cowperthwaite has so carefully sliced together. New interviews with now-disenfranchised former trainers are juxtaposed against classic footage of those same trainers with smiles on their faces swimming in the water alongside giant killer whales. No doubt many of us realized while sitting in the theater that we had seen these folks before. We were in the stadium while these now-whistelblowers were diving off the nose of six-ton behemoths.

And somewhere along the way it strikes you that if there is anything in the film that SeaWorld does that makes you angry, any practice you find dubious or action you find dishonest, if not utterly appalling, you are also somewhat responsible.

That was why I expected some defensiveness from the audience after the show. This crowd of people who have such good memories of SeaWorld from their own lives, I figured, may not respond so well to the stinging indictment of the park’s business practices. But other than a question from one person who seemed worried SeaWorld might have no alternative but to shut down, the audience appeared to embrace the message of Blackfish, which was simply that keeping giant animals built for life in the ocean in a giant goldfish bowl to perform circus stunts may be more risky that it sounds.

Of course, we all know the story that incited this film. Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer, was dragged into the tank at SeaWorld and killed by the largest whale at the park, one with a history of killing people before. We also can recall the evolving story that came from the park, first of the trainer slipping, then of her getting dragged in by her ponytail. We all likely know of  extensive legal fights surrounding Brancheau’s death as well. But only if you followed the story with keen interest have you heard the many disputes to the official company line. Many ex-trainers feel the entire account from SeaWorld officials from the beginning was being tailored to blame Brancheau for her own death, a move which many of those trainers took as a sign they would never be backed up by the company if something were to happen to them.

Brancheau’s story is heart-breaking, of course. In the pool from a young age, she was among the most experienced trainers at the park, which made her death a particularly hard blow to co-workers. Also compelling is the story of Tilikum, a whale captured in the wild who first was showcased at SeaLand, a dockside attraction in Canada, before he killed a trainer in a similar way to Brancheau. That incident closed SeaLand and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld. In 1999, a vagrant who was in SeaWorld unauthorized at night was found dead the next morning in Tilikum’s tank.

But the more shocking information to me as a parkgoer involved much of the blatant misinformation shared by SeaWorld with park guests on a daily basis. It’s not so much the take on Brancheau—most of us are cynical enough to expect corporate sugar-coating on such an incident. It’s the basic information about killer whales. Park employees tell guests that orcas live about 35 years in the wild and longer in captivity, but female whales live 100 years in nature, and males typically live around 50. It is clear during  recorded conversations between workers and tourists that the SeaWorld employees have no idea the information being spouted out is completely wrong.

A stretch of Blackfish includes going out in the wild with scientists who study orcas in nature. Here, we learn that the whales have brains more complex than humans, that families of whales stay together their entire lives, that they cooperate while hunting and have exhibited remarkable intelligence and communication skills. Whales almost certainly speak in a distinct language, and in different parts of the world, that language is different as well. If the film never left the wild, Blackfish might be the March of the Penguins for orca lovers.

But then the marine attractions get involved. Whales were captured in the wild, yanking small ones from families because they cost less to ship. The capture practices are so brutal that SeaWorld is forbidden from getting whales in Washington state anymore. The tradition of breaking up whale families happens again and again as Baby Shamus bred at parks get taken from mothers when they are several months old and shipped around the world. In one shocking segment, a mother whale starts screaming out in long-range whales, and scientists start recording her because such sounds have never before been heard by man.

The film is emotionally compelling and leaves you feeling informed. But it also leaves a park lover confused what to do now with that season pass. Can SeaWorld change its practices? They understandably declined to be interviewed for film. Right now, SeaWorld is barred by the courts from letting trainers in the water but is fighting that on appeal. Do they deserve our support anymore?

Of course, many of the trainers involved with this film say they don’t truly want the park to go under. And unlike some of the more extreme animal rights groups, they don’t believe orcas should be excised from the park. They just want larger, open water containment so guests can see the animals in a more natural setting. Think more Serenghetti Plains at Busch Gardens that the show at an old-fashioned zoo. And since the park in fact has seen profits go up since trainers were taken out of the water, the trainers at the Van Wezel were hopeful the park might see the light when it comes to endangering its own employees. “SeaWorld always thought having a diver dive off the nose of a killer whale was its Nike swoosh,” said ex-trainer Samantha Berg.

Perhaps the show to watch now is what SeaWorld executives do next.

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