Good article from our partners Wild Travel Magazine, asking the question that seems to be on a lot of people’s lips right now…
Despite being shunned by the Oscars the documentary film Blackfish has caused a storm about keeping cetaceans in captivity for human entertainment. Mike Unwin wonders if the weight of scientific opinion might just spell the end for dolphinariums
“We need an SOS for a dead person at SeaWorld,” comes a chilling voice down the line. “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.”
So opens the documentary Blackfish, from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which has been nominated for a BAFTA. The movie focusses upon the real-life events of 24 February 2010 at SeaWorld, Orlando, Florida when, in full view of the public, senior trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, an orca she had worked with for years.
In fact, Brancheau had not been ‘eaten’. She met her death when the whale dragged her under the water and drowned her. This was the second fatality involving Tilikum and a trainer, and came barely three months after another trainer, Alexis Martinez, was killed by different orca at Loro Parque dolphinarium in Tenerife. Recent years have seen numerous other incidents in which orca trainers have been injured or narrowly escaped when their charges have suddenly started ‘playing rough’. In virtually every case the trainer has had a close bond with the animal, built up over years.
Brancheau’s death sent ripples through the industry. At first, conflicting stories raged about the circumstances, eyewitness accounts appearing to contradict SeaWorld’s official line. The park was fined US$75,000 by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for three safety violations. New guidelines for trainer safety, including the suspension of any ‘water work’ (when a trainer enters the tank with the animals) were adopted and the public assured that such an incident could never happen again.
Blackfish is likely to divide opinion on the thorny issue of keeping cetaceans in captivity. Cathy Williamson, captivity programme manager at global charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), has no doubt about its importance. “The film is quite monumental,” she says. “It exposes exactly what happened.”
To understand exactly what did happen, believes Williamson, we need to understand the animal in question. The killer whale (Orcinus orca), also known as orca and occasionally blackfish, is a toothed whale found in oceans worldwide. Known for its size (males may top eight tonnes) and bold black and white markings, it is the planet’s top marine predator, hunting everything from fish to larger whales.
‘Killer’, however, is a misnomer – at least in interaction with humans. The name derives from bygone whaling days when orcas were known to help themselves to a harpooned catch. No wild orca has ever been known to target a human as prey. Furthermore, we now know that this is a highly intelligent animal, with social structures as complex as those of great apes, and hunting techniques and communication skills passed across generations. “When you look into their eyes,” says one trainer in Blackfish, “you know somebody’s home.”
Read the rest of the article at the link above.
Read From Open Sea to Opening Act