"Blackfish," the horrifying tell-all documentary that SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see was written, directed and produced by a mild-mannered, yet persistent, California mother of two. Gabriela Cowperthwaite told Yahoo: "I am a documentary filmmaker and so I don’t let sleeping dogs lie." Or killer whales, like SeaWorld’s Tilikum a.k.a. Shamu. You know: that playful, shiny black-and-white predator that has inspired an armada of stuffed toys, appeared on countless T-shirts and doused busloads of cheering tourists.
Cowperthwaite’s controversial movie opens Friday. Over the weekend, according to the New York Times, SeaWorld issued a preemptive statement denouncing "Blackfish" as "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate." While it’s a huge embarrassment to the theme park that presents itself as family and eco-friendly, it’s also bad publicity for a corporation that owns a dozen theme parks and raised $700 million in an IPO in April.
So what about this documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, has corporate suits cowering? "Blackfish" investigates the theme park's serial killer whale named Tilikum. The bad boy weighs in at about 12,000 pounds and is estimated to be in his thirties. The captive Orca, or Blackfish, has slain three humans while continuing to perform in the theme park's shows. The last fatal event felled experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, in 2010 after a “Dine with Shamu” show at the Orlando theme park.
“The catalyst was the death of Dawn Brancheau,” said the director about her edge-of-your seat documentary. With its immense villain, chilling attack footage, corporate malfeasance, and girls in bikinis, the film's material is enough to make Michael Moore envious.
"I have no background in animal activism or marine biology," confessed Cowperthwaite. " What first brought me to the story was that I’m a mother of twin six-year-old boys and I took them to SeaWorld. I live in Los Angeles. It’s in my backyard. When I heard that something this horrific went on in a place that you think of as being benign and happy and bucolic and safe, you start trying to figure out why."
As a native San Diegan myself, I can relate to the myth of Shamu. In the little sister city to Los Angeles, SeaWorld was our Disneyland; Shamu our Mickey Mouse. "We’re raised thinking that these animals are lovable and almost cartoon characters," said Cowperthwaite. "Ultimately, the bottom line is that I thought they were happy. They looked happy to me. The park is clean. The trainers look happy. The whale is getting hugs and kisses and actively fed fish. I couldn’t imagine such a violent event could have ensued."
Former SeaWorld employee John Hargrove, one of many experienced trainers who appear in the film, was not so easily deceived. Drawing on fourteen years of experience working with Orcas for the company, he told Yahoo: "I always knew what those animals were capable of that. Most of my formative years were at SeaWorld of California. At that park, the management gave me all the information of past incidents. I’ve always known that they were capable of violence. But, when you see how it played out with Dawn -- not only that she was drowned but that he dismembered her -- it was shocking. Dawn loved Tilikum. He loved her. And yet with any predator there are triggers."
Hargrove explained the intimate relationship that he had, not with Tilikum but with a female whale named Takara that he swam with for many years: "My Takara was a dominant whale. She’s one of the most dangerous whales in the organization but I knew that one day she could betray me. You make that commitment: I choose to trust and believe in that relationship. Even someone like me, you realize those animals are dangerous. They are called killer whales."
Cowperthwaite went to great lengths to treat the role of the professional trainers sensitively. "We believe the trainers are the people who truly care for the whales," she followed up in an email, "most of whom take on the risks, the marginal pay, the wear and tear on their bodies, out of love for the whales."
The writer-director also said: "What I found slowly through the research and peeling back the onion was that nothing at this park is what it seemed. I am sure there are many people much less naïve than I was – people that would have gone to this subject matter with the knowledge that there was something sinister. I wasn’t that filmmaker."
Surprisingly, Cowperthwaite’s twin sons, now seven, were less shocked about captive conditions than their mother. "I’ve always thought captivity seems terrible but I also thought if I had to be a captive animal I’d prefer to be at Shamu stadium where I’m hugged and loved and fed fish and appearing playful rather than a great ape in a tiny habitat in a zoo. It turns to be the opposite. As for my sons, all I had to tell them is that sometimes SeaWorld separates the babies from their moms and takes them to other parks to perform for the boys to say 'I never want to go there again, Mommy.'"
Thanks to Cowperthwaite, trainers like Hargrove, and footage from SeaWorld security cameras, “Blackfish” mounts a powerful argument about the mistreatment of killer whales at the SeaWorld parks, while alleging that the parks have been disingenuous in the way they have communicated with the public. See the film to judge for yourselves.
Meanwhile, Tilikum continues to perform in Orlando. A year after Brancheau’s death, he returned to show biz, albeit behind glass and without trainers swimming beside him. Now, Tilikum is about to make an even bigger splash on film in “Blackfish.”