MAGNOLIA PICTURES, CNN FILMS & OUR TURN PRODUCTIONS Present A MAGNOLIA PICTURES AND CNN FILMS RELEASE BLACKFISH A film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
83 min., 1.78
2013 Sundance Film Festival – World Premiere
2013 True/False Film Festival
2013 Miami International Film Festival
2013 Sarasota Film Festival
2013 USA Film Festival
2013 San Francisco Film Festival
2013 Seattle International Film Festival
2013 Hot Docs
2013 BAFTA Awards – Best Documentary Nominee
2013 Critics’ Choice Awards – Best Documentary Nominee
2013 International Press Academy Satellite Awards – Best Documentary Nominee
2013 IDA Documentary Awards – Best Feature Film Nominee
FINAL PRESS NOTES
Fredell Pogodin & Associates
(212) 924-6701 phone
7223 Beverly Blvd., #202
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 931-7300 phone
Many of us have experienced the excitement and awe of watching 8,000 pound orcas, or “killer whales,” soar out of the water and fly through the air at sea parks, as if in perfect harmony with their trainers. Yet this mighty black and white mammal has many sides – a majestic, friendly giant, seemingly eager to take trainers for a ride around the pool, yet shockingly – and unpredictably – able to turn on them at a moment’s notice. BLACKFISH unravels the complexities of this dichotomy, employing the story of notorious performing whale Tilikum, who – unlike any orca in the wild – has taken the lives of several people while in captivity. So what went wrong?
Shocking footage and riveting interviews with trainers and experts manifest the orca’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity over the last four decades and the growing disillusionment of workers who were misled and endangered by the highly profitable sea-park industry. This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans truly know about these highly intelligent, and surprisingly sentient, fellow mammals that we only think we can control.
When you look into their eyes, somebody’s home. Somebody’s looking back at you. . . but it may not be what you think.
ABOUT BLACKFISH February 24, 2010 is a day whale trainers – and fans of sea parks – will never forget, particularly those who were present that day at SeaWorld Orlando. It was then that a veteran killer whale trainer, DAWN BRANCHEAU, was brutally attacked and killed by one of the park’s oldest residents, an orca named TILIKUM.
Despite the incident, and others like it involving Tilikum, the giant sea mammal is still the object of both love and empathy from killer whale trainers, including many who have known and worked with him. BLACKFISH introduces us to a handful of former SeaWorld trainers, who share about their initial attraction to working with the whales at the parks and many of whom recall Brancheau’s skill and ability working with the sea mammals. While, at the time, at a loss for understanding why Tilikum attacked a former colleague, with whom the whale had worked for years, they now share their stories, as well as the knowledge they’ve gained since the incident, providing a unique insider’s view of the inner workings of the SeaWorld operation and its twists on both whale facts and reality.
In BLACKFISH, writer/director GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE not only tells their story, but, through their words and those of renowned and respected whale experts and educators, that of Tilikum himself. Viewers come to understand the complex social and emotional lives of the majestic orcas, enabling them to begin to comprehend the effects removing them from their natural environments can have on the creatures.
Tilikum’s story is told from the time of his initial capture in the North Atlantic in 1983 at approximately two years of age, to his first non-ocean “home” at another park, Sealand of The Pacific, where, in 1991, he was responsible for killing trainer KELTIE BYRNE. Shortly after, he was sold to SeaWorld Orlando, where trainers were largely kept in the dark about the whale’s involvement in Byrne’s death and permitted to work closely with him. They share with the audience the “party line” of incorrect whale facts given to park visitors – from diminished whale lifespans to whales performing tricks (or “behaviors,” in SeaWorldspeak) because “they want to.”
Several whale attacks are seen and explained, including a particularly harrowing one involving trainer KEN PETERS, who skillfully – and miraculously – survived the grip of a killer whale who refused to release him, dragging him to the bottom of the park’s tank repeatedly for long periods over a torturous 12 minute session of seemingly inexplicable misbehavior.
The film details a case brought against SeaWorld by OSHA, bringing to light both the details of the Brancheau incident and the steps taken since to begin to protect whale trainers from any further attacks.
Every parent – particularly those in Southern California and Florida – has had SeaWorld on their list of vacation destinations at one time or another. It’s a place where they and their families have an opportunity to see a variety of sea creatures, from otters and sea lions, all the way up the evolutionary ladder to dolphins and killer whales. Filmmaker GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE was no different.
“It’s on the ‘parent bucket list,’” she says. “You just sorta do it.”
A Los Angeles native and mother of seven-year-old twin boys Cowperthwaite had been to the park on a number of occasions. But it wasn’t until she began reading about the incident involving Brancheau that her interest as a documentarian was piqued. The veteran filmmaker of shows for National Geographic and ESPN, among others, along with her 2010 doc, “City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story,” like all documentary makers, always has her feelers out for the next project.
“I just read everything I can. And I remember, when Dawn Brancheau was killed, I couldn’t figure out what happened. I just started reading about it, and the more I read, the more confused I was.” Not the least of which was SeaWorld’s official statements that Brancheau had simply slipped and fallen, and that Tilikum had grabbed her ponytail and pulled her into the water, causing her to drown. “It was confounding. There were a lot of unanswered questions, and I felt that if I had that many questions, everybody could benefit from the answers.”
Cowperthwaite began digging into as much material as she could find, both discovering answers and generating more questions as she peeled back the layers of the onion. Author Tim Zimmermann had written a comprehensive article about killer whales, “The Killer in the Pool,” for Outside Magazine, which became a launch point for the director – enough so that she eventually asked him to become an associate producer on the film. She studied OSHA reports related to the incident, as well as its case against SeaWorld
But most telling was the coroner’s autopsy report of Brancheau, which graphically described the devastation to the 40-year-old trainer’s body caused by the whale (including use of terms such as “avulsion” to her scalp and left arm – meaning tissue violently pulled away from her skeleton). “It was obvious reading the autopsy report that this was a massively aggressive, brutal attack – even though SeaWorld had stuck to its story, that it was about the ponytail. This was a horrible thrashing. And there had never been a record of orcas killing humans in the wild.”
Like many of us would, Cowperthwaite had initially come to the project thinking whales were some sort of gentle giants of the ocean, eager to live alongside mankind. “I had come in very naively, thinking that I was doing a documentary about human beings and their relationships with our animal counterparts, that these animals were our comrades, cetaceans here to save us and protect us from great white sharks,” she recalls. But one question kept haunting her. “How did a top trainer come to be killed by a killer whale who, presumably, she loved and loved her? That was the question that drove me. And as I started digging in, what I learned was shocking. I knew I had no choice but to tell the truth.”
Cowperthwaite became aware of several trainers who had left SeaWorld and who had come to take an active role in studying and trying to change the situation with killer whales at the parks – many of whom the director later asked to appear in the film. “The day Dawn got killed, I contacted [former trainer] JEFF VENTRE, with whom I’d stayed in touch,” says JOHN JETT, a trainer who left SeaWorld Orlando in 1996. “I said, ‘You know, somebody’s been killed.’ We thought, ‘What do we do about it? Maybe it’s time to insert ourselves.’ Dawn’s death became a catalyst for all of us to begin formally speaking out against this whole thing.”
Jett and Ventre had actually already been addressing some of the issues publicly since the mid-1990s, before being contacted by Zimmerman, and were eager to get involved. “Tim is a good writer, and he’s very much a fact-based, evidence-based writer, which is how I try to do things,” Jett adds. Other former SeaWorld orca trainers, including SAMANTHA BERG, DEAN GOMERSALL, and CAROL RAY also got involved, later joined by several others, KIM ASHDOWN and JOHN HARGROVE, who left the park only more recently.
After being introduced to them, Cowperthwaite realized the trainers would become a key part of developing the film. “I related to them,” she recalls. “During the first interview I had with one of them, I knew that they would be the spine of the story. It ended up being Tilikum’s story, but told through the trainers. It’s a fact-based film, which is completely story-driven with parallel stories – both Tilikum’s and the trainers’, from the beginnings of their careers through their disillusionment.”
In her preparation for the interviews, Cowperthwaite had indeed studied the aforementioned materials to prepare questions for the trainers, but their answers often made the director realize there was more to the story than she had originally envisioned. “Again, I had originally pictured the film as a big story about humans and animals. But as we began talking, what they offered up about being at SeaWorld and training there really blew my mind. They ended up almost as fact-finding interviews – some of what they shared with me ended up guiding me in how I would end up telling the story. I just let them guide me in what to ask.”
“She would ask very pointed questions,” Jett recalls, “things like ‘How was Dawn as a trainer?’ and ‘How was Tilikum to work with?’ But she quickly modified her questions to go down paths that I was offering her. She was really flexible, and that allowed us to go down paths that ended up pretty interesting.”
One stipulation all of the interviewees had, particularly the trainers, when deciding to get involved, was Cowperthwaite’s approach. “Their prerequisite for being part of this film was that it would be a factual piece – not sensationalized,” she notes that approach immediately appealed to trainers like Jett. “She wanted it to be honest, accurate and truthful, which was also my criteria,” he says. “And I think she’s accomplished that.”
Avoiding sensationalism is key to getting – and keeping – an audience’s attention for a film such as this, Cowperthwaite says. “SeaWorld is good at painting any kind of scientific community or activist community outside of SeaWorld as being crazy. And, unfortunately, there are activist approaches, which for whatever reason, aren’t always relatable to the mainstream. So strictly adhering to truthful, fact-based storytelling became the voice of the film.”
University of Victoria Associate Professor Dr. David Duffus, who heads the school’s Whale Research Lab and appears in the film, along with several other noted academics and whale experts, agrees. “We’ve seen a lot of inflaming SeaWorld in the past, and doing that doesn’t inform the public at all. The idea, which Gabriela has really tried to do, is to instead try to actually engage the issue and get people to start thinking about it for themselves.” The way to accomplish that is to simply present facts and let the audience decide for themselves, says Jett. “All of the former trainers have been really careful not to be inflammatory. More important is just telling the truth. Because the truth is indefensible.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT TILIKUM AND KILLER WHALES As seen in BLACKFISH, killer whales are immensely intelligent animals with complex social and emotional lives, evidenced by, among other things, their developed brain structure. As neuroscientist Lori Marino demonstrates in the film through an MRI scan, their brain has a section that is unidentifiable to us. “Their brains are structured differently. In relative terms to us, they’re from outer space,” notes Jett. “They have a completely different evolutionary history than we do and use a whole different set of senses than we do.”
Their ability to experience emotion, though unmeasureable, in scientific terms, is fairly clear, says Dave Duffus. “We know from their brain structure that they do have the same systematic capacity for an emotional life, and we see responses – the same as we see in elephants.” That emotional ability is most evident in their social behavior, particularly in the bond between mother and calf. “It’s a strong force in these animals, because it’s rooted in evolution and survival. Whether that reflects emotion the way we would feel it or whether it’s a much more instinctive response, it’s hard to tell. But it’s got a survival function, so you can bet it’s strong.”
Tilikum, like many captive whales was captured as a young calf and separated from his mother – as seen in emotionally-jarring footage of such a capture from around the same period. “Killer whales spend their entire lives within these family pods, swimming together for decades,” Cowperthwaite explains. “When you see this footage,” as well as in that shot at Penn Cove 13 years earlier, “and hear the retelling of the incident, you understand that none of the other whales, including the mother, would leave. It just shot me in the heart.”
The whales also can be seen strategizing during the famous mass whale capture hunt in 1970 at Penn Cove, Washington. “The babies and mothers went one way, and the males stayed on the surface and went another way, to act as decoys to the hunters, to allow the others to escape,” Cowperthwaite describes. “That kind of self-sacrifice is just astounding, and truly speaks to their intelligence. It’s a momentary decision as a group.” Duffus agrees. “They’re a big social predator and they signal a lot between each other. It’s complicated and well-timed, and it speaks to the world of possibilities of what they can do. It’s breathtaking.”
The Penn Cove capture not only had an emotional effect on the whales, but even on those involved in the hunt, Cowperthwaite discovered. “I had seen the footage some time ago, and, back then, it didn’t strike me the way it does now – they appeared to just be herded like cattle. But after learning about the whales’ brains and family structure, and the effect of taking the little ones from those families, I knew the only way to understand what that capture really meant was to find someone who was there.”
She began seeking out any of those who might have been involved, but was regularly told that anyone from that time was likely deceased or not talking. Cowperthwaite eventually came upon the name of one of the original divers, named John Crowe, who still lived somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. “I called every John Crowe who would have been the right age at that time in Washington State and Oregon,” she recalls. After about 30 such calls, “I called him and asked, ‘Is this John Crowe?’ and he answered, ‘What’s left of him.’ I knew that was my guy.”
She, cinematographer Chris Towey and sound recorder Jeff Stone drove 14 hours to the remote village off the coast of Oregon where Crowe lives to film his stirringly emotional interview. “You can see, even today, he was profoundly affected by it, particularly when he talks about the point at which they realized what they were doing, separating the young ones from the mothers. That really begins to tie things together for the viewer.”
Tilikum eventually made his way to an aquatic theme park called Sealand of the Pacific, near Victoria, BC, Canada – just 30 miles from Penn Cove. At Sealand, Tilikum was regularly beaten up by two adult female whales, a regular part of his life there. “Not only was he traumatized by being extracted from his family and his mother, but he’s dropped in with these killer whales who bully him are just constantly vying for dominance with him,” the director says. “And then they get put in a ‘module’ at night, this little box,” a reference to the diminutive enclosure where the whales were kept when not performing for audiences. “You don’t even have to know anything about their intelligence to know that that’s wrong in every way that something could be wrong.”
Most notable, though, of Tilikum’s experiences at Sealand is his involvement in the death of trainer KELTIE BYRNE, who was killed in 1991 at the park. “Tilikum was never a ‘waterwork’ whale,” Cowperthwaite explains, meaning trainers didn’t swim with the whales at Sealand. Byrne, the public was told, had accidentally slipped into the tank where Tilikum and two other whales were and, not wearing a wetsuit (since trainers did not work with the whales in the water), died of hypothermia. “That was the first thing I read about Keltie Byrne.”
It was not until a year into her work on the film, when the director became aware of two sisters, CORINNE COWELL and NADINE KALLEN, who were at the park the day of the incident, did she learn what really happened. “Corinne and Nadine were just young college students at the time,” she notes. “I reached out to them and they said, ‘You know, she didn’t fall in the pool. Her foot slipped in, and then she was trying to get out and Tilikum grabbed her, and Tilikum killed her.’ It wasn’t the three whales playing with her, it wasn’t hypothermia – it was Tilikum.”
SAMANTHA BERG, a SeaWorld Orlando trainer from 1990 to 1993, was similarly shocked to learn about what really happened. “The way I’d heard it from management at SeaWorld was that Keltie had slipped and fallen in the pool and then died very quickly of hypothermia, and all that happened was the whales carried her body around and wouldn’t let go of it. And eventually Tilikum got a hold of her – he was the subdominant animal, and he didn’t usually get to keep the ‘toys,’ so he wouldn’t let go of it. That was the story I knew for 17 years.”
It was not until Cowperthwaite’s interview with Cowell and Kallen that many people learned that not only was Keltie pulled into the pull by a whale, but that she was pulled in by Tilikum.
Jett was similarly distressed upon finally learning the reality about the incident. “We were told that he had maybe participated in her death, but that it was primarily the other animal that was involved. And that wasn’t true at all – and the SeaWorld management knew that. They didn’t convey that information to us. I was very naïve, and I was kept in the dark. And I think that’s probably by design.”
Because Sealand was not a waterwork park, Cowperthwaite notes, Tilikum had never been desensitized to interaction with humans in the water. “He had never had any of that sort of tactile stimulation from people. So the moment that Keltie fell in, it’s presumed that he just went crazy with excitement to the level that he just went after her and killed her.”
As a result of the incident, Sealand closed a year later, and Tilikum was purchased by SeaWorld Orlando – an odd move, considering his history. “According to some of the former trainers, he was originally brought there as a breeder – to be there to sire other orcas with the females,” Cowperthwaite says. “Sealand had said that their understanding was that he would never be used in shows,” though he later was performing for audiences. “That’s a pretty crazy decision to have made.”
His life there continued to be one of a combination of boredom – staying in his tank and brought out for the “big splash” event at the ends of shows, splashing the audience with water – and abuse by other animals. “For me, that was one of the hardest things to watch,” Jett recalls. “It was brutal.”
Whale-on-whale aggression, says Duffus, is an unfortunate by-product of taking whales out of their natural environments and creating artificial ones. “It’s likely a product of social alignment or misalignment. The animals have a strong drive for social organization. And here they’re socializing with animals from different oceans, of different age groups. In nature, they form stable groups, and groups which are hierarchal. And those ties are strong. It’s always been one of those things – if you pull an individual out of that, what does that mean to the structure?”
As for the use of Tilikum as a “breeder,” collection of his sperm, as seen in the film, takes place. . . as you might imagine. “That’s the only scene that I personally had a hand in cutting and editing,” Cowperthwaite notes. “I wanted people to understand his family tree, and how an animal that was known to have killed multiple people was being actively bred. I wanted to demonstrate how macabre and unethical the whole practice is.”
The regular collection of sperm from the animal was performed by several trainers, including John Jett and John Hargrove. “John Jett told me it was one of the things that made him leave SeaWorld. Not because he had a concern about being grossed out or anything. He said, ‘It was just so demeaning to the whale.’”
LIFE AT SEAWORLD
As noted in BLACKFISH, it probably comes as a great surprise that obtaining the job of trainer at SeaWorld doesn’t require a doctorate in animal science or marine biology – or anything close, despite the “intense training” and specific “requirements” the park tells guests trainers must have. “One girl who eventually became a trainer there started out in the kitchen,” Cowperthwaite says. Notes Jett, “Very few of the supervisors and people making decisions there have college educations. Most of them simply are high school graduates, though you’re led to believe otherwise.”
Not to say none of the trainers had degrees – both Jett and Berg did, and were hoping for something more. “I did have a college degree when I applied there,” says Jett. “I kind of assumed that SeaWorld was engaged in all this great research. But I got there and quickly realized that there was no research going on at all. There was very little education there to teach us about the biology of the animals,” he says. “It was mainly passing a swim test and making sure you have the look they’re looking for. And if you pass that, you get a chance to stay on.”
Training involves working one’s way through essentially an apprentice program, Berg explains. “You start out at $7.50 an hour, like I did, making up fish buckets to feed the dolphins by 7 a.m.,” she recalls. Later in the morning, apprentices begin shadowing more senior trainers, as they work with animals to learn or refine show “behaviors" (i.e. tricks). “It’s funny – I’ve been out of the business for 20 years, and I still use the word ‘behavior,’ because I’ve been so conditioned to say that. It’s hard for me to say ‘trick,’ but that’s what it is.”
Trainers learn what specific animals do, in terms of behaviors or repertoire. Each time an animal performs a behavior properly, it is rewarded with food (i.e. fish). “You ask the animal to do a behavior, and if they do a good job, you blow your whistle, which tells them, ‘That’s good. Now come back and get a fish.’” That initial pairing of food with behavior is called “primary reinforcement.” As things progress, the behaviors are paired with “secondary reinforcements” – rubbing the whales down or giving them a favorite toy. “Eventually, what you have is a sort of mutual working relationship.” Trainers, after a year’s time (though only three months when Berg worked there), work hands-on with the animals developing behaviors and refining themselves as performers, eventually (hopefully) earning approval from the park president as full-fledged orca trainers.
After a time working with the animals, trainers begin to have a sense of the whale’s presence – as John Jett says in the film, a sense that “somebody is home, somebody is looking back at you.” Berg agrees. “You begin to feel like someone is actually with you when you look into their eyes and see them looking back at you, because they’re so intelligent. You have a sense of self-awareness. But they also do things that will surprise you. Sometimes I felt like they were training me, teaching me.” Jett even recalls one whale, Katina, helping him find his way in working with him on a behavior. “You’d jump in the water, and if your feet weren’t in the right place to ride her, she would sit and wait for you or show you where your feet go. She would train the trainers.” So are they intelligent? “Probably much more intelligent than we are, on some levels, though it’s impossible to know.”
Cowperthwaite recalls a story trainer JOHN HARGROVE shared with her (which does not appear in the film) in which he claims a whale, using its “echolocation” sense (a process that has been described as an ultrasound-like function, or “seeing with your ears”) identified an injury to the trainer and assisted him. “John was working with a whale named Takara, doing a ‘rocket hop,’” a behavior seen in the film where the trainer rides the whale’s rostrum and is blasted upwards out of the water. “He landed wrong and broke a rib and wasn’t able to swim properly. He says he could physically feel her echolocation vibration through the water, as if Takara could sense his injury, using echolocation – and then she very, very gently lifted him and softly swam him to the edge of the pool and made sure he didn’t have to bend his legs.”
Duffus notes, “We know animals echolocate – and you can hear it, and quite possibly John could have felt it. But what the animal did after that would be entirely speculative – there’s no science in there. But it’s pretty interesting.”
Thus comes the question: Do trainers develop a relationship with the whales? Do they care about the humans they interact with? “That’s the problem,” Duffus says. “Everything the whales do with the trainers at SeaWorld is cued in or trained via food conditioning. It’s pretty basic to the whales: ‘The trainers supply food. We do tricks, we get food.’ But if you talk to the trainers, they’re sure they’re an important part of the social life of the whales. But it’s impossible to tell, because food is never out of the equation.”
Do the whales indeed reciprocate? Several trainers who spent years working with the animals are certain that is the case, though Berg notes, “When I was there, I felt like there was that communication and love back and forth with the whales. But now I’m not so sure. It’s not that they don’t have rich emotional lives. But I feel like there’s a lot of projection from our side of what we wanted to believe about them. Because they were so dependent on us for everything.” Adds Duffus, “If you look at it from a scientific sense, there’s nothing to either confirm or deny that. But the human side is pretty strong. You’re working every day with such a fantastic product of nature – you’re bound to be awestruck.”
Another thing trainers and other employees at SeaWorld are tasked with is providing
information to guests about the whales, though, as the trainers and experts in BLACKFISH point out, there’s plenty of misinformation being given. Guests are told – seen in carefully collected footage of park employees – that killer whales, for instance, typically live between 25 and 35 years of age – females can in fact live to be over 90, while males can live to be over 50 in the wild. “They have a dramatically shortened life span in captivity, compared to what you see in the wild,” Jett explains. “It wasn’t until after I left SeaWorld and learned about orcas in the wild that I realized that almost everything they told us to tell the guests were lies – they’re just not true.”
Guests also hear that the animals do the behaviors “because they want to do them.” “That’s absolutely not true,” says Samantha Berg. “They’re doing it because they have to – because they get everything from the trainers, including their food. They learn very quickly that if they don’t do what we ask them to do, they’re not going to get what they want. They’re not doing this because they love us and they’re interested in us and they can’t wait to perform. If you don’t have a bucket of fish – it’s ‘See ya!’”
That fish they’re eating, by the way is also not the “restaurant-quality fish” the whales are purported to be fed, Berg notes. “It’s basically frozen smelts or capelin or herring – they’re not eating the salmon the Southern Resident whales off the San Juan Islands eat. SeaWorld’s not feeding their killer whales hundreds of pounds of restaurant quality salmon every day!” And ingesting thawed frozen fish has a deleterious effect on the animals. “Because the fish is frozen, it has 50% of the water in its body that it would have in the wild, so the animals get dehydrated. Tilikum, in particular, has to eat 10 gallons of gelatin a day, just to stay hydrated. And it’s nutrient-deficient, so they’re constantly stuffing the animals’ fish with vitamins.”
The public education output level at SeaWorld seems to have stopped at the “loveable, huggable” point, Cowperthwaite says. “That’s sort of where they stopped their trajectory on learning about whales. Which is a shame, because, SeaWorld is the biggest voice for killer whales in pop culture – that’s how we learn about killer whales. We don’t read scientific material – we go to SeaWorld.”
Duffus agrees. “That’s one of the things I take real issue with SeaWorld about. That’s not the educational programming we should be giving to people. When you watch the show, it looks like what we’re demonstrating is that we can master these animals – we can ride ‘em, we can make ‘em do tricks, we can make ‘em appear silly. That’s the wrong message, and it’s poorly delivered and encased in all sorts of glitz and music and noise. I take issue with their interpretation that it’s highly educational. No matter how much training they do and how glossy a sheen they put on it at SeaWorld, these are big predatory, instinct-driven animals. You can’t control an animal like that. It’s pretty arrogant.”
Not to say that trainers don’t want to deliver the truth – but they’re taught not to, Jett says. “On day one when I arrived at Shamu Stadium, I was ushered off to public relations training. There’s a formal PR training system there, where you learn what not to say to the public. How to twist questions to meet what is approved to say. How to deflect controversial questions and turn ‘em around.” Questions about Tilikum’s participation in Keltie Byrne’s death? “It was a slip and a fall. She slipped and fell in the pool and became hypothermic. That was the party line.”
Trainers who speak up or report problems risk being demoted from their coveted spots in Shamu Stadium, to the lesser sea lion/otter departments. As Cowperthwaite says. “All of these trainers are intelligent, bright people who would speak out if they saw something wrong. But that was just so incredibly discouraged in that corporation. The corporate culture there just gives me the chills.”
Each trainer has a favorite whale and cherishes that relationship – something SeaWorld would use against the trainer who spoke up about a potential safety issue, the director explains. “Getting to Shamu Stadium is the cream of the crop, and the trainers there have worked really hard to get there. If you’re benched because you complained of an injury or other problem, you’ll be seen as someone who can’t handle it.” Jett concurs. “Being moved out of the Shamu area is the worst thing that could happen to a trainer. You haven’t gone down in rank or anything – you’ve just shown the rest of the animal training staff that you can’t cut it. It’s like getting sent down to the minor leagues.”
Even injuries can go unspoken about, out of risk of demotion. “If you’re hurt, you show back up to work, because being sidelined means that you’re weak,” he adds. Jett actually had once suffered a hip and back injury after being rammed into a stage area by a whale named Katina. “I didn’t go home. I didn’t report it. I crawled off the stage and showed back to work the next day, barely able to walk. There’s just a backdrop of fear that if you said the wrong thing or showed you were injured, that you would be moved out of the Shamu area.”
TRAINER DEATH AT SEAWORLD Worries over the safety of mixing killer whales with human trainers in the same tank of water at SeaWorld are, of course, not unfounded. There have been numerous incidents – besides Brancheau’s death – as seen in BLACKFISH.
SeaWorld trainer KEN PETERS is shown in clips from a harrowing 1999 incident in which a 22-year-old orca named Kasatka grabbed his foot and repeatedly dragged him down to the depths of the pool – in front of an audience – over a near-deadly 12-minute period. Peters is seen returning to the surface periodically, while still in Kasatka’s grasp, calmly stroking the animal as he prepares to be brought underwater for another pass, which he hopes to survive until – and if – the whale releases him.
“He did an amazing job of not panicking and ventilating himself and holding his breath,” says Duffus. “But he was a hair’s breadth away from death. If that had been John Q. Public, it would have been all over in a minute’s time.”
Kasatka’s repeatedly bringing Peters to the bottom of the pool and returning him to the surface before he lost consciousness and died was a behavior, again, rooted in the animals’ genes. “Pulling animals underwater and pulling them around is common predatory behavior,” he notes. “They do that to seals. But there’s no way a whale would know how long a human can hold their breath. But it’s interesting to speculate – it’s pretty mysterious stuff.”
The keyword is “predatory.” When Kasatka eventually released Peters’ foot and he scrambled for safety in a “slide-out” ramp on the edge of the tank, the whale can be seen making further attempts to recapture him – to who-knows-what end. “You can see in the footage the whale is swimming back and forth right in front of that slide-out area, looking at what they’re doing,” says Jett. “That tells me the animal was not finished with him. She was trying to figure out a way to get that body back. She wasn’t done with him.”
Duffus finds it curious what has happened since with the trainer. “The fact that he’s still working for SeaWorld, there in San Diego, astounding! And Peters insists he wasn’t scared. No matter what, he had no control over the whale. The animal was completely in control, and it didn’t kill him. He’s damned lucky to be alive.”
Not so lucky was DAWN BRANCHEAU, whose death prompted a comprehensive lawsuit by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to put an end to allowing trainers at SeaWorld to risk their lives for the sake of entertainment.
Like Keltie Byrne, Brancheau was grabbed by Tilikum after coming into close contact with the trainer – as he had countless times before.
The animal’s level of frustration and stress is, in a sense, understandable, Berg explains. “He’s in a really horrible situation. He’s a regal, majestic animal who’s reduced to performing this little splash segment in a rinky-dink pool, and he’s been doing that for 20 years. And then he goes back into what’s the equivalent, for an animal his size, of a little jail cell. His life is so limited. He had the opportunity to do something more interesting, and he took it. Why it escalated into violence no one will ever know.”
The animal kept “playing” with her body, long after the trainer had perished. “You see this with young killer whales a lot,” explains Duffus. “They’ll harass potential prey items. And they’ll go through training exercises with their calves, literally playing with a dead seal for hours, even throwing it in the air. So it’s a training function, to build physical strength and coordination. But it comes from evolutionary history. It just looks like ‘play.’”
It took SeaWorld staff an unbearable length of time to get Tilikum to release Brancheau’s mutilated body, after what Cowperthwaite describes as a thoroughly aggressive, violent “thrashing” from the animal. They were only able to do so by getting him to move to a smaller pool and draining out water until the whale could be reached with wooden poles to prompt opening of his mouth, according to Jett.
Though Brancheau is seen briefly with Tilikum in footage from the incident, Cowperthwaite was keen NOT to include the gruesome footage of the attack. “There’s zero educational value to it,” the director states. “There’s nothing in there that you can’t get from the autopsy report.” Though the footage might have been available (since it was part of the public record in the OSHA case), she notes, “Even early on, when I thought that I actually could get a copy of it, I knew I didn’t want it. It’s sealed in a vault, and her family is litigating to try and keep it from the public. But there’s no way in hell I would ever have that in my movie. I could never live with that decision.”
There is plenty of fascinating footage of the trainers who are interviewed – most of whom no longer work at SeaWorld – at work at the park during the time they are describing in their interviews. “There are always cameras at SeaWorld, at every show,” the director says. Adds Jett, “Trainers would film themselves, either for fun or to evaluate their performance,” sometimes asking a colleague to videotape them using a personal camera. SeaWorld itself also had footage, which Cowperthwaite was able to obtain under “fair use” laws, particularly material that was used as public record in the OSHA case – of both above-surface performance, as well as below the water line, providing a clear view for the audience of the skill the trainers employed in their work.
SeaWorld, by the way, was initially invited to participate with Cowperthwaite on the film, but eventually opted not to. “In all fairness,” she says, “I think it would have been very hard for them to have been in a movie like this.” After viewing their testimony, though, during the OSHA trial, she realized that was for the best. “They’re so PR-trained – they would redirect questions, dance around the facts and give half-truths. To sit in an interview with one of these people and have them deliver that certainly wouldn’t help the movie, because I’m not even sure I’d be hearing the truth.”
While Tilikum remains at SeaWorld, even those trainers who have long since moved on, as well as those who have only recently left, still have a great love for the animal they once worked with closely and regularly. “Everyone who I’ve spoken to who comes in contact with him has that feeling about him,” Cowperthwaite says. Indeed, BLACKFISH never leaves audiences with a feeling of blame or hatred toward the orca. Viewers instead come away with an understanding of how he came to be the way he is and the situations which resulted in the deaths of two people and injury to others, by him and other captive killer whales.
Cowperthwaite’s biggest hope for audiences is that they see BLACKFISH and come away with information that will help them decide whether a visit to a water park like SeaWorld is the best way to have an experience of whales. “A lone whale taken from its pod, from its family, living in the wild and placed in a marine park, is in a lot of ways, not a real whale – you’re just not seeing what a true killer whale is supposed to look like and act like,” she says. “I’m not an activist or a marine biologist. But, as a filmmaker, I can gather information and present it in a concise and truthful way, so that people armed with this information will make the best decision for themselves and their families.”
Parks like SeaWorld have served a purpose, though they may have already finished serving that purpose, Berg says. “Parks like this, in the 60s and 70s, may have helped us learn something about these animals. But I don’t think they serve a purpose anymore – there isn’t anything more to be gained from keeping these animals like this. From my standpoint, we’re torturing them for fish. It’s morally wrong, and we need to do something about it. And I don’t think, after watching BLACKFISH, after seeing a three-year-old killer whale baby being taken from its mother, you’ll want to spend time at SeaWorld with your own family.”
“There’s value to exposing people to marine mammals,” says Dave Duffus. “But we need to do so in the right way.” Adds the director, “There’s always the question, ‘What is there were no SeaWorlds – would we even care about killer whales?’ Probably not. But given what we now know about the effect of this experiment, maybe it’s time to evolve.”
ABOUT THE TRAINERS
John Hargrove, age 39, has 14 years’ experience as a killer whale trainer. His vast experience includes both SeaWorld of California and SeaWorld of Texas where he was promoted to the highest ranking Senior Trainer called a Senior 1. Trainers at this level must be considered specialists in some area, his being waterwork and knowledge and application of behavior. This skill set and reputation earned John the privilege of working with and swimming with the corporation's most dangerous killer whales.
John gained international killer whale experience as a Supervisor with Marineland in the south of France. In France he conditioned and performed waterwork with naive killer whales that had never swam with trainers before.
He resigned his position with SeaWorld in August 2012 and currently resides in New York City.
John Jett is both a Visiting Research Professor and Laboratory Coordinator for Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. Dr. Jett has both a professional and educational background in the environmental sciences, which includes an ongoing investigation of marine mammal conservation within the context of waterway management strategy in Florida. As an orca trainer at SeaWorld of Florida (1992-1996), Dr. Jett quickly realized that many of the captive orcas he worked with were burdened with serious health and behavioral problems as a direct result of their confinement. He came to fully appreciate the unfair nature of captivity when he first saw wild orcas in the Pacific Northwest, which he considers a seminal point in his life. Since that time he has engaged in evidence-based writing and speaking on the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment purposes.
Carol Ray earned a B.A. degree in Psychology from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, after which she worked for several years training cetaceans at Sea World of Florida. As a former orca and dolphin trainer who is no longer involved in the industry, she offers a unique perspective on captivity and marine parks. She has been an outspoken cetacean freedom advocate for the past several years, and has been a featured presenter at local cetacean conferences and events in the greater Seattle, WA area. Carol has been interviewed in person and in print for a number of news and online publications, and she serves on the expert board for the Free Morgan Foundation. In 1994, Carol earned a M.A. degree in Communicative Disorders from the University of Central Florida. She is currently the owner and director of three busy and successful pediatric speech therapy clinics in the Seattle area. As a lover of marine life and an extensive traveler, she cherishes the opportunities she has had to experience whales and dolphins in their natural environment, around the world.
Jeffrey Ventre, MD is a medical doctor in Washington state. He specializes in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, treating patients with impairments ranging from back pain to spinal cord & brain injury. He worked as a trainer at SeaWorld of Florida from 1987 - 1995, spending seven of the eight years with cetaceans. Although now an opponent of captivity, his favorite whales at SeaWorld were Taima and Katina, with whom he performed with regularly. In June of 1996 he participated in "Orca Survey," an ongoing photo-identification study of the Southern Resident killer whale population, with Ken Balcomb and Dr. Astrid van Ginneken; two of the world's top orca scientists. Seeing free-ranging killer whales radically altered his perspective. He's co-authored two highly regarded scientific papers on the plight of killer whales in captivity with John Jett PhD. In 2012 he launched "Voice of the Orcas" website, with input from several of the cast of Blackfish. The site serves as an information portal for anyone wishing to learn more about Orcinus orca. Ventre sees obtaining "NonHuman Personhood" legal status for cetaceans, apes, and elephants, a top priority in the fight against animal exploitation.
Samantha Berg M.Ac, L.Ac, Dipl.Ac. grew up on Long Island, NY and graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Animal Sciences. She later earned a Master’s degree in Acupuncture and now owns and operates the Alaska Center for Acupuncture in Palmer, Alaska, with her husband, Kevin. The couple also hosts a weekly radio program called “Bridge to Everywhere” on Radio Free Palmer. Sam worked as an Animal Trainer for SeaWorld of Florida from February of 1990 until August of 1993. She worked alongside SeaWorld’s dolphins, beluga whales and sea lions as well as the killer whales Tilikum, Katina, Gudrun, Taimia and Winnie.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Gabriela Cowperthwaite - Director
Gabriela Cowperthwaite is a documentary filmmaker who for more than 12 years has directed, produced and written documentary programs for television networks including ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery and History.
In 2010, Cowperthwaite completed the award winning feature length documentary, City LAX: An Urban Lacrosse Story. The film chronicles the lives of six 12-year-olds in inner-city Denver, CO, as they and their families struggle through middle school in their gang-ridden neighborhoods. City LAX was acquired by ESPN and DirectTV.
In 2009, Cowperthwaite completed a film for UCLA International Medicine in conjunction with the International Rescue Committee, which focuses on clinics in war-torn regions, with the emphasis on providing ground-breaking medical care for victims of violence. It has been translated into three different languages and will be distributed in eight countries.
Cowperthwaite, who is Los Angeles based, is currently directing a campaign for Supply and Demand, a commercial directing agency based in New York and Los Angeles.
Manuel V. Oteyza - Producer
Manny Oteyza has produced a diverse body of work, from scripted shorts to documentary and fiction features. Prior to Blackfish, he produced Wayne Quinton: Engineering Life, a documentary for BYUtv; line produced Amazon Gold, a documentary short on the destruction of the Amazon; and a six-part webisode series, Solving for X with Bill Nye for Disney. Oteyza has also served as a producer, line producer, and field producer on various series for television networks including National Geographic Channel, Military Channel, Discovery Channel and Travel Channel.
An alumnus of the American Film Institute's graduate producing program, Oteyza has worked on fiction films for both studios and independent companies. Upon graduation from AFI, he joined Danny DeVito and Michael Shamberg's production company, Jersey Films, later moving on to James V. Hart's Common Ground Entertainment, during its production deal with 20th Century Fox. Oteyza is a native of Cincinnati and earned his B.A. from Columbia College Hollywood.
Judy Bart - Executive Producer
A Baltimore native, Judy Bart earned her B.A. from the University of Maryland, and traveled worldwide before settling in Los Angeles, where she met Blackfish co-executive producer Erica Kahn.
When their children were grown, Bart and Kahn launched Our Turn Productions to produce films that would both enlighten and entertain. Blackfish is their first production.
Erica Kahn - Executive Producer
Erica Kahn's career has included work as a flight attendant, model and mother of five, who range in age from 10 to 25.
An avid film fan, Kahn launched Our Turn Productions with co-executive producer and longtime friend, Judy Bart, with the mission of making movies that both inspire and entertain. Blackfish is her first film.
Jeff Beal - Composer
Composer Jeff Beal has won four Emmy awards, and has been nominated 11 times. His work has been heard in over 100 film and television projects, including the HBO series Rome and Carnivale, USA Network's Monk, and ABC's Golden Globe winner Ugly Betty. He was nominated for Discovery of the Year by the World Soundtrack Academy for his score to Ed Harris' directorial debut, Pollock, and won a Hollywood Music Award for Best Score on Harris' Appaloosa. Beal's work has been featured in such past Sundance premieres as Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles and William H. Macy's The Deal.
Beal has also composed scores for such directors as Al Pacino (Wilde Salomé), David Anspaugh (Little Red Wagon), Bob Balaban (Georgia O'Keeffe) and Michael Mann (Luck). He conducts, orchestrates and often performs on his own scores, which make frequent use of chamber-size instrumentations and are intimate, dramatically specific and character-driven. Most recently, Beal composed music for David Fincher's Netflix drama, House of Cards.
Eli Despres - Editor
Editor Eli Despres' writing and editing credits include PBS’ investigative journalism series Exposé: America's Investigative Reports, the TLC series Sheer Dallas, ESPNU’s feature documentary City LAX: An Urban Lacrosse Story, the documentary short At Risk and the fiction feature Wilderness Survival for Girls, which he also directed.
Jonathan Ingalls - Cinematographer
Jonathan Ingalls has traveled across the United States, Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East to work on a wide range of projects, from verité-style documentaries to educational films, as well as narrative shorts and features. Among them, he has produced and directed several documentary series including A&E's Crime 360, for which he spent a year embedded with a police homicide and CSI unit. Ingalls also wrote and directed the dramatic short, A Father Taken, which was an official selection at numerous international film festivals including Dubai and Damascus, and was the winner of the Audience Award for the Best Short Film at the 2008 Newport Beach Film Festival. In addition, he has directed re-enactments portraying the suffering of phobia victims for National Geographic Channel’s series Total Fear and was a researcher and writer on the network's Microkillers, a series about the science of infectious diseases.
Ingalls earned degrees in biology and cinema at the University of Southern California.
Christopher Towey - Cinematographer
Chris Towey has worked in the film industry for nearly three decades. During the past 12 years, he has traveled worldwide shooting for television, corporate and feature films. Towey has served as the director of photography on feature-length documentaries including Finding Hillywood, which profiles a new generation of Rwandan storytellers; Bear Trek, which follows a biologist as he researches bears and climate change in Alaska and Peru; and Trade Off, which examines the World Trade Organization and its impact leading up to the 1999 Seattle riots and was an official selection at film festivals in Canada and the U.S.
Towey has also shot dozens of commercials and television programs for networks including MSNBC, National Geographic, E!, PBS Nature, Discovery Channel, History Channel and the BBC.