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The Blackfish Effect and San Juan Island

blackfish One of the hottest films of 2013 wasn’t about an apocalypse, a star-crossed beautiful couple, or superheroes. It was about killer whales.

Blackfish, a documentary filmed directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, began as an investigation into the events leading to the death of veteran Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. What it has turned into is a worldwide sensation that is making people everywhere question the morality of keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity, and bringing major attention to an issue that has been a hot topic on San Juan Island for years.

Brancheau died of blunt force trauma to the upper part of her body when the now infamous orca, Tilikum, dragged her into the water during a routine demonstration for a crowd. The 41-year-old trainer was the most experienced at Sea World Orlando and had, by all accounts, a close bond with Tilikum. She was the third person to die from an attack by Tilikum, who has been shifted from park to park since he was captured. There is no record of any wild orca killing a human being.

Orcas are among the only members of the animal kingdom who are sentient creatures, meaning they experience emotions and complex thoughts similar to humans. Because of this, the filmmakers and stars of Blackfish are all strongly opposed to keeping them in captivity and making them perform tricks for paying customers. They believe that the highly complex social structure of wild orcas can’t be mimicked in captivity, and there is evidence to back up their opinion.

Wild orcas, like the southern resident community of San Juan Island, live long lives – an average of 50-60 years for males and 70-80 for

Photo by Libby Baldwin, courtesy of San Juan Excursions
Photo by Libby Baldwin, courtesy of San Juan Excursions

females. The average age of orcas in captivity is 14. Each family group of orcas, or pod, has its own distinct dialect, and researchers can often determine which pod is nearby simply by listening to their calls over a hydrophone (underwater microphone). The orcas in marine parks are generally from different pods, or perhaps even different subspecies of orcas, and cannot communicate or bond with each other the way that wild orcas do. There is often aggression and physical abuse among captive orcas.

Many of the stars of Blackfish are former Sea World trainers who have expressed shame at being part of keeping the whales in captivity. They have all been to San Juan Island to see wild orcas; some footage of their visits can be seen in Blackfish. San Juan Island’s own Ken Balcomb and Howard Garrett are also in the film. Balcomb is the director of the Center for Whale Research, which has been studying the orcas here since the mid-70s; Garrett is the founder of Orca Network, a non-profit meant to raise awareness about the southern residents.

The trainers in the film — Jeffrey Ventre, Carol Ray, Samantha Berg, and Dr. John Jett — have formed an organization called Voice of the Orcas that is dedicated to ending cetacean captivity.

orca whale trainer for blackfish “San Juan Island is the unofficial home of Blackfish,” Ventre told me via email. “Most of the interviews and footage came from the island, and the waters around it. Seeing free-ranging orcas [in 1996] radically altered my perspective regarding the morality of keeping them in marine circuses. I accepted that invitation while still working as a trainer at Sea World, and it didn’t go over well with the management. They have an interest in keeping whale and dolphin trainers in the dark. Seeing whales in Haro Strait forms the basis of our passion at Voice of the Orcas. When you see the whales foraging or congregating in a super pod, it really drives home what we’re fighting for.”

The “Blackfish effect” really kicked into high gear when it began airing on CNN and streaming on Netflix, giving millions access to the information in it.

According to a National Geographic news story, “the images and information in Blackfish (the live captures which started the industry; the physical and social stresses the animals, especially Tilikum, endure; the separation of calves from their mothers; and the aggression that occurs between killer whales and trainers) have surprised and shocked many viewers who have mostly thought of the Shamu show as lighthearted entertainment.”

After seeing the film, many celebrities began expressing their outrage on Twitter, and regular citizens began circulating petitions on asking famous musicians to cancel performances they had lined up at Sea World. Among those who canceled, either due to public pressure or after seeing the film themselves, were the Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Tricia Yearwood, Heart, and more.

Sea World refused to be interviewed for Blackfish; yet they have since spoken out against it, calling the information false and one-sided. They have maintained that it isn’t affecting business, but attendance has fallen drastically and, earlier this month, Sea World’s CEO, Jim Atchinson, sold off 50,000 of his shares in the company.

In the end, the real measure of Blackfish’s impact will not only be whether Sea World decides to change the way it does business, but how the world looks at the relationship between humans and highly intelligent creatures like orcas.

You can decide for yourself by visiting us on San Juan Island, and taking a whale-watching tour that will show you orcas interacting with each other in their natural habitat. Our concierge at the Harrison House and Tucker House will take care of your reservations for your wildlife adventure and have vouchers awaiting your arrival. We have a great relationship with many of the tour operators on the island and will help you find the perfect outfitter for your party!

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