US | 2013 | Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Logline: A documentary about the sometimes-devastating consequences of keeping orca, ferociously intelligent creatures, in captivity, and the trainers who work with them.

There’s a quote from the late Carl Sagan, the renowned cosmologist and science communicator (amongst other things); “It’s of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English – up to fifty words in correct context – no human begin has been reported to have learned dolphinese.” While this might sound like a silly observation there is much weight behind it.

Orca - more commonly known as killer whales (a troubling, but sadly accurate description) - share much with dolphins, most notably their fierce intelligence, for these are sentient creatures, capable of a wide range of emotions and are equipped with a complex understanding of the power and breadth of language.


Of course humans needed to have these magnificent mammals controlled so they could harness their spectacular presence and showcase them for profit. And so Sealand of the Pacific and SeaWorld were created.  Tilicum was captured as a baby in 1983, and is now nearly 7 metres long and weighs in at 5,400 kilos. His dorsal fin is collapsed and he was involved in the deaths of three people.


Tilicum isn’t the only captive killer whale to have responded aggressively toward humans. It is this fascinating and distubring documentary that raises the very serious question of whether such facilities as SeaWorld, essentially a large swimming pool with sea cells for when the whales aren’t performing, should be in operation. Or to be more precise, whether animals such as killer whales, should be in captivity.

Numerous former SeaWorld trainers are interviewed; many of them overcome with emotion when describing the treatment of Tilicum and of the circumstances surrounding the death of trailer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by Tilicum in 2010. One interviewee is certain that in forty or so years we will look back on this period and shake our heads at the barbaric nature of keeping these magnificent mammals in captivity.


If you’re an animal lover, you’ll find much of this documentary hard to take, but its essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in the future welfare of our planet’s inhabitants. Cleverly and profoundly, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has stated her case. SeaWorld repeatedly declined to be interviewed for the doco, and that speaks volumes.

Blackfish screens as part of the 60th Sydney Film Festival, Friday 7 June, 8:45pm, and Saturday 8 June, 12.30pm, at Event Cinema 4, George Street.