Film / Black Fish

Blackfish is a 2013 documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite that investigates the death of a trainer at SeaWorld due to the actions of one of the captive orca whales, Tilikum. The documentary poses the debate as to whether it is possible or not to keep such creatures like orcas in captivity due to them being very difficult to control.

Released to overwhelming praise amid controversy over alleged ethics, the film functions as a terrifying exposé of SeaWorld and other marine parks like it, contrasting the family-friendly place SeaWorld presents itself as and the disturbing reality of abuse, cover-up and unlawful practices hidden behind the veneer. Partially due to the documentary, SeaWorld's profits went down, and countless people have boycotted it in response.

Not to be confused with that other Blackfish.

This show provides examples of:

  • An Arm and a Leg: Tilikum grabs his trainer's arm, and is described to have swallowed it. This is not the case, however.
  • Animal Talk: Discussed at one point, where they mention putting orcas from different parts of the world in a tank together is akin to throwing entirely different species together, as they have their own different behaviours and languages. The last point is drawn out; one interviewee even mentions that modern science doesn't like calling the sounds the orcas make "language", but there's simply no other word for it.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Jane Valez-Mitchell of CNN asks "If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?" as the documentary plays yet another incident.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Several of the trainers describe Tilikum as one of the friendliest orcas they've dealt with, which made his kills even more horrifying.
  • Blame Game: There is discussion about the official report that Dawn, a senior trainer, died due to "trainer error" and how the interviewees disagree with that sentiment.
  • Blatant Lies: The former SeaWorld employees talk about how they were trained to tell guests that an orca's maximum lifespan is around 35 years and that orcas live longer at SeaWorld (female orcas can live up to a century; it's only the orcas at SeaWorld who die at 35) and that the floppy dorsal fin is a genetic condition common in all male killer whales (it's never seen in the wild, or at least is extremely rare - one interviewee says less than 1 percent - despite the fact that all captive males have it).
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The powers that be who run SeaWorld will blame you, cover up your death and continue with their practices. Well, the plan worked back then.
  • Crapsaccharine World: SeaWorld. Behind the family-friendly image, if you're a trainer, you could very well be killed or seriously injured by animals who went insane from years in captivity and SeaWorld will cover it up and blame you for it. If you survive, you have to live with serious injuries or the emotional scarring that comes from other trainers suffering their fates.
  • Daylight Horror: Since daytime is when the trainers interact most frequently with the orcas, most of the attacks occur then as well.
  • Dead Guy on Display: The man who sneaked into the park after hours was found the next morning, naked and mutilated, slung across Tilikum's back. There are, justifiably, no images shown.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: SeaWorld tried to pin the blame for Tilikim's attack on Dawn. First by claiming that she slipped, and then by claiming that the whale grabbed her ponytail, which should've been in a bun.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: In Chinook, Tilikum means "friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people." In case you haven't noticed, Tilikum is the only captive orca to have successfully killed more than one trainer.
  • Fox News Liberal: There is one "Former SeaWorld Trainer" who actually speaks in defense of SeaWorld.
  • Gaia's Vengeance: The movie explores what leads Tilikum and other whales like him to attack and/or kill so many people.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Part of what contributes to Tilikum's problems is implied to be the constant separation from social groups and being kept in solitary confinement.
  • Godzilla Threshold: When an orca is trying to drown its trainer, the other trainers decide to release a larger and more aggressive orca in order to distract the first one. It works.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Due to the absolute brutality of Dawn's death (her arm was ripped off at some point and her head was scalped), the documentary never explicitly shows Tilikum's attack on her.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: The title of the documentary itself is a Pacific Northwest Native American word for orca.
  • Groin Attack: The homeless man who was found dead in Tilikum's tank was described as having his genitals bitten off. One interviewee states they have no idea if this was pre- or post-mortem.
  • Hellhole Prison: Tilikum and other orcas' captivity is described as one. Notably the fact that animals used to thousands of miles of ocean are sometimes in tanks only thirty feet long, some of which are unlit.
  • Just One Little Mistake:
    • Trainer Dawn Brancheau's death is suggested as being the result of simply getting too close to the whale when he hadn't been co-operating with a performance and when it was in a very dangerous mood.
    • The first worker to be killed by Tilikum, Keltie Byrne. She slipped and fell into the water and was dragged away after only seconds of falling.
  • Manipulative Editing: There's a fair amount of this done in the movie, including showing voiceovers with footage that implies that it's footage from the time of the attack, even though it was a completely different show.
  • Manly Tears: Sailer John explains that he started to cry as he helped capture one of the baby whales from its crying family.
  • Matriarchy: The Orca's social structure in the wild. Tilikum, being a male, is repeatedly attacked by females in captivity.
  • Nature Documentary: This is a documentary about animals after all, orcas to be specific — one orca in particular (Tilikum).
  • Nature Is Not Nice: The film seems to make a point to contrast the sugary family-friendly SeaWorld TV commercials with orcas performing tricks and being petted by trainers to the terrifying footage of orcas attacking the trainers and sometimes each other. Although the film also presents the whale's natural environment as being a relatively harmonious one.
    • Subverted, as the film explains that orcas are naturally peaceful and there has been no proven incident that they've attacked a human in the wild. Yet, there have been multiple times orcas have attacked humans while in captivity.
  • Never My Fault: In several incidents with orcas, even those of death, Sea World refuses to admit that it was anything other than an accident. Even in cases where trainers were dragged over and over to the bottom of the tanks, Sea World somehow found a way to blame it on them.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The safety of SeaWorld's orca trainers being a Real Life example, with critical contributions from an OSHA inspector.
  • Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: This naturally comes up in relation to all the orcas who have attacked people.
  • Oh, Crap!: About every trainer who finds himself/herself on the receiving end of an attacking killer whale.
  • Old Shame: Sailor John Crowe states that capturing Tilikum was "one of the worst things I've ever done".invoked
  • Reality Ensues: Really, the point of the whole documentary (animals kept in captivity to the point of insanity will eventually cause problems) but special mention goes to Loro Parque in Spain. The trainers, who had no experience with orcas whatsoever, were suddenly sent over orcas to use in shows. Needless to say, they were entirely unprepared.
  • Rebellious Rebel: Mark Simmons gets approximately one minute in the film, and his interview was largely contrarian to sentiments expressed by the other ex-trainers. When he does appear in a series of interview quotes with the other trainers, it is to oppose the idea that captivity inevitably eases orcas to enraged acts of homicide, but that the aggravating factors may have caused Tilikum to be stressed.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: The baby killer whales. When SeaWorld had their first ever newborn orca in captivity, they used its cuteness to draw in a larger crowd. And let's just say that it worked.
  • Rule of Three: It wasn't until after his third kill of a human that people began to realize how truly dangerous Tilikum was. After the incident, trainers no longer swam in the pool with the orcas.
  • Sapient Cetaceans: A certain level of intelligence in the whales is shown by film of whales seemingly toying with their trainers. One incident in particular — where the whale drags the trainer repeatedly down the bottom of the tank — shows that the whale seems to know how long it can submerge its trainer to torture him without drowning him.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The cheery, catchy music of the Shamu Stadium exit spiel is overlaid with footage of an orca gushing blood from its side after being raked by another whale. The fact that the trainers are scrambling to fix the problem as spectators watch doesn't help.
  • Stock Footage: Footage of several of the incidents involving Tilikum and his trainers are shown in the trailers for the documentary as well as the film itself.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The man who snuck into Tilkum's pen in the night and was subsequently killed won a Darwin Award a couple years back.
  • Tortured Monster: Tilkum is not a creature you would want to go swimming with. But it is totally understandable why he has become so aggressive and dangerous.
  • You Bastard: Tends to imply this to any viewers who went to see the whales at SeaWorld.