The tale of Tilikum the orca

by Catherine Woulfe / 18 July, 2013
Catherine Woulfe speaks to Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who spent two years making the documentary.
Still from Blackfish

Blackfish is the disturbing biography of a 5.4-tonne male orca called Tilikum, which was captured as a two-year-old. It’s also a call to arms: Tilikum has been implicated in three deaths, and as the documentary ends, is marking time in a solitary pool. Proof, say many former trainers and experts, that keeping orcas in captivity is cruel and dangerous.

The latest death came during a 2010 show at SeaWorld Orlando. Senior trainer Dawn Brancheau was crouching on a poolside platform when the whale dragged her underwater. Now SeaWorld is in and out of court, fighting to reinstate the lucrative performances in which trainers swim with, ride and cuddle the whales. The US Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission is pushing to ban all in-water interactions during performances, and public calls for drastic change are growing. “Free Tilly”, the picketers demand – but it’s not that easy.

Catherine Woulfe speaks to Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who spent two years making the documentary.

The film has been on the festival circuit, including Sundance, for six months. How have people reacted?

People are very, very shocked. They’re shocked that a park they love isn’t necessarily what it seems.

Filming wrapped in October. Has anything changed at SeaWorld?

They’re fighting the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission [over] what constitutes a barrier, since the trainers must remain behind barriers while training killer whales.

At the end of Blackfish, Tilikum is doing fewer shows, and is just hanging out in a small tank. Any change there?

No. He continues to be the “big splash”. So he does the perimeter swim – he kind of circles the pool – then jumps onto the slide-out and does a bow, then does a splash.

How is his health?

Still from Blackfish

It’s hard to know. For a while there, last year or the year before, he was very sick. In terms of his disposition, we really don’t know. You see him floating lifelessly at the end of the movie – that’s not typical behaviour for a killer whale, so that’s a bit concerning. But beyond that, there’s no information imparted to any of us outside of the park. [The only comment SeaWorld has made since was a brief statement saying the documentary contained the “same unfounded allegations”.]

What’s the ideal next step from a welfare perspective?

It’s a really tough one. Even people who are in the know dispute among themselves about the answer.

Tilikum could not be released to the wild. In fact, many of the [captive] killer whales could not be released into the wild – they don’t know how to eat live fish, they can’t chase down their own food. Also, a lot of them are on antibiotics, and without that kind of treatment they would die very quickly.

One of the most reasonable alternatives is releasing these whales into a sea pen. Essentially, you cordon off part of a cove with an enormous net. They’re going to be subject to the natural rhythms of the ocean, and really use their echo-location properly for the first time. And the trainers could keep an eye on their health and feed them dead fish if they need to. At least it would be a more dignified way to live out the rest of their lives.

Could SeaWorld compromise by shifting the whales to sea pens and continuing the performances there?

Still from Blackfish

What makes killer whales able and willing to do tricks is that they’re working for food, and there’s a lack of other stimulation. If you strip these whales of all other stimulation, and strip them of their family bonding, then of course they’re going to bond with their trainer. They are social animals.

Once you put them in an environment where there’s hundreds or thousands of things happening at any given moment, it’s very unlikely they will be beholden to a boring old human again. So I think the tricks thing, the performance aspect of it, will probably have to go by the wayside.

So, the park would lose all that profit.

But [the public] could see them being actual killer whales. And you could see them maybe even bonding with trainers. They’re curious, and they may well interact with humans, but it would be on their own time and in their own way. And maybe that’s all the more exciting.

In 1999, a naked man was found dead in the pool. The widespread assumption was that he’d stupidly snuck into the pool for a midnight swim. Your film says the autopsy report showed the whale had stripped him. Is there any evidence the man went into the pool voluntarily?

There is no evidence, apparently, that anybody knows of. I looked very hard and nobody’s talking. Just for the record, they did a report on his body later and there was no marijuana, there was no drug use, there was nothing.

Your film shows that Tilikum took hold of Dawn’s arm to pull her off the platform, not her ponytail, as most people think. Why does that matter?

Still from Blackfish

First, if it were her ponytail, it makes it look like there was something she did that caused the accident. “If she had put her hair up in a bun …” Dawn never had a chance to turn him around and make that accident not happen.

The second thing is that when she was killed, now there’s something that SeaWorld can fix to prevent further killings, and that is “tuck up your wetsuit zippers and put your hair in a bun”.

For me, it was important because that’s the story that will go down in history. Everybody I tell, when I describe the trainer who was killed by a killer whale in 2010, says, “Oh, the one with the ponytail?” For whatever reason, that sticks. That is just the power of spin.

Has SeaWorld sued you? It must have seen the film by now.

Nothing so far. Knocking on wood. I’m armed with the truth. That’s the only thing that makes me sleep at night.

Blackfish screens during the NZ International Film Festival, from July 20 in Auckland.

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