"Blackfish" Movie Sheds Light on Captive Orcas

A few years ago, a blind date took me to see The Cove, thinking it would be a good conversation starter considering my love of the ocean. As it turned out, my bawling got in the way of any conversation.  Needless to say, there wasn’t a second date. Going to see Blackfish last night was like a second date with the subject matter, albeit from a different perspective.

“Blackfish” looks at the issue of dolphins in captivity from the perspective of the interactions between the largest dolphins, Orcinus orca, and their human trainers, primarily at Sea World.  It tells the story of Tillikum the giant orca who attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau three years ago.  How did this happen? Is it really a surprise?  I will leave it to the movie to tell the story as it does so beautifully.

While not as graphically violent as “The Cove,” the content is pretty heavy and very poignant. While the graphic deaths are described instead of being shown, this is still a movie more suited to mature audiences. It steals a favorite story of mine by showing video of how dolphin trainers are able to get sperm samples from their animals.

Overall, the story presents a quandary that anyone who works in animal display fields must wrestle with: are the costs to the animals in captivity worth the benefits?  Having spent the bulk of my adult career as a marine biology educator at an aquarium, I have struggled with the issue as well.  For me, it was made easier knowing that the animal keepers I have worked with were doing everything in their power to keep the animals we worked with safe and healthy… and putting the educational value of the animals above the entertainment value.  

At our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, we provide our animals the space, habitat, food and enrichment modeled after the actual conditions in which they would naturally occur. This way, we are able to demonstrate respect for them and allow them to serve as natural ambassadors for the ocean as a whole.  “Blackfish” raises the question of whether Sea World is really using orcas as ambassadors or just as entertaining money makers.  I will leave that up to the viewer to decide, but I do recommend that anyone who loves orcas in or out of captivity go see “Blackfish.”

I have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing orcas swimming, playing, and feeding in the Puget Sound while I was in graduate school and it was truly a magical experience – one that I will cherish for the rest of my life. And I hope my next date with these blackfish won’t be in a tank, but will be to see them swimming through the waters of our Bay.

—  Tara Treiber
Heal the Bay’s Education Director

Gain a better understanding of Santa Monica Bay habitat by visiting our Aquarium!