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‘SeaWorld Staff Have Become Master Storytellers Who Believe Their Own Tales’

A Conversation with Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite

The riveting new documentary Blackfish, which makes a powerful argument that marine life parks are gulags for sea creatures run by corporations in order to reap profits, is sure to make a cinematic splash. Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, the 12,000 pound, 22-foot killer whale who killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010 at SeaWorld, Orlando. In the able hands of director and co-writer Gabriela Cowperthwaite the horrifying Florida incident becomes the launching pad for an investigation into the conditions of orcas and other marine animals held in captivity, and of their human trainers.

movie poster thumbnailThe film, which was nominated for the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category, contains shocking footage revealing other episodes of killer whales injuring their human minders, such as experienced trainer Ken Peters, who survived being repeatedly dragged to a pool’s bottom by the orca Kasatka for 12 long minutes in front of a live audience at SeaWorld, San Diego. It also has eyewitness accounts by audience members, relatives, scientists and, most importantly, ex-trainers turned whistleblowers who talk about some of the allegedly inhumane practices and cover-ups within the marine theme park industry.

Blackfish challenges the apparently self-serving notion of whales perpetuated by SeaWorld regarding the very nature of these magnificent beings. These colossuses of the deep, who were born to roam the planet’s vast oceans, are captured or bred in captivity, then confined to tiny cement pools to entertain the masses and enrich a few by performing tricks in order to earn their daily bucket of fish.

What’s missing from Blackfish is SeaWorld’s response to the charges made in this highly disturbing documentary. But according to Cowperthwaite, this was not due to her lack of trying repeatedly to get the aquatic park’s officials on the record. SeaWorld finally responded last weekend, emailing a statement to top film critics that rebutted many of the allegations made in the documentary.

Cowperthwaite, who’s part Brazilian, has been directing, writing and producing “real life stories” for more than 12 years. She has made films for major television networks including National Geographic, Discovery and History Channel. The Los Angeles based filmmaker’s other recent documentary about inner city Denver youth, City LAX: An Urban Lacrosse Story, has been picked up by ESPN and DirectTV. I interviewed Cowperthwaite about Blackfish a few weeks ago, before SeaWorld had spoken out. In person, Cowperthwaite come across as bright, warm, concerned but not overzealous. An excerpt from our conversation.

Ed Rampell: One of the things that makes your documentary so powerful is the footage you show of not just Tilikum, but of other sea creatures in captivity, the conditions of their confinement and how they just lash out and attack trainers. Without revealing confidential sources, how did you get access to this hard-to-get footage?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite: If you can think of a resource or a source I probably tapped into it. Everything from local news, national news, to people’s personal archives, to people who filmed at the park to [using] the Freedom of Information Act… to get [footage] after a long period of time. It’s all perseverance… you keep knocking on doors until you amass enough footage.

photo of Gabriella CowperthwaitePhoto by Michael Kovac/Magnolia PicturesIt's not as though there are evil people running SeaWorld.
I don't think that anybody ever goes to work thinking they're
doing an evil thing, says Cowperthwaite.

What was the significance of James Earl Jones appearing in a SeaWorld video?

That was a video that would sometimes come up on the Jumbotron during SeaWorld shows. It’s an authoritarian kind of voice telling you how serious SeaWorld takes their training regimen and how you need to really have a proper scientific background or what not to become a trainer. It’s a shout out to all the folks in the audience who may want to be trainers for them to realize you can’t just be hired at SeaWorld and jump in and start swimming with killer whales… It’s intended to be something with entertainment value.

It’s interesting that SeaWorld uses the voice of Darth Vader.   

[Laughs.] Yeah… SeaWorld is an entertainment park so what they’re doing is most oftentimes to entertain their public.

Did I see correctly? Is there a scene in Blackfish where the trainers are actually masturbating Tilikum?

There is an artificial insemination segment, yes. Basically they’re trying to collect semen so that it continues breeding. This captive breeding program is very big. They are not able to capture killer whales in the wild in the Pacific Northwest. You can’t capture them in North American waters anymore. So they have to put their weight behind the captive breeding program.

In the film it’s mentioned that 54 percent of SeaWorld’s whales currently have Tilikum’s genes?  

Yeah. [Even though] he displayed aggression and has been responsible for killing [three] people, yes, he has been bred. Tilikum has progeny and they really fill SeaWorld’s pools.

So the sperm is very valuable; it’s akin to a stud?

Yeah, it may be. I don’t know much about other breeding programs. But I do know that usually when an animal displays massive aggression and certainly has killed people in a lot of breeding programs, or just in general in life, oftentimes you entertain or even follow through with euthanasia. In this case he’s not only not euthanized — which no one would stand for inside or outside the park — but he’s actually actively bred.

Are they still collecting Tilikum’s sperm?

I’d doubt it, but I don’t know. That’s confidential information, I’m sure.

What does Tilikum’s flopped over dorsal fin mean?

It’s very eloquently explained in the film by former trainer Jeff Ventre. Basically they call that dorsal fin, “if you don’t use it you lose it.” An animal in the wild is subject to pressure on every side from the ocean on its six foot dorsal, [but it] doesn’t have those same physical pressures of pushing and pulling of the ocean in places like SeaWorld [where] it swims around in circles. There’s no torsion, nothing to keep it up. It’s essentially atrophy.

SeaWorld seems to have a “blame the victim” policy. After Dawn Brancheau’s death they were trying to blame it, among other things, on the trainer’s ponytail.

Yes. They were trying to blame the ponytail or perpetuate the ponytail theory, which is a way of making it look like her fault, perhaps. This is a way of allowing people to think that there’s something she could have done differently. It also makes it look like there’s something fixable… If women put their hair up in a bun maybe SeaWorld can avoid these incidents in the future.

Do you happen to have footage of Dawn on previous occasions wearing a ponytail where nothing amiss happens?

Oh, yeah, she almost always has a ponytail.

What percent of trainers have been injured or killed at these theme parks?

Four people have been killed by killer whales in captivity. Those include the SeaWorld parks, plus Loro Parque [in Spain’s Canary Islands] — SeaWorld owns their whales, although it’s not a SeaWorld run park. In terms of what percentage of trainers injured, all I know is anybody who worked at Shamu Stadium for any extended period of time was aggressed upon. Whether it’s being dragged down to the bottom of the pool and held there or being slammed — John Jett was pushed violently onto the background and to this day is in chronic pain. Hundreds of incidents were documented, but you can only imagine that so many more weren’t documented.

photo of Tilikum Photo by Gabriella Cowperthwait/Magnolia PicturesThere is no record of a killer whale killing a human being in the wild.

Blackfish shows that many trainers join out of an altruistic intent and then they see that they, like the public, have been sold a bill of goods, and they became whistleblowers. How did you find them?

Some of the trainers had become vocal already after the death of Dawn Brancheau. They heard the spin coming out of the marine parks, smelled a rat and said they don’t think is how it happened, there’s no way it was Dawn’s fault… That allowed me to have access to them. I also read an article called “Killer In the Pool” by Tim Zimmerman in Outside Magazine and he had interviewed the same group of trainers who had become outspoken. Some of them are named [in the article]. I brought Tim Zimmerman aboard as an associate producer after reading his article. He was able to vet me to them.           

Currently Private Bradley Manning and NSA leaker Edward Snowden are in lots of trouble for blowing the whistle. But there are also threats against journalists like Glenn Greenwald; and Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. How do you feel about this current climate of persecuting whistleblowers and how could this affect documentary filmmakers? If someone like Greenwald might be held accountable not for the information but for releasing the information they get from sources, how might this affect documentarians like you who get some undercover footage and release it?

That’s a tough one… You do have to look at the consequences of revealing such information. In these cases you’re mentioning we’re talking about national security. That’s not what these former trainers [are doing]. What they’re doing, what they’re concerned about is the state of the whales and safety of the trainers. Sadly, big money makes it incredibly difficult to not do the right thing oftentimes. When the good people stay silent and just go about their jobs in these big corporations oftentimes that’s when the bad stuff happens. It’s not as though there are evil people running SeaWorld — I never think that. I don’t think that anybody ever goes to work thinking they’re doing an evil thing. I just thing they become master storytellers to themselves, not only to the public. So when [trainers] like Jeff Ventre and John Jett reveal the information SeaWorld doesn’t want you to know, they’re the good people who decided to no longer stay silent.

Maybe if SeaWorld officials had agreed to be interviewed by you would it have been in the film?

They would have had a voice and I would have done my best to give them the most fair voice they could possibly get… For months I was thinking they would say yes [to being interviewed]. Maybe that was naïve or they were really considering it. For months I really thought we had a chance here but then I realized at the end of it… this is a 40-year narrative where they’ve controlled the message. And this is their 40-year fairy tale. They got 40 years – I’m okay with taking 80 minutes to provide a counter-narrative.

Have you had any pressure from SeaWorld?

Nothing. I have not heard from them since the beginning. Last time I talked with them was when they declined an interview.

Howard Garrett, a whale researcher in the Puget Sound area, says in Blackfish:  “To this day there’s no record of any orca doing harm to any humans in the wild.” True?

There is no record of a killer whale killing a human being in the wild. There is a record of a surfer who was bitten on the leg and then very quickly released, once the killer whale realized this was not a sea lion or anything he was interested in eating.       

In Blackfish, neuroscientist Lori Marino says: “parts of whales’ brains are more complex than humans regarding emotions. They have highly elaborate emotional lives. Everything about them is social.”

She was able to talk about the complexity of the killer whale brain. They have everything we have in our brains and yet they have something else. Something we can’t even identify because we don’t have it. Yes, they think it must have something to do with their emotional and social lives; it could be something even more advanced than what we understand to be an emotional and social bond.

What is the status of Tilikum?

Last I heard he was still relegated to a back pool for his own protection because the females bully him. Then he comes out every so often and does a perimeter circle around the pool in public for the shows. He does a few splashes — his pecs are so incredibly large he can splash up to the stands. He’s very useful for that, sadly. He does a bow and swims back to his pool.

[PLOT SPOILER ALERT.] My interpretation of the end of Blackfish, when the trainers go to see the orcas not in a manmade environment but out at sea, is that if you want to see these magnificent creatures, go to their natural habitats.

Yeah, that’s part of it. When we think, well, how in the world would we see killer whales otherwise if we didn’t see them at SeaWorld? There’s an argument to be made that you’re not really in fact seeing a real killer whale when you’re seeing a killer whale at SeaWorld. You’re seeing an animal that logs, which floats on the surface, swims in circles around and around, and does some goofy shows. Is that really seeing a killer whale? We can argue it’s not and if you want to go see one there are opportunities to be able to observe them in the wild.

Magnolia Pictures is releasing Blackfish in Los Angles and New York today (July 19), to be followed by a national roll out.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic and co-author of The Hawai‘i Movie and Television Book.

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