Blackfish vs. Sea World: A Critical Look at an Emotional Issue


Sometimes I have to really think long and hard about an issue to blog about. Other times an issue hits me over the head as if from out of the deep blue sea.

I just watched the popular documentary BLACKFISH about Orca whales and Sea World.  This powerful documentary leaves me no choice but to opine; it is extremely powerful, emotional and rife with issues to critically analyze once you can separate yourself from its intense emotional tone.  I am as stricken with sadness while watching a wounded and isolated whale as anyone.


The subject matter concerns a scathing look at Sea World and its apparent unethical and inhumane treatment of Orca “killer” whales. (Interestingly, there is not a known incident of these mammals ever killing a human in the wild, thus the name “killer” is rather misplaced, unless you count marine life.) The primary protagonist in this story is the whale “Tilikum” who has played a role in the deaths of 3 people over the course of 20 years.  As I will critically speak to the fairness and validity of the documentary itself in a moment, I must first say that whether you come out of this film loving or—though far more likely—hating Sea World, you will certainly gain a good amount of education about these amazing and highly evolved whales—an education I thoroughly appreciated and found very enlightening. Frankly, I will never look at any human-animal relationship the same.

Essentially, the primary source of information for BLACKFISH is interviews with former whale hunters and Sea World employees, primarily trainers. The documentary plays out like a traditional confessional for the long string of penitents who tearfully confess to being a part of a system that mistreated (albeit in ignorance) animals; their penance is 3 “Our Fathers” and an appearance in an anti-Sea World documentary in the church of BLACKFISH.  These interviews became the primary source of my cognitive tension.

All of these former trainers claim they worked at Sea World for one reason: The love of the whales. So, the former Sea World trainers, now reformed and repentant animal rights activists, have a bit of a quandary. They worked at Sea World because they loved Orcas and now they do not work at Sea World because they love Orcas. And the reason they fell in love with Orcas was due to their exposure at Sea World.

I get it…they evolved and now see the light.

The reason I have now learned and gained a thorough appreciation for these mammals is because a place like Sea World exists, bringing public awareness and education. Ultimately, and hopefully, this public awareness results in positive consequences for these animals, namely the global outlawing of their hunting and killing.

BLACKFISH, like most documentaries, takes an angle and must make the narrative fit its objective -complete with protagonist vs. antagonist, good vs. evil- if only the real world were that simple. For example, the New York Times reports that Kelly Flaherty Clark, who works as a curator of trainers for Tilikum, was represented in the documentary as a rather cold and cunning Sea World “suit” and was stunned by the portrayal of her testimony at an OSHA hearing -claiming the documentary was selective in a way that did not accurately represent her views.

“We sleep and breathe care of animals,” said Ms. Clark.

I believe her. It seems all those who invest themselves in these whales’ lives do so out of love and concern. There has got to be an easier way to make a buck than to tote tons of whales around.

Sea World has long left the business of capturing whales from the wild, as they now breed their own whales. (Although I could have gone my entire life without seeing a killer whale get jerked off, thank you very much…close your eyes on that one kiddos.)

Sea World has challenged the documentary with 8 assertions of misrepresentation. If you would like to read an excellent and critical dialogue concerning Sea World vs. BLACKFISH, this is a must read. For example, Sea World argues against “the accusation that (they) callously break up killer whale families.” According to this article, “Sea World does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales.  It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare.  And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.”

Don’t you hate that ‘two-sides-to-every-story’ thing? Again, I absolutely believe Sea World is in it for the money, yet I also believe they do care deeply about these animals. The former trainers actually convinced me of that.

“That is all fine,” one might contend, “then why did Sea World consistently reject requests to be interviewed for the documentary?”

I have always told my critical thinking classes that if anyone ever wants to interview you for a documentary the answer should always be no—as the success of the documentary is found in the editing bay. It is simply not a fair fight. A documentary can make anyone look as good/bad, dumb/smart, right/wrong as they want to. If I were Sea World I would have most definitely rejected the same requests. Contemporary documentaries are not about seeking truth; they are about creating compelling narratives— as a result, accuracy be damned if it ruins a good beginning, middle and end.

Our understanding of Orcas and marine life in general essentially only spans the past 30-40 years. As an example of our growing understanding, there is still a lot of debate about their life span due to the fact that our research is a relatively recent undertaking. In the 1960’s, when these now sorrowful whale hunters sought out these creatures for their marine zoos, we knew essentially nothing about them. Since this time, we have learned much about them…to the point we have studied their brains and found them to have a highly evolved communication and emotional system; perhaps even more evolved than our own.

The basic moral quandary is this: Does essentially “enslaving” (dare I say “domesticating”) a few highly intelligent animals for the purpose of raising public awareness in hopes of bringing more safety and advantage to the many, while turning a profit in the process, justify itself? Whales are not the only animals we enslave/domesticate; we enslave our dogs, cats, birds, etc. for no other reason than to bring us companionship, pleasure, and, in some cases to work for us (think seeing eye dogs). Is this morally justified? Is it animal slavery as PETA contends when they tried to sue Sea World for violating the Orcas constitutional rights? What is the difference between domesticating a highly intelligent German Shepherd for our pleasure or an Orca, other than one is much bigger? At least through domesticating the Orca it may ultimately save thousands of wild whales.

As with the solutions to most problems, there has got to be some middle ground. Why is it we need a hero and a villain? Black or white? Perhaps the villain is a bit hero and the hero a bit villain; after all, such moral ambiguity far more closely resembles real life.  The question is not whether there should be a marine zoo or not, rather, how can we change the nature of these facilities to best accommodate what we now know about these magnificent creatures?

I must confess to feeling a bit strange as a little child going to the zoo and observing animals locked up behind a cage. I would think they are either the luckiest and most fortunate animals on the planet without having to worry about their next meal or worse being another animal’s next meal; or the most miserable, enslaved and imprisoned creatures on the planet for essentially no good reason.

Apparently, I am not alone in this feeling because many zoos are transforming into mock natural habitats and rescues, moving away from the traditional zoo paradigm. Perhaps Sea World needs to follow suit.

BLACKFISH ends with several of the former trainers taking a boat out to the bay and watching Orcas swim in the wild, complete with their erect dorsal fins. It is a touching scene to be sure, yet I cannot help but drown in the thought that this tender yet powerful moment was made possible, for all parties, by Sea World.





  1. I too watched this documentary and thought it was pretty good, but, as you pointed out they are made to entertain us 1st, if they inform us as well that is a convenient by-product.
    I disagree with you about enslaving dogs, maybe when the 1st cavemen decided to grab some wolf/fox pups and use them as guards it was slavery but a dog today is domesticated and the vast majority wouldn’t last 2 weeks in the wild. I do have an issue with horses though. The field I take my dog Charlie for his walks is bordered by a house with horses. The 4 horses live in a fenced area about 1/2 the size of a small house (less than 500 ft sq). These horses (and MANY others I’ve seen around So Calif) are, in my opinion, being abused. They are ignored and basically in horse prison.
    I am not a member of PETA,( I am not a vegan and I wear leather ) but I also don’t think we should exploit animals for pleasure.
    In closing I will say the documentary “Blackfish” moved me but I can’t say it surprised me .

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response Craig. Though is not eating and wearing animals a “pleasurable” experience? It is certainly not a necessity.

  2. I believe they’re telling the truth about separating babies and parents. There were some baby otters born at the LA zoo and they had to separate them from their mother because she would violently attack them. So they were separated until the pups were old enough to be reintroduced to her. It makes sense, and we went to the zoo almost once a week to watch the progress. It wasn’t awful and inhumane.

    I also challenge those who are up in arms about raising whales for profit to evaluate their diets. What baby animal gave its life so you could enjoy your sandwich? Even more, what fish, black or not, had to give up its life so you could enjoy your sushi? Humans have been exploiting animals since the beginning of time. Why do we feel bad now?

    • Thank you for the comment Ced. Some have been discussing this blog on Facebook and, of course, there are some very passionate opinions. As I mentioned on FB, if we decide the nature of a Sea World is wrong, meaning the captivity/domestication of wild animals for profit/entertainment, we must be consistent with all animals in all contexts. We either believe it is wrong or not. As I mention in the blog, this doc really has me rethinking the whole nature of the human/animal relationship. And, of course, I have no conclusions or answers at this time.

  3. Okay, So I finally saw the documentary in reference. And I must say for a heartless bastard such as myself, I felt… However, I suppose I am human. Now, I have to say I did come into the movie with biases of my own. I have a vehement opposition when it comes to hippies… Dirty hippies…

    Allow me to better explain though, I place hippies in the same boat I place Nazi Scientist (Though I usually hold the scientists in higher regard) Although I do this because both parties are opposing faces of the same problematic coin. As humans we have a dualistic nature: Passion and intellect, emotion and reason, heart and mind. Both of which essentially define us in nature, however if you allow one of these to supersede the other then that’s where my cognitive dissonance begins to relegate you to a lower stance in my mind. As where the Nazi Scientist went too far and neglected all emotion and embraced only reason in their tests; the hippie neglects all reason and embraces only emotion in their approach. I believe that to truly approach any situation you have to allow both sides, emotion and reason, equal opportunity to asses the situation.

    Now as for the movie, I saw that these trainers only used emotion to discern the situation at hand, both for their fallen trainer and animal companions. They all explained that they indeed were not experts on the anatomy or behavior of the orca, yet nonetheless expressed their opinions on the subject. However in reading the link to SeaWorld’s response I would like to reuse a quote they chose. “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” -Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And the fact of the matter is that these people are not experts on orca behavior. So when they complain about the “rakes” where the orca scrapes their teeth on other orcas (which even to me seems super brutal), or the violent behavior that they express towards each other.

    SeaWorld went on to explain that this is behavior that orcas would normally express out in the wild, albeit the hippies responded that at least in the wild the whale could run, or in this case swim, away (true). In the wild orcas control their pods through aggression as a means of social control, just as dolphins have been known to rape other dolphins (No, means no Flipper!) to assert dominance. What I’m saying is that as humans cannot judge the nature of a creature that has it’s own complex social structure, and on top of that who are we to judge them? There are many practices that we engage in that they, assuming if they could understand, would probably find completely appalling (You mean to tell me you force your child to go out on their own, without you. How can you call yourself a mother?)

    Understand though, that in no way am I completely absolving SeaWorld. By having these orcas of different pods forcibly together you form, in my mind, an almost prison like structure. The documentary showed one of the whales, who apparently had it’s jaw broken by another, bleed out and subsequently died of its injuries. I could equate this to a prison shanking of rival inmates in a prison, which we see all the time in American prisons. So I agree that SeaWorld is part of the problem, but I think that my more sinister arch-nemesis Capitalism is the motivator behind the problem in this case. As long as someone can profit in this manner there will be those who exploit that fact for a dollar. The problem with my arch-nemesis is that people are reliant on his transaction, money for results, rewarding not only the good-doers the greedy evil-doers as well.

    However, I cannot completely condemn SeaWorld, because I would venture to say upwards to 50% or more of the knowledge we have of orcas was made by people working with or inspired by SeaWorld. So it’s a love hate relationship, the emotion that we are literally keeping these animals in cages, but the reason we gain by studying them in controlled environments.

    So what I say to those naysayers of SeaWorld, why don’t you use the same effort that currently protest with to find a better way to study these truly majestic creatures in their natural habitats. For example a personal submarine that could both keep speed with orcas underwater, or even better a means by which we could directly communicate with these animals. Once you’ve accomplished something of that magnitude, there would be no need for a place like SeaWorld to exist because all observations could be effectively made in the wild and if we could communicate with them we could truly understand what and how they feel. However, until that day, SeaWorld provides the best means by which to better understand the Blackfish.

    • Vince….
      First off, very well done. I read every word with great interest and your response is quite consistent with who you are. Though if you think those travesties of Sea World are not enough, you must read this:,34449/….but I digress.

      I recently viewed another documentary concerning an orphaned Orca up in a bay in Canada, called Saving Luna. This documentary somewhat altered my understanding of this issue. The whale in this documentary, Luna, was orphaned and began interacting with humans in a small village. The behaviors of the whale were remarkably similar to the whales in captivity at Sea World. This whale was starving for human interaction and would not leave the little bay near this village. Certainly it is not comparing apple to apples, yet it was a tiny peek into the behaviors of the whale in the wild. It seems interacting with humans in a very tight knit way is not far out of the realm of desire for Orca’s.

      I agree with you on nearly (not all) all counts though I am not as anti-capitalism as you –yet I am not a gun-slinging capitalist either. I just have yet to find a better system. Bottom line is that regardless of the system, all human beings suck at some level.

      I would also categorically disagree with your ad hominem attack on “hippies.” You define hippie as you like though that is a vague and ambiguous term. Why not call people who think with emotion ONLY “irrational” people -rather than a term that can describe a dude who stinks and eats bark as well as a someone from the 60’s you disagree with on an issue.

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful response to this blog…it is appreciated.

      • I went to your link and all I could do is imagine was Orca’s in jeans, I wonder if they would have to signify male or female in their dress as well?

        However, I will have to look up “Saving Luna” and watch that one as well. Though, in Blackfish they were explaining that the Orca have another portion of the brain the paralimbic cleft that may directly be associated with their emotional empathy processing I read a Q & A with Lori Marino from the film. ( She goes on to explain many things from the perspective of a foremost scientist in that field. But maybe this is why they are able to have these deeper connections with humans, and as the article explained they may have an even deeper bond with other emotional beings essential to their existence. Who knows though?

        As per my colloquial slurs I’ll try to use “the emotionally irrational” to replace “hippies” and “the reasonably irrational” in lieu of “Nazi scientist” to better illustrate my point next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *