The bitter cold and general university pressure of this time of year is a far cry from sunny family holidays which often include a visit to marine parks like SeaWorld. But this could all have changed by the time Summer 2014 rolls around thanks to the independent docu-thriller phenomenon that is Blackfish.
Released to cinemas globally last August, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s creation had already been gaining attention months prior amongst the already existing communities of those strongly opposed to cetacean captivity. The film focused on Tilikum, SeaWorld’s largest male orca who has been responsible for the deaths of three people to date, including senior trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, as well as providing a commentary on the highly questionable ethics behind holding cetaceans captive. This, of course, isn’t a new issue, but one that may not cross the minds of tourists as they watch orcas perform tricks to uplifting music in Shamu Stadium.
The dramatic footage in the documentary’s trailer asks: “If you were in a bathtub for twenty five years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?” This is a reasonable starting point when considering the problems with establishments like SeaWorld, Marineland or Loro Parque. Many arguments can be made regarding the size or design of tanks, but the truth is that a tank is exactly that: a concrete tank which isn’t at all comparable to the freedom of an entire ocean, in which wild orcas swim hundreds of miles per day. Orcas which are scientifically proven to be more emotional than human beings. Incidents with the orcas aren’t uncommon, and while they’re often written off as incompetency on the part of the human involved regardless of the true nature of the incident (Dawn Brancheau’s death being a shocking example of this), it’s important to remember that these are wild animals whose frustration only builds the longer they’re kept in unpleasant, mind-numbing conditions. To admit that captivity can heighten the levels of aggression in orcas would mean to move away from performing animals as a business selling point, and to do so would mean to lose money.
SeaWorld puts great emphasis on education and their part in conservation whilst shamelessly ignoring what it means to be both of these things. In reality, Shamu shows do very little to educate audiences about orcas at all and have even been caught telling blatant lies to customers to coincide with their own agenda. The animals in captivity also suffer constant health problems due to the stress of their environment. Their stance on conservation, while a valuable message to be spreading, is laughable when they have a history of abducting – let’s be honest, can it be considered anything other than that? – perfectly healthy young whales and dolphins from their families to be transported halfway around the world to spend the rest of their lives performing in a glorified circus and being fed dead fish. Families which exist in incredibly close-knit matriarchal societies in which male orcas stay by their mother’s side almost their entire lives. As if that isn’t upsetting enough, orca pods all around the world have their own unique sets of language and behaviour, meaning the abductees are dropped into the company of animals they can’t communicate with nor understand. This regularly leads to aggression between whales. There’s nowhere to run to in a concrete tank to avoid confrontation.
Many celebrities have expressed support of Blackfish and its message in recent months, including Stephen Fry, Miley Cyrus, and Ewan McGregor. CNN attracted almost 1.4 million viewers when it showed the documentary, followed by a showing on BBC4 here in the UK. It’s unsurprising, then, that SeaWorld have seen a 6% drop in ticket sales and have been forced to lower their prices. They were offered the chance to make comment during the making of Blackfish and declined, but quickly went on a damage-control mission in the face of backlash. This included deleting angry messages from their Facebook until they could no longer keep up with the volume and claiming that their business is essential for teaching the public to take an interest in these animals – despite, for example, a lot of people caring about dinosaurs, and I’m pretty sure Jurassic Park was fictional.
I visited SeaWorld once, and what will always stick with me is the sight of a beluga whale so bored that it twirled around on the spot for a good thirty seconds just for something to do. We don’t consider it acceptable to make bears dance anymore, so why is this? It’s important that we go on to raise our kids without the arrogance that lies behind us humans considering holding animals captive and forcing them to perform to be ‘entertainment’.