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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Film review - Blackfish

Beyond Blackfish:  Free Tilly!

Blackfish - Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, USA

When I moved to Orlando, Florida, in August of 1966, it was like moving to a foreign country. The hills and forests that were part of the Pittsburgh suburbs were replaced with flat land, palm trees and orange groves of the very small town Orlando. Instead of steel mills and coal mines we had oranges and cattle. But in a very short time the landscape of the Orlando area began to change. Walt Disney World broke ground for their new theme park on May 30, 1967, with the opening of the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971. Then a few miles away, Sea World opened on December 15, 1973. The introduction of theme park entertainment changed Orlando dramatically and irreversibly. Acres of pine groves and orange trees were clear cut to build hotels, strip malls, fast food restaurants, outlet stores and many themed shopping/eating/entertainment areas. Theme parks became vacation destinations bringing visitors to central Florida by the millions and in turn making the corporations and many local businesses rich. Mickey Mouse entertained children and adults alike followed by Shamu, the Killer Whale, who became the aquatic park’s biggest celebrity. The difference, however (spoiler for kids here!) is that Mickey is not a real mouse. Tilikum, who now plays Shamu, is a 12,000 pound killer whale that was abducted from his family off the coast of Iceland on November 9, 1983, when he was about three years old.

The documentary Blackfishdirected by Gabriela Cowperthwaite examines the life of Tilikum as an animal actor. Tilikim is a very handsome whale with black and white markings that give him the look of a sea panda. He measures 22.5 feet long with a dorsal fin of 6.5 feet. The dorsal fin has collapsed and hangs over his left side. He first learned to act at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, where he would be fed when he responded to his coaches and not fed when he did not. He spent nights in a 20-foot-deep, 28-foot-diameter pen. On February 21, 1991, trainer Keltie Byrne slipped into the pool with Tilikum and two female whales. Byrne drowned after being submerged by the whales with reports varying on which one was responsible, although a witness to the tragedy definitely recalls the whale with the collapsed dorsal fin being the aggressor. Then on January 9, 1992, Tilikum went to Sea World in Orlando.

Tilikum featured as Shamu is the real star of Sea World and his image sells tickets, stuffed whales, t-shirts and millions of dollars of merchandise every year. Then there are several other whales that perform together. I have been to the park many times over the years and even though the porpoises are energetic and cute, the showstopper is when a trainer is thrust heavenward, bursting from the depths of the pool on the nose of a killer whale. Gasps and applause! The whales even smile for the audience! Totally amazing how much fun the whales, including Tilikum, and the trainers are obviously having! I wished I could play as well.

Daniel P. Dukes was found battered and dead, draped over Tilikum’s back on July 6, 1999. It was reported that he hid and stayed at Sea World after the park closed.

In 2006 Sea World featured a new show called Believe which opened in all three of its parks. Believetells the story of a little boy watching killer whales off the coast of Alaska who grows up to be a Sea World trainer. Loud music accompanies whales jumping, waving, splashing water over the tourists. It is quite inspiring and further emphasizes just how much fun the friendly whales and glamorous trainers are having during such a show. But Sea World is always looking for new ways to enhance the customer/whale experience and introduced “Dine with Shamu,” where tourists can eat right next to the pool where the whales and trainers are playing. On February 24, 2010, the Believe show had to be cut short since the whales were not acting properly. Dawn Brancheau, a very experienced trainer, later continued the program with “Dine with Shamu.” While in the water next to Tilikum, Tilikum grabbed Brancheau by the arm, dragged her under water and battered her to death. In Blackfish the controversy around Brancheau’s death is addressed, as to whether she let her pony tail drift into Tilikum’s mouth, meaning it was all her fault. The police led the news reports with the pony tail story and some Sea World supporters stick by it. There has since been a hearing before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for safety violations after which OSHA fined Sea World $75,000. The fine included two violations related to Brancheau’s death. Tilikum returned to work on March 30, 2011, to find female trainers with a new hairstyle – either cut short or pulled up in a bun. A factual presentation of what happened to Brancheau can be found at The Orca Project, April 4, 2011, which includes excerpts from written reports made by those present at her death so you can decide what is really propaganda.

Sea World refused all requests to take part in Blackfish apparently concerned that whatever was shown in the film would be taken out of context or otherwise misconstrued.  However, Sea World Vice President of Communications, Fred Jacobs finally commented by sending a letter to about fifty film reviewers in the U.S. before the film’s release in the U.S. and the U.K. The entire letter and the point-by-point rebuttal are easily found on the internet, as are many other comments of Sea World executives. Sea World’s general financials are also available, like those of large shareholders of Sea World Entertainment, Inc. (Brad Andrews, Chief Zoological Officer) as well as the second quarter 2013 earnings ($649 million). Sea World is definitely a big fish in the theme park pool with a strong financial interest in keeping its trademark orca captive.

On Facebook you can find videos and comments on all the Sea World whales by searching for Free Tilly or Blackfish The Movie. Or check out the book by David Kirby, Death at Sea World (also on Facebook). Simply searching under Tilikum and Sea World will provide arguments and information for all sides of whether killer whales should remain in such captivity and be forced to perform. For me, having grown up with Shamu, by the end of Blackfish, I was in tears. How could a 22.5-foot, 12,000-pound, intelligent, family-oriented, ocean-living creature performing repetitious tricks for food actually be smiling at the end of the show? Believe me, he isn’t. (Mary Nyiri)

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