Diving beyond sea park surface
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