SeaWorld in Florida was one of my favourite tourist attractions when I visited the marine park on holiday in the early 1990s.
Dolphins, killer whales, seals and rays were some of the amazing animals that could be seen at close quarters.
But the highlight was watching the killer whales in the stadium – they sent goose bumps down my spine.
It was thrilling to witness these large black and white mammals just a few feet away. It was a truly emotional experience.
I remember crying when the baby whale, Shamu, emerged from the water to greet the crowd, making gurgling noises to demonstrate its appreciation.
As I sat in the stadium, a few reservations about keeping the whales in a ‘marine zoo’ entered my head but the animals seemed happy.
After all, they looked well-cared for, they seemed to enjoy the roar of the crowds, and their trainers had formed a loving, affectionate bond with the whales.
There was also much made of the ‘conservation’ and education angle in the commentary and behind-the-scenes talks.
What could be better than a day out watching the planet’s largest marine creatures splashing around in a large tank having innocent fun?
SeaWorld’s well-oiled presentation and carefully-crafted shows killed off any doubts that what we were witnessing was an old-fashioned circus spectacle which had no place in the modern world.
But a new film called Blackfish asks some difficult questions and claims to strip bare the myths about killer whales performing at theme parks around the world.
The film’s version of Tilikum’s story is shocking and disturbing. It will make anyone who has witnessed a killer whale show think twice about the merits of keeping these creatures in a large tank and bringing them out to perform for a short period every day.
Although there are no known incidents of killer whales attacking humans in the wild, the film claims that Tilikum had a history of problematic relationships with trainers at marine parks in North America.
Tilikum was renowned for his large size – this 12,000 pound orca was one of the largest whales ever to be kept in captivity.
But events came to a tragic head in the summer of 2010 when Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer, was drowned by Tilikum during a marine show at SeaWorld Florida – in the very same stadium I’d visited.
The whale grabbed Brancheau in his jaws and held her down till she drowned in front of the shocked crowd. She must have been terrified.
The performing whale had turned killer.
At the time the news story broke, I recall that it seemed to submerge rather quickly. There were comments about the trainer’s culpability, about her flowing ponytail, and something about her slipping and falling.
Trainer error came up as a possibility time and time again.
SeaWorld stressed how rare this type of incident was, because the animals in their parks are happy and the trainers are safe.
But something wasn’t right – and the film Blackfish sets out to discover what was going on behind the scenes.
The film claims that Tilikum had a history of being involved in ‘incidents’ and had been transferred to SeaWorld from another marine park in British Columbia following the suspicious death of a trainer.
Tilikum was also bullied by other killer whales when he arrived at SeaWorld, resulting in a number of injuries and presumably a great deal of stress.
Perhaps it should have been obvious from the start that keeping the ocean’s largest and greatest predator in captivity was not a good idea.
As one of the female interviewees says in the film, the average human would be pretty mad if they were kept holed-up in a ‘bath tub’ for 25 years.
“Don’t you think you’d become a little psychotic?”
Killer whales in captivity
I found Blackfish really shocking because it revealed some little-known truths.
I had no idea that 25 years ago boats were sent out into the oceans to actively capture killer whales for theme parks – and that baby whales were taken away from their families.
In the film one of the crew who captured the whales recounts his horror at hearing the distress calls of these intelligent creatures who live in highly-socialised family groups or pods.
It was, he said, one of the moments in his life he regretted the most.
Later on, of course, the captured whales gave birth to their own young in captivity.
Naively, I thought that the whales had been saved after being stranded or orphaned – although I was aware that some had been born inside the theme parks.
As I watched the SeaWorld show, getting soaked in the ‘splash zone’ by the killer whales, I was thrilled and had no idea of this early history.
The mesmerising show emphasized how man was at one with nature. I loved every moment.
I had no idea that the trainers might have been in any danger although SeaWorld have always been keen to deny that this was ever the case.
Blackfish’s director Gabriella Cowperthwaite interviews several ex-trainers in the film – and it’s true to say that they loved the animals they worked with and had developed a real bond with them.
But it was chilling to hear that some had started to have moments of doubt about keeping killer whales in captivity… and they spoke movingly about their decision to quit their jobs.
Like the audience, many had also been young and naive, and had been fed what they called ‘the PR line’, but they started to have growing reservations following unsettling ‘incidents’ with the whales.
In a very moving scene towards the end of Blackfish, the film takes a group of the former trainers on a whale watching trip in the wild.
Their love of the animals shines through and some of them can barely speak, overcome by their emotions.
It’s proof that whale watching is a better experience in the wild when these stunning creatures can be seen in their natural habitat, behaving as they should in the open seas.
Years after my SeaWorld trip, I was able to go whale watching in British Columbia, Canada and the experience far surpassed the experience of seeing these animals in a theme park show.
I remember the thrill of seeing the adults breaching in the waters around the boat.
The boat’s captain explained how one killer whale had popped its head up by a nearby dinghy full of tourists in chase of a seal pup earlier that day.
The seal had dived into the boat to escape this supreme predator – but the whale re-emerged to grab it and devour it whole – in front of the stunned tourists.
Surely Tilikum must have missed the experience of being in the wild and chasing his prey with his pod of killer whales.
Perhaps he’d become stir crazy and stressed by his experience being cooked up in captivity?
We’ll never know for sure.
In the meantime, a court ruling has meant that trainers at SeaWorld can no longer get into the water with the killer whales during shows.
SeaWorld is contesting the ruling.
In response to the movie, it says that Blackfish is “misleading and inaccurate” and paints “a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld”.
The aquatic park claims that the film fails to recognise that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and commits millions of dollars to conservation and scientific research.
SeaWorld is also at pains to stress its commitment to the safety of its trainers and welfare of its animals.
But for me there are still some unanswered questions.
I agree that marine parks can play a role in marine conservation but next time I visit one, I will definitely question how the animals are displayed more than ever before.
In fairness to SeaWorld, I still feel that it’s one of the best-run marine parks in the world, something that struck me when I visited, despite my reservations.
I have no doubt that SeaWorld provides the best care possible for its animals – the question is rather whether ‘marine parks’ are a good idea for displaying larger mammals like killer whales.
Looking back, I’m not sure if buying that cuddly Baby Shamu toy or the themed ice lolly celebrating the whale pup born in captivity was a good idea or not.
Killer whales belong in the wild – and that remains the best place to see them.
Like zoos, you have to question the best and most humane way of presenting wild animals and using them as entertainment spectacles.
But at least Blackfish has opened up an intriguing debate about that very difficult issue. Go and see it and make your own mind up.
Tammy’s top tips
Blackfish is on release at selected cinemas in the UK and United States. It’s a powerful and compelling documentary charting the ‘psychological’ story of killer whales in theme parks.
The film is a far cry from the sentimental family drama Free Willy, but it does make us ask ourselves about whether we anthropomophize animals too much.
It’s a shame that SeaWorld declined to appear in the film but they have defended themselves in the statement quoted above.
If you want an authentic killer whale watching experience, I can recommend the boat trips from Victoria harbour on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The half day trip offers a good chance of seeing the whale pods, especially during the summer months.
Other good whale watching locations are the St Lawrence estuary in Quebec, Canada where you’re almost guaranteed to see a variety of whales. The dinghy trips are particularly impressive for close-up wildlife watching.
If Beluga whales are your favourites, the Saguenay park in Quebec is an excellent place to see these beautiful creatures from land.
If you’re keen to visit SeaWorld’s theme parks, there are a number across North America including Orlando, Florida and San Diego in California.
Images of Blackfish are copyright and courtesy of Doogwoof Productions.