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Film / Blackfish

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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, leading them to eventually phase out their orca shows entirely.


Try to tell SeaWorld to save the whales from having examples here:

  • All Part of the Show: The trainers were encouraged to abide by this.
    • On Dawn's fateful day, she was dealing with uncooperative whales and was trying to do a good job. As the trainers put it, it may have "started" as play when Tilikum grabbed her, but by the time it ended it was certainly not a game for Dawn.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation: In-universe, the trainers posit that Tilikum hit Rage Breaking Point when a show with Dawn went wrong and she was running out of fish. Mark Simmons says that Tilikum had no malicious intent towards Dawn but had a case of Does Not Know His Own Strength.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Tilikum grabs his trainer's arm, and is described to have swallowed it. This is not the case, however, as the autopsy later revealed.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • Art Shift: The case with OSHA is portrayed with black and white drawings and the typed transcript to indicate who is saying what.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Several of the trainers describe Tilikum as one of the friendliest orcas they've dealt with and enjoyed working with him, which made his kills even more horrifying.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Dawn's death and several others are nearly swept under the rug, and their loved ones missed them badly. Tilikum also remains trapped in Sea World, as do the other captive orcas. Tilikum died in 2017, which can make this better or worse depending on your viewpoint. But OSHA finally goes after Sea World and makes them pay, literally, for endangering trainers. Meanwhile, the former trainers who knew Dawn end the film by going to see free orcas in the wild, to remember why they loved working with them.
  • Blame Game:
    • John, a trainer who got paralyzed during a show, was told that it was a "trainer error" of two orcas colliding him at once. It actually wasn't his fault but rather that of the orcas, while ambiguous if the orcas did it on purpose or missed their cue.
    • 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).
  • Break the Cutie: Estafania Rodriguez, Alexis Martinez's fiance, tears up when she recalls how she and Alexis's mother were brought to his body.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Sea World tried to claim that OSHA, an established and tough government institution for workplace safety, was wrong in saying that trainers shouldn't be allowed in the water with the orcas and that Dawn's death was her own fault, so therefore OSHA was wrong to censure them. OSHA was not amused, took them to court and won the appellate case in 2010, fining Sea World for their violations.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: Despite killing two people, Tilikum was kept because his semen was used for the breeding program.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Keltie Byrne's death and her case file. OSHA used it as evidence that the trainers were most definitely in danger while working with the whale.
  • 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 during 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 Tilikum's attack on Dawn. First by claiming that she slipped, and then by claiming that the orca grabbed her ponytail, which should've been in a bun.
    • What makes this even worse is that even if Tilikum did grab Brancheau by the ponytail (eye-witness accounts differ, some claim it was the ponytail, some claim it was the arm) she was not violating any SeaWorld regulations. In fact the orcas have been deliberately desensitized to clothing and ponytails by SeaWorld since long before 2010, specifically so that such a thing would not occur. There are numerous pictures and videos of female trainers working with the orcas while wearing their hair in ponytails.
  • Devious Dolphins: Tilikum, but it's not hard to see why he was that way.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: Mark Simmons argues that Tilikum wasn't actively malicious as much as he was unaware of how fragile people are compared to himself. There's also an incident where an orca accidentally hospitalizes a trainer by jumping at the wrong time and crushing him.
  • Double Standard: Alexis' death was more gruesome than Dawn's, but due to Loro Parque being out of sight and out of the American mind, nothing happened to change things. Dawn, due to being a head trainer and her death in public with multiple eyewitnesses, got OSHA on the case.
  • Forced to Watch: If you're sitting in the crowd at an orca show and the orca turns on the trainer, all you can do is scream for help or film it for evidence. We see this with Ken Peters and with Tamarie.
  • For Want of a Nail: Kim laments leaving Sea World a month before Dawn died; she says that if she had been there, she could have noticed Dawn was in trouble and saved her
  • 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.
  • Gasp!: You can hear the crowd gasp when John got paralyzed by two orcas during a show.
  • Gaia's Vengeance: The movie explores what leads Tilikum and other orcas 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.
  • 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.
  • Heroic Bystander: When Orkid dragged Tamarie down, another trainer let out another whale, Katsaka, and bought time for Tamarie to get out of the water.
  • Internal Reformist: Some trainers said they stayed despite the bad conditions to try and make the whales' lives easier because no one else would take care of Tilikum, Katsuka or Takara.
  • Irony:
    • A very dark example; Kim Ashdown describes Dawn as being a "safety inspector" and watching out for everyone, critiquing herself after watching shows. Sea World tried to say her ponytail triggered the whale and was against regulations. OSHA didn't buy it and fined Sea World for her death.
    • Alexis Martinez was considered the "best" trainer at Loro Parque. He ended up being the only casualty of the park, due to the worst luck.
  • 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. Then she was panicking and screaming every time the whales let her come up for air, which was an understandable reaction, but meant she lost too much oxygen underwater.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: After getting away with covering up trainer deaths for twenty years, OSHA successfully fined Sea World millions of dollars for Dawn's death.
  • Manipulative Editing: SeaWorld has accused the film of this on several accounts. While some accusations are mere misunderstandings of how documentaries are made (such as claiming that the interviews talk about one whale but shows a different one, when it's just B-roll footage), others accusations have some legitimacy to them (e.g. footage that is implied to be Katina and Kasatka crying for their calves, where the audio is not even that of an orca).
  • Manly Tears: Sailor 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.
  • Moral Pragmatist: SeaWorld managers yelled at one trainer who was play-talking with Tilikum shortly after the park purchased him, telling her to get out of the area. The other trainers thought it was odd at the time but decades later learned that Tilikum was involved in drowning Keltie Byrne.
  • 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, at least not to kill them. Wikipedia does list some instances of rather scary interactions in the wild, but the intention of orcas to kill humans is ambiguous. Yet, there have been multiple times orcas have attacked humans while in captivity.
  • Nerves of Steel: Ken Peters was dragged down several times by Kasatka after she got agitated due to hearing her baby cry. Fortunately, he was a scuba diver and knew how to regulate his breath, remaining calm until he got the opportunity to escape. The OSHA inspector remarks that Ken was remarkably calm.
  • Never My Fault: In several incidents with orcas, even those of death, Sealand and later Sea World refuses to admit that it was anything other than an accident or "trainer error". 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: Averted; OSHA actually stepped in after Dawn died. They fined Sea World and ordered them to let no more trainers in the water. The safety of SeaWorld's orca trainers became a Real Life example, with critical contributions from an OSHA inspector.
  • Non-Malicious Monster: Mark Simmons says that Tilikum never meant to hurt anyone; he's just a giant whale that sometimes forgets his strength and would act out when frustrated.
  • Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: This naturally comes up in relation to all the orcas who have attacked people.
  • Obliviously Evil:
    • The orcas themselves; while some seemed clever enough to know to drown or torment their trainers, they really are lashing out because they're wild animals being trained to do tricks and spend days in confined spaces too small for their proportional weight. In the case of Loro Parque, the whales spent years in damaged and unhygienic tanks and had to undergo traumatic medical procedures as a result.
    • All the trainers explained they were young college students and graduates who were told that the tanks were similar to mimicking orca life in the wild, and their behavior was an extension of that. They didn't know any better until trainers were injured or drowned. One trainer regretfully said she thought she knew about orcas but only after leaving realized she didn't know anything.
  • 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 a baby orca was "one of the worst things I've ever done".invoked
  • 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.
  • Sarcastic Confession: One trainer was worried about separating Katina from her calf. The managers mocked her by saying, "You're worried about Kalina being separated from her mommy?" As it turns out, Katina wailed for days on end after her baby was taken away.
  • 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.
  • Spanner in the Works: A multitude of them eventually sunk Sea World's orca shows. One park viewer got footage of Tamarie getting dragged under, which provided definite proof that the orcas could be dangerous if provoked. Other viewers also got videos of Ken Peters being dragged under on camera which was later reported on the nightly news, and a "home video" of Dawn's death that proved her drowning wasn't accidental. This evidence allowed OSHA to prove that Dawn's death wasn't an accident or her fault.
  • 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.
  • Sudden Principled Stand: The trainers all knew that Sea World lied about Dawn's death being her ponytail because she was the best and safest trainer in their words, and lots of trainers wore ponytails without getting killed. As John Jett puts it, "How dare you?"
  • Technology Marches On: When Sea World first had trainer accidents, they could lie about the circumstances being a "Trainer error" or accidental drowning because cameras, smartphones, and social media weren't around at the time to record and publicize footage. With Dawn's death in 2010, Sea World tried to fall on their old "slipped and fell in the water" standby, except eyewitness accounts and video footage showed evidence that she was dragged into the water. When they then claimed that her ponytail triggered Tilikum, the footage showed that it was most definitely not the ponytail since other trainers wore the same hairstyle and had no orca injuries.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Trainer John Hargrove says he got this reaction when seeing footage of fellow trainer Tamarie take her foot on and off Orkid because he knew what was going to happen. Cue Orkid grabbing her and dragging her down.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The man who decided to go skinny dipping late at night in Tilikum's pen and was subsequently killed won a Darwin Award back in 1999.
  • Tortured Monster: Tilikum 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.