Div­ing be­yond sea park sur­face

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - MOVIES -

FILM­MAKER Gabriela Cow­perth­waite was some­thing of a ‘‘SeaWorld mum’’ in the US. She’d taken her kids to the San Diego lo­ca­tion of the pop­u­lar theme park and ‘‘planted us firmly in the Shamu splash zone – we all just ate it up’’.

Then she read of SeaWorld Or­lando trainer Dawn Brancheau’s grisly death by orca in Fe­bru­ary 2010 and ‘‘just couldn’t come to terms with it’’.

‘‘I could not un­der­stand how a highly in­tel­li­gent, beloved mam­mal could make that de­ci­sion. I was con­founded. Was he play­ing? Did she drown ac­ci­den­tally? The more I read, the more ques­tions I had,’’ she says.

‘‘And the more ques­tions I had, the more I re­alised that if I have them, other peo­ple have them, too.’’

Cow­perth­waite read the au­topsy re­port and took her ques­tions to eight for­mer SeaWorld Or­lando train­ers. Their an­swers, on cam­era, turned into Black­fish, an ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary about killer whales, SeaWorld Or­lando and ‘‘in­ci­dents’’ at other parks.

‘‘Dawn’s death was my por­tal into the whole sub­ject of whether th­ese an­i­mals should be kept like this,’’ Cow­perth­waite says.

‘‘This is a place that we all thought was a happy place.’’

John Har­grove is one of the train­ers Cow­perth­waite in­ter­viewed, a true ‘‘ex­pert wit­ness’’ to killer whale in­ter­ac­tions and a vet­eran of SeaWorld of Texas, SeaWorld of Cal­i­for­nia and Marineland in the south of France. He says that as thor­ough as the train­ing he re­ceived was, there are things go­ing on with the whales that stress them and set the stage for at­tacks like the one that killed Brancheau.

‘‘You work with them, you’re aware of their ag­gres­sion,’’ Har­grove says.

‘‘You feel what they’re ca­pa­ble of. As hor­rific as Dawn’s death was, and she was a friend of mine, I wasn’t shocked.

‘‘We knew Ti­likum (Brancheau’s killer) was ca­pa­ble of, re­ally, what any killer whale is ca­pa­ble of. You know. Once a trainer goes through a wa­ter-work ag­gres­sion with a whale, or see it, that gives you a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what could go wrong when they get an­gry.’’

Har­grove and the oth­ers spoke out be­cause ‘‘the needs of the whales are not be­ing met’’, he says.

Cow­perth­waite, who had worked on an An­i­mal Night­mares TV se­ries years ago, but in re­cent years has filmed Iraq War com­bat doc­u­men­taries and a doc­u­men­tary about ur­ban lacrosse, came to the same con­clu­sion.

‘‘The peo­ple who made the film – the for­mer train­ers and me – think we need to vote with our dol­lars un­til SeaWorld puts an end to the cap­tive breed­ing,’’ she says.

‘‘They need to stop per­pet­u­at­ing killer whales in cap­tiv­ity and we need to stop go­ing to their parks un­til they do that.’’

SeaWorld Or­lando has re­sponded to the film only with a state­ment ac­cus­ing Black­fish of re­peat­ing ‘‘the same un­founded al­le­ga­tions made many times over the last sev­eral years by an­i­mal-rights ac­tivists . . . The com­pany is ded­i­cated in ev­ery re­spect to the safety of our staff and the wel­fare of an­i­mals.’’

But it’s re­sponses like that which drove Cow­perth­waite dur­ing the mak­ing of Black­fish.

‘‘I’m not an an­i­mal ac­tivist. I’m a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld (Or­lando)... I hope the film starts a con­ver­sa­tion. You come out of it armed with the truth, a truth that they keep try­ing to cover up.’’

Black­fish opens at The Arts Cen­tre Gold Coast to­day.

– ROGER MOORE

A scene from Black­fish

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