'Blackfish' director on orca film's impact 10 years later: 'Hopefully we've made captivity in some way, shape or form a bad thing'

"I came into the 'Blackfish' experience as a mom who used to go to SeaWorld," recalls Gabriela Cowperthwaite on the film's anniversary.

A photo illustration shows two orcas swimming on a blue background.
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When director Gabriela Cowperthwaite set out to make Blackfish more than a decade ago, not even she knew the impact the documentary about the captivity of orcas, mostly at SeaWorld, would have.

"I came into the Blackfish experience as a mom who used to go to SeaWorld," she explains to Yahoo Entertainment in an interview for the film's 10th anniversary. "I had taken my kids to SeaWorld, I did not come from animal activism. I loved animals, I wanted to protect them, but I didn't think I was complicit in anything bad if I took my kids to go sit in the splash zone."

In 2010, the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau made global headlines after the 40-year-old was horrifically killed in front of an audience at SeaWorld Orlando. An autopsy determined Brancheau died of blunt-force trauma to the head, neck and torso and drowning when the orca Tilikum, who was the subject of much of Blackfish, pulled her into the pool during what was a routine show at the time.

"I came in with a question: Why would a killer whale do that? So for me, I didn't know that they were being mistreated at SeaWorld, or that they were particularly unhappy at SeaWorld. I always thought captivity felt wrong. I knew that. But I thought that probably SeaWorld, because it had so much money, it looked so clean, was probably doing it better than most places," Cowperthwaite recalls. "I came in really trying to understand what happened in that situation and if it felt like a one-off."

Tilikum was a 22-foot-long, 12,000-pound orca who was in captivity for 33 years. He's linked to the deaths of three people — aside from Brancheau, there was also a trainer who drowned and a man who was found dead in his tank — and the documentary links his aggressive behavior to captivity. (Tilikum died in 2017 following a bacterial lung infection.)

"Is there a whole other side to this story that has not been told properly?" Cowperthwaite remembers thinking. She says the making of the controversial film was "a complete process of discovery" during production. "Like building the plane while flying it — that's exactly what it felt like."

Cowperthwaite started interviewing former SeaWorld trainers, including Samantha Berg and John Hargrove, for Blackfish, and the story took off.

"They were filled with regret at having even worked there. There was something so legitimate about talking to people who are not telling you just that there were bad things going on, but telling you that they participated in some of the bad behavior at that park and how they felt it was their duty to now shine a light on it," she explains.

But it was Cowperthwaite's interview with former mercenary John Crowe that made her realize "I had a movie." In one of the most upsetting moments of the documentary, Crowe expresses regret about taking part in killer whale hunts in the '70s that targeted orca calves.

"I remember him saying, 'I've killed people before, but the worst thing I've ever done in my life was to capture that whale,'" Cowperthwaite says. "It took [a lot] to get to him, you know, he was reticent. We were a ragtag crew. We didn't have a ton of money."

They didn't have much of a budget to promote the film, but ironically, Cowperthwaite says, that's something SeaWorld took care of.

"I think the moment we realized we had something was when SeaWorld came out with a full-page ad in all the major newspapers decrying our film and not mentioning its name. I just remember thinking, 'We just got the biggest, most wonderful gift basket from SeaWorld imaginable,'" she explains. "We did not have that kind of money to ever do any of that level of press — and now every single one of these newspapers was compelled to call me and ask me what is going on. This was after Blackfish had premiered at Sundance and we had learned from some moles inside SeaWorld that [executives] had shown up to watch the film, and that they were in disguise so that none of the trainers could recognize them."

Cowperthwaite continues, "I had called SeaWorld repeatedly trying to get an interview, trying to get them to weigh in. I was so ready to hear their side of it, and I just kept saying, like, 'I'm ready. I can even give you my list of questions that I'm gonna ask you,' which you never do, making a documentary. They considered it and then one day said no. So it was really just the combination of hearing that they went to Sundance and then seeing these full-page ads and being asked to comment on them that I thought, 'Uh-oh, we poked the dragon.'"

SeaWorld issued the following statement to Yahoo in regard to this story:

As we shared when this film was released, Blackfish was billed as a documentary, but its inaccurate and false claims made it fiction — not fact. It was discredited, full of intentional falsehoods and included disgruntled former employees — some of whom had never even worked with whales. This perspective about the film is widely shared in the scientific and conservation community, including experts who were interviewed for the movie, but whose comments were edited to make it appear as though their views were congruent with the film, when they were not.

While a small group of SeaWorld opponents has spent the past ten years pushing the film's fictions, our team has continued caring for and rescuing animals. In fact, the care and study of animals in our parks is what allows SeaWorld to do the real work of advancing marine life conservation through science, education and exceptional, independently accredited and verified levels of animal care. And, 60 years of experience caring for animals in our parks gives us the expertise to be the largest marine animal rescue organization in the world — rescuing more than 40,000 sick, injured and stranded marine animals — so far. SeaWorld is often the first call when a marine animal needs help. No one calls the Blackfish filmmakers when animals are in need.

SeaWorld still has many allies, including former trainer Mark Simmons, who participated in Blackfish and was unhappy with how the documentary turned out, as the statement above mentions. Simmons worked as Tilikum's team leader during the orca's first few years at SeaWorld Orlando and claims the documentary "has done immense harm to species preservation" by spreading disinformation.

"The film is built using a cheap trick of logical fallacy and smoke-and-mirror techniques while making SeaWorld the villain so that the audience has an organization on which to mistakenly place blame and hate," Simmons, managing partner of the Animal Welfare App by OERCA, tells Yahoo in a statement. "It's time that the public realizes they have been duped by this dishonest film. My hope is that society makes the choice to abandon sensational fiction like Blackfish and lean into supporting real science and species conservation work like what SeaWorld and other organizations are doing every day."

In 2016, SeaWorld announced it was ending its orca breeding program and planned to phase out its theatrical orca shows. That same year, SeaWorld opted not to appeal a court ruling preventing trainers from getting into pools with its killer whales. The organization has seen a revolving door of CEOs, and different versions of killer whale shows have taken place in recent years. In May, SeaWorld launched a new aquatic life park in the United Arab Emirates, its first outside the U.S., with no orcas. (The park features other animals, like dolphins and seals.)

So, 10 years later, does Cowperthwaite view Blackfish as a success?

"Yes," she says. "I don't know if I would ever say it's 100% a success, but I do believe so many good things have come out of this." Cowperthwaite notes the California Orca Protection Act, which bans the breeding or captivity of orcas, and a Canadian act prohibiting the captivity of marine mammals.

"The travel industry, so much of it has stopped doing swim-with-dolphin shows. I think the biggest one is sort of what I said about just really viewing these animals as sentient, as intelligent and as something that we are on this planet to protect — and protecting them oftentimes means keeping away from them," she says. "Hopefully we've made captivity in some way, shape or form a bad thing. The PR risk is way too great. So much can go wrong, and it's not hip, it's not cool anymore."

The documentary was released in theaters on July 19, 2013, and made $2 million at the box office. The two-hour premiere on CNN was a huge ratings win for the network. It was the third-highest-grossing documentary of 2013.

Cowperthwaite has an "end goal" in mind when it comes to SeaWorld.

"Where all of us just hope SeaWorld ends up is to have them with all their money support retiring animals to sea sanctuaries. It's essentially a cordoned-off ocean cove where you can still feed them and care for them, because these animals, a lot of times, can't just be released in the wild," she explains.

"They don't know how to eat, they don't know how to go after their own food. So keeping them in a cordoned-off cove and letting them live out the rest of their lives in the ocean is where we want them to point their resources and where we would hope they would end up," she continues. "You could charge ticket prices to let people go see them behaving like real orcas and real dolphins. There are sanctuaries ready as we speak. There's something called the Whale Sanctuary Project in Nova Scotia. It's waiting, it's ready for any whales that they wanna retire there. Getting SeaWorld to get on board with that would feel revolutionary."