In the first 10 or 15 minutes of the killer whale documentary Blackfish, there's one basic, extremely worthy conclusion we'll draw: Humans should not keep orcas in captivity. Let's say it again: Humans should not keep these intelligent and social creatures, which can live 70 or 80 years and reach 8 or 9 tons, in the equivalent of a bathtub for their adult lives.
Some more things we shouldn't do: We shouldn't steal orca calves from their mothers in the wild, and we certainly shouldn't have humans "training" them and doing tricks with them in seedy tourist traps. If director Gabriela Cowperthwaite had ended her film with its interview with the old, conscience-stricken mariner as he recounts the terrible wailing of the orca females who've just lost their young, it would have done its duty.
But instead of continuing its inquiry into existential questions about humans and the non-humans we dominate, Blackfish turns out to be a rather conventional 60 Minutes-style exposé. Its focus narrows to an examination of SeaWorld's workplace safety record. In an OSHA lawsuit arising from the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando, the plaintiffs alleged that the park's operators knowingly exposed its trainers to dangerous whales—particularly one known as Tilikum.
Trainer after trainer testifies for the camera, and there's video footage of whale attacks drawn from the legal discovery. Cowperthwaite also located two witnesses to an earlier fatal attack made by Tilikum, in an incident that was officially recorded as an accident. Officials from SeaWorld declined to speak for the cameras, so Blackfish becomes a one-sided, rather academic film in which people argue that a fundamentally immoral practice was not done properly. (In other words, it's as if lawyers are arguing that American plantation owners weren't giving their slaves enough water breaks.)
The safety of marine park employees may not be a trivial matter, but the film's focus on this issue means that it largely elides discussion of our fundamental relationship with the beasts of the global wild.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Blowholes."