Many children grow up dreaming about visiting SeaWorld, swimming with dolphins, or becoming a whale trainer. The Free Willy and Flipperfranchises, among countless other films and books about intelligent aquatic mammals living in harmony with humans, have sparked a relatively recent international interest in sea life and the oceans they call home. In order to profit from this interest, thousands of aquariums, dolphinariums, and amusement parks have opened, capitalizing on the mammals’ high intelligence and ability to perform tricks to entertain paying guests.
This form of entertainment has grown exponentially since the 1960s, largely in part to the SeaWorld parks. Since the park’s opening in Orlando in 1964, hundreds of animals have passed through its’ pens. Recently, questions have been raised regarding the morality of keeping animals known to be intelligent and self-aware in captivity, where their physical and mental stability can be harmed. The 2013 film Blackfish delves into the controversial topic of keeping orcas, one of the largest sea mammals, in captivity, and tells the story of Tilikum, an orca performing at SeaWorld that has killed three people while in captivity.
Directed and produced by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film was released at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19. Shortly after its premiere, Magnolia Pictures and CNN films picked up on the documentary, which allowed it to be shown on a larger scale on cable television.
After Tilikum killed his trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, on February 24, 2010, Cowperthwaite made the decision to investigate Tilikum’s story further. When asked why she decided to pursue the story, even go up against the $2 billion a year entity that would be willing to do anything to protect its precious image, she stated:
“I set out to understand this incident [Brancheau’s death] not as an animal activist – because I’m not one – but as a mother who had just taken her kids to SeaWorld, and of course as a documentary filmmaker who unfortunately can’t let sleeping dogs lie. At some point you’re simply compelled, in spite of yourself, to tell a story that needs to be told.”
What she discovered was unsettling, and tells the transformation of a once sane, wild animal into a psychotic killer. After watching the film, the term “killer whale” has a whole new meaning. Previous SeaWorld trainers and fishermen who worked to capture orcas in the 1950s and 1960s help to shine a light on the captive orca industry that is shrouded in mystery and cover-up tales.
The October 25, 2013, CNN premiere was viewed by 1.36 million people and the event quickly started trending on social media. Twitter was blowing up with #BlackfishOnCNN and @BlackfishMovie becoming the most searched for topics. Viewers also took to Facebook to display their horror at SeaWorld and what the parks have inflicted on their orcas. The film was the most-watched CNN film in 2013.
SeaWorld experienced extensive backlash after Blackfish aired. The park’s annual “Bands, Brew & BBQ” event schedule took a hard hit after numerous online petitions and postings on Twitter and Facebook urged performers to cancel their shows. A total of nine artists and bands canceled, including The Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, the Beach Boys, Trisha Yearwood, and Martina McBride.
SeaWorld’s presence on Wall Street has also slightly diminished since Blackfish went mainstream. According to the NASDAQ website, Blackstone Holdings III, a branch of The Blackstone Group that holds the majority of the stocks for SeaWorld, sold 19,500,000 shares worth over $560 million. If the company continues to sell its shares and loses its status as majority holder, SeaWorld’s chain of leadership would change drastically. Due to company policy, the board of directors would have to be reconfigured within one year to ensure that a majority of the members are independent of the company.
In an effort to offset all of the negative publicity Blackfishcaused, SeaWorld published full-page ads in the form of an open letter on December 20th in eight major newspapers. While the advertisements do not mention the film by name, they refute nearly every point the documentary raised, stating, “Inaccurate reports recently have generated questions about SeaWorld and the animals in our care. The truth is in our parks and people, and it’s time to set the record straight.”
When asked to comment on the ads, Cowperthwaite stated,
“The new letter is proof that Blackfish woke a 40-year sleeping dragon. Unfortunately, their statements range from wildly misleading to patently false. I just wish they would evolve past their 40-year-old spin and resolve to work with us toward a better future.”
SeaWorld’s website also sports an entire section labeled “The Truth about Blackfish.” Current employees are interviewed in videos that are found on the site that attempt to do damage control on all of the negative publicity the organization has experienced since the film’s release.
Despite their efforts, SeaWorld public relations officials have repeatedly denied offers to engage in a public debate to discuss the issues Blackfishraises. The makers of the film partnered with the makers of The Cove, a film that uncovers the massive cetacean slaughter that takes place every year in Taiji, Japan, and the Oceanic Preservation Society, distributed a press release on January 23 asking SeaWorld to address a number of concerns.
In the full page release, the OPS states,
“As we have always maintained, we welcome an open and honest discussion with SeaWorld. […] Instead of releasing more PR spin, written statements and online critiques (which often allow no comments), we encourage SeaWorld’s leaders to step forward and address these issues openly and honestly in public debate. Let the public hear both sides of the argument (as we have always desired) and draw their own conclusions.”
SeaWorld rejected the offer. Fred Jacobs, vice president for corporate communications at SeaWorld, called the challenge, “…little more than a publicity stunt. We have no interest in helping promote a film this dishonest and manipulative.”
The ongoing battle between the activists working to free the orcas held as prisoners in the SeaWorld parks and the SeaWorld employees and spokespeople have been raging for months, with no end in sight. Neither party is going to be content until it has been decided what is for the best for the orcas. For more information about Blackfish and the secrets behind SeaWorld, visit blackfishmovie.com or visit them on Facebook and Twitter.