I had never been to a movie that was so powerful that people were still seated after the closing credits had rolled—until this week.
I had followed the story of Tilikum, the frustrated captive orca at SeaWorld who has killed three people, so I thought I was ready for Blackfish. But even after the closing credits, I was one of many people who were still sitting in the now-bright theater, staring at the now-dark screen, mouth agape and mind reeling, trying to process what they had just seen.
I knew that Tilikum had been stolen from his family when he was just 2 years old. But I wasn’t prepared to watch actual footage of a baby orca trapped in a net, screaming, while the helpless mother and family cried out. Or to watch whale trappers duck their heads in shame and reluctantly confess how they had taken the ones they wanted and killed a number of the others.
I knew that Tilikum, like all captive marine mammals, had been dumped in a tiny pool and forced to perform daily shows for ticket holders. But hearing the details of how he had been mercilessly starved when he wasn’t learning confusing tricks and how trainers also starved his tank mates when he didn’t perform correctly so that the orcas would attack and injure him, forcing him to learn faster, made me feel like I had swallowed rocks.
I was aware that orcas in captivity become frustrated, depressed, and even psychotic when confined to a pool that feels like a bathtub and that they release their aggravation by injuring themselves—and their captors. But seeing footage of some of the more than 100 incidents of orca aggression toward SeaWorld trainers was jarring. The images of the frantic screaming, the broken and dangling limbs, the pouring blood, and the stretchers will be with me for a long time.
Although Tilikum is the film’s main focus, Blackfish isn’t just about him. It concerns all the orcas who are victims of the marine-mammal performance industry, such as Katina, who wailed for days after SeaWorld transferred her baby. As I looked around the theater, I saw grown men fighting tears as they looked with understanding at this despairing, grieving mother.
The story is told entirely by the people who witnessed it all: the executives who oversaw the “training” process, the park visitors who witnessed attacks, and the SeaWorld trainers who were instructed to lie to the public about animal health and welfare as well as to destroy incriminating videos. They were all determined to have the orcas’ story be heard.
SeaWorld’s slogan is, “The Voyage Begins.” But everyone who has now seen the real SeaWorld will be hopeful that Blackfish is where the aquarium‘s greedy voyage ends and its captive animals’ voyage to ocean sanctuaries begins.
See it for yourself when CNN airs Blackfish in its entirety Thursday, October 24.
Written by Michelle Kretzer