There’s a very popular hashtag trend on Twitter and it goes by #EmptyTheTanks. If you were to search this I guarantee you’ll see links to Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish and it is clear why.
Blackfish takes an in-depth look into the controversy with capturing Orca, or Killer, whales and raising them in captivity which in turn reveals the shocking and unfortunate truth behind the dazzling lights and performances at SeaWorld.
Ex-trainers give their personal accounts of their experiences at SeaWorld from their naivety as young, new trainers lacking education about these orca whales, to the death of their friend, and fellow trainer, Dawn Brancheau. The tragedy of Dawn’s death sparked much outrage given the nature of the upfront circumstances calling for Tilikum to be put down, however despite the actions of Tilikum, is he the one to really blame?
The film focuses on Tilikum – an orca far too large to be in a tank in the first place – who suffers from psychotic stress and trauma from being taken from the wild and being forced into captivity to become an entertainer for humans. The hard-hitting facts presented predominantly come from the visual contrasts of orca whales roaming in the wild to these lifeless, floating giants in large swimming pools at SeaWorld. Needless to say, the message is clear: orcas in captivity is inhumane.
Further to the latter, facts from marine biologists about orcas in the wild expose lies given to park visitors by Seaworld staff (who have probably never seen an orca in the wild), for example: the life expectancy of orca whales in captivity is believed to be longer than orcas in the wild. The misguided information provided at the parks also raises concern towards the moral aspect of bringing in money vs actually educating people properly about these sea creatures who are unethically dying in an unnatural habitat.
One of the worst parts of SeaWorld’s outlook and animal programs is that there are alternative plans to enable the release of captive orcas – one of the front runners for this campaign is Ingrid Visser, a marine biologist from New Zealand. Visser has been a huge advocate for sea sanctuaries, presenting plans for large scale pens to be placed in the sea to retire orcas in. Inevitably there is a harsh reality due to their captivity that orcas from SeaWorld will not ever be able to be fully released, however the sea sanctuaries are the closest thing to knowing a sense of freedom.
An article by Brian Clark Howard for the National Geographic addresses the slow growing progression that is being made with regards to orca shows but unfortunately Howard identifies that not all orca shows across the USA have complied. Furthermore even though a SeaWorld park in California stopped shows in 2015, SeaWorld still own the orcas and have no obligations to remove them from their enclosures (well, aside from moral obligations of course).
Reverting back to Howard’s point on progression, after public pressure ignited by the outrage from Blackfish, SeaWorld announced in 2016 that they will no longer continue the orca breeding program. Now considering the prior popularity of these orca shows, this is a fantastic step forward yet undeniably on an iceberg-like scale. What I mean by “iceberg scale” is quite simply that there are still many orca whales living in inadequate tanks across the world, and regrettably it took the death of a SeaWorld trainer to finally start actively addressing the issue and effects of orcas in captivity.
Blackfish leaves viewers with a bleak depiction of life for orcas in sea parks – it evokes emotion from the spectator but more notably from the ex-trainers, wild life activists and marine biologists. Yet just under the surface, the desperate plea to #EmptyTheTanks comes from people’s reaction to growing knowledge and appreciation of how orcas live and prosper in the wild, and a large increase of this activism and protest is thanks to Blackfish.