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To many who’ve seen it, “Blackfish” is a damning indictment of SeaWorld and its decision to hold killer whales captive.
To help you get up to speed, I dove into some of the movie’s key claims and asked SeaWorld to respond.
Let’s start with the movie’s central contention.
To make this case, the documentary focuses on Tilikum, a 32-year-old male orca.
Tilikum was captured in the northern Atlantic Ocean in 1983 and taken to Sealand of the Pacific, a now-shuttered park near Victoria, British Columbia. Former Sealand trainers interviewed in “Blackfish” say the park’s female killer whales would aggressively gang up on Tilikum, particularly when they were confined in a 20-foot-by- 30-foot pool overnight. In February 1991, Tilikum and two other orcas attacked part-time trainer Keltie Byrne after she slipped into their pool. She died after being dragged and submerged under the water. Two witnesses interviewed in “Blackfish” claim Tilikum was the instigator of the incident though that wasn’t broadly established immediately after Byrne’s death.
SeaWorld later acquired Tilikum, and according to an ex-trainer who appears in the documentary, he was repeatedly attacked by female orcas who shared the same living space.
In July 1999, a SeaWorld Orlando employee found 27-year-old Daniel P. Dukes, who was believed to have wandered into the area after hours, dead in Tilikum’s pool. Dukes’ body was draped over Tilikum‘s back when the worker found him. An autopsy later determined Dukes drowned but noted dozens of bruises and cuts. “Blackfish” argues Tilikum may have attacked Dukes before and after his death.
The third and most-publicized Tilikum-related death came in February 2010. Tilikum dragged senior SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau into the pool and forced her underwater, eventually killing her.
SeaWorld has since said Tilikum grasped Brancheau’s ponytail. The movie – and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration – argue Tilikum pulled on Brancheau’s arm. An autopsy later determined she died of drowning and traumatic injuries, and that part of her scalp was “forcibly torn from her head.”
“Blackfish” argues that killer whales are not aggressive in the wild and implies that confinement can lead to dangerous behavior toward both humans and fellow marine mammals.
SeaWorld disputes that.
“These animals adapt very well socially to their lives at SeaWorld and there is no truth at all to the notion that they exhibit ‘hyper aggression,'” the marine park said in a statement.
The park acknowledged orcas at SeaWorld and elsewhere live in a dominance hierarchy but said aggression of any kind is rare.
SeaWorld has also said Tilikum’s behavior toward Brancheau was unexpected because he had interacted with her safely countless times before her death.
This argument conflicts with the film’s overarching claim about captivity triggering aggression in whales. But “Blackfish” also suggests aggressiveness can be passed on to a whale’s offspring.
The movie claims SeaWorld has made Tilikum its top breeder. That’s a bad thing, the documentary argues. The movie suggests that a reputable breeding program wouldn’t rely on an animal with a history of aggressive behavior but doesn’t offer any scientific backup that aggression can be inherited.
Mark Simmons, a former SeaWorld senior trainer who’s since spoken out against the documentary, told the “Blackfish” crew that Tilikum was an outlier.
Animal trainers often discourage owners from breeding aggressive animals but behavioral scientists who study humans and animals often emphasize the influence of both genetic and environmental factors.
While some studies have focused on a gene linked to aggressive behavior in humans, for example, most research has at least acknowledged the role of outside triggers.
Indeed, University of Notre Dame anthropologist Agustín Fuentes sharply panned the notion that biology is the sole determinant of hostile behavior in humans in a 2012 Salon article. His piece also cited research involving animals but not specifically killer whales.
SeaWorld says Tilikum fathered 10 of the 29 killer whales at its three parks. That means about 34 percent of SeaWorld’s current killer whales share his genes. The park says none of these orcas has aggressive tendencies.
“Blackfish” spends significant time laying out Tilikum’s history but also provides examples of other dangerous – and even deadly – encounters between trainers and killer whales.
One former trainer specifically claimed there have been more than 70 incidents at SeaWorld and elsewhere.
One of the more prominent ones mentioned in “Blackfish” is the December 2009 death of Alexis Martinez, a killer whale trainer at a marine park in Spain. Martinez was killed while training with an orca reportedly on loan from SeaWorld. The movie also mentions two examples from San Diego, including a trainer who was held under water in 2006 and another who was seriously injured after a whale landed on him when it was doing a trick.
A legal brief filed by Occupational Health and Safety Administration attorneys last fall said SeaWorld records “aggressive or other unwanted whale behaviors” and documented at least 100 incidents from 1989 to 2009.
The filing noted that those episodes resulted in at least 11 injuries and some may not have been reported.
SeaWorld argued the documentary zeroed in on the total number of incidents, which it says is misleading because many didn’t result in injuries or even involve direct contact between a trainer and a whale.
The park also says the incidents were recorded precisely because they reflected behavior that was out of the ordinary. SeaWorld said trainers note those scenarios so they can monitor changes and, if necessary, adjust trainers’ approaches to a specific whale.
“It is this careful attention to the behavior of all of our whales that has led to our exemplary safety record,” SeaWorld said in a statement. “Trainers have learned a great deal about killer whale behavior from studying these examples and a result, the number of incidents has greatly reduced over time.”
OSHA disputed the latter point in its September court filing.
“SeaWorld claims the frequency of such incidents has tapered off over time but there have been incidents every year but two since 1988, culminating in trainer deaths in 2009 and 2010,” attorneys wrote.
Howard Garrett, co-founder of the nonprofit Orca Network, made this claim in “Blackfish”: Female killer whales in the wild can live up to 100 years and their male counterparts 50 to 60 years but SeaWorld’s orcas only live 25 to 30 years.
Garrett and others in the movie say holding whales captive cuts their lives short – by a lot.
SeaWorld called those conclusions patently false and said data on killer whale life spans is often misrepresented or oversimplified.
The Orlando Sentinel conducted an exhaustive review of related research in January and found a lack of conclusive data on killer whales’ life spans.
The Florida newspaper cited studies by U.S. and Canadian government researchers that found female killer whales in the Pacific Northwest live 30 to 50 years and males live from anywhere from 19 to 31 years, but that individual whales can live far longer. Female orcas can live up to 90 years and males up to 70 years, according to the Sentinel.
But Sentinel reporter Jason Garcia’s biggest takeaway was that biologists aren’t certain how long killer whales live because there hasn’t been enough research:
With the limited data available, scientists say it can be misleading to compare life expectancies between whales in the wild and those in captivity. Instead, they say, the more accurate comparison to use is the “annual survival rate” — essentially, an estimate of the percentage of whales in a population expected to survive each year.
By that measure, Garcia found captive whales died at nearly three times the rate of wild orcas each year though more recent data reveals similar survival rates.
Throughout the film, former trainers drive home the point that SeaWorld knew human-whale interactions were dangerous long before Brancheau’s death.
“I’d been expecting somebody to be killed by Tilikum,” ex-trainer John Jett, who once worked with the killer whale, told the film crew. “I’m surprised it took as long as it did.”
But SeaWorld maintains that orca aggression isn’t a regular occurrence.
Here’s how the company described whale-related risks in a court document filed late last year:
On rare occasions, killer whales can be dangerous. SeaWorld has taken extraordinary measures to control that risk. But it cannot eliminate it while facilitating the interaction between humans and whales that is integral to its mission.
In that same filing, SeaWorld argues it has taken “extraordinary steps” to ensure safety, including by having trainers document whale behavior.
It also outlined emergency procedures, including an alarm that alerts trainers if one of their colleagues is injured or appears at risk. The park says trainers must have more than 18 months of experience before they have close contact with an orca and at least three years before they can direct whales’ behavior.
SeaWorld says its training protocols are far from static, and that the company applies lessons learned.
“Our practices evolve and improve continually,” SeaWorld said in a statement.
This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – SeaWorld’s Whale of a Problem: Required Reading – and the next in our series – Takeaways from SeaWorld’s Big Anti-‘Blackfish’ Campaign.