Blackfish Blu-ray Review

A creature that weighs six tons has no business being in a tank anything smaller than an ocean. And yet every day, orcas are kept in small cages and then moved to what are essentially swimming pools so men, women, boys, and girls in socks and sandals can gorge on Shamu Shakes and watch them do tricks.


The central focus of the documentary BLACKFISH is Tilikum, an Icelandic Transient orca who has been in captivity since 1983. Soon after capture, he was being used as a performer at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada and, later, SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, a place that parents take their kids when they need a break from Mickey and the gang.

More crucial to the film are the three kills to his name: trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991, visitor Daniel P. Dukes in 1999 and trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. (The middle one thought it was a good idea to hide in the park after it closed.) But BLACKFISH is not an indictment or attack on Tilikum. It is an alarm and a shaming of places such as SeaWorld, where, the motto ironically claims, “the voyage begins.”


Early on, former trainers passionately explain their initial love of the animals, which reinforces why millions of people go to theme parks like SeaWorld every year. But there is something more going on than just the performances. It doesn’t take long (nor should it) for the documentary to explore certain tactics used by SeaWorld, such as punishments known as raking, which leaves the whales with visible scars and excessive bleeding. One interviewee notes that Tilikum had been attacked by other whales, which he argues would not have happened in the wild, as whales have a communal aspect to their lives. Another recalls being forced to hide evidence of Tilikum trying to lunge at an employee.


Orcas can live for as long as 100 years in the wild, but SeaWorld employees are paid to tell visitors that it’s more like 35. Less than 1% in the wild have collapsed dorsal fins, while 100% in captivity have them. Employees tell paying customers the whales are with their families, but they are, in reality, separated quite frequently. (One video shows a baby whale crying after she’s been taken from her mother and to another theme park.) When incidents happen, SeaWorld blames the trainers.

Why have there been cover-ups and misinformation given to the public? Because SeaWorld makes an ungodly amount of money every year. The purpose of this documentary, written/directed/produced/edited by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, isn’t to belittle any deaths or attacks that have happened, but to show that SeaWorld is not the sort of place where orcas jump in and out of clouds, as one commercial shows, and that it isn’t the “safe and comfortable habitat” one in-park video claims.


Whales really are majestic creatures with their own “languages” and ways of life. Stripping them of their families and making them perform silly tricks is inhumane and wrong, but hopefully no one needs to tell you that. When they’re put in their tanks, you can see in their eyes that they are no longer what they used to be.


Video: 1.78:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. As with many documentaries, this high-definition transfer is hit-and-miss. All of the interviews shot for the film are of excellent quality, while some of the archival footage (especially that which is decades old) lacks great detail.

Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Subtitles in English and Spanish. All of the interviewees’ comments come through clearly, while Jeff Beal’s score adds to the documentary’s tone.

Commentary with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and producer Manny Oteyza: Cowperthwaite dominates the track and touches on how BLACKFISH came about and the importance of such a subject.

Kanduke (2:18): Former trainer Dean Gomersall recalls the death of Kanduke, a whale he had worked with.

“Death by Mosquito” in Marine Parks (3:02): Former trainer John Jett discusses the risk by mosquito-borne pathogens pose on captive whales.

Orca Teeth Show the Stress of Orcas in Captivity (2:51): Former trainer Jeffrey Ventre touches on the dental issues that whales face when trying to bust through the gates that keep them captive.

Recollections of a Former SeaWorld Trainer (5:11): John Hargrove, who left SeaWorld in 2012, discusses the whales that had an impact on his life and career.

The Truth about Wild Whale (4:40): Marine biologist Dr. Naomi Rose shares her expertise regarding the differences between whales in the wild and those in captivity.

Alternates to Captivity (2:17): Here, Rose discusses “sea pen retirement” and possibilities for whale being returned to the wild.

A Note from Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (8:26) serves as an addition to the commentary, with Cowperthwaite fielding questions regarding her film.



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