Dear Film Critic: SeaWorld vs. “Blackfish”, a documentary about Tilikum the whale and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau


Though it doesn’t open in Orlando until sometime in August (stay tuned for more coverage when the film comes out), the initial NY/LA release of Magnolia Pictures and CNN films’ Blackfish is coming this Friday, and buzz is beginning to build about the film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which seeks to shed light on the problems of long term orca captivity.

The film — and the promotion of the film — is highly critical of SeaWorld in particular, and of the practice of sea mammal captivity for the purpose of entertainment in general, featuring interviews with more than a half-dozen former trainers from SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.

The film’s main focus is on Tilikum, the largest orca currently in captivity, who has been responsible — at least in part — for three deaths since being captured in the wild in the early 1980s. The latest came in 2010 (shortly after another trainer’s death in Loro Parque in Spain in 2009), when head trainer Dawn Brancheau was reportedly pulled underwater by her ponytail after a routine performance at Dine with Shamu in the Orlando park. (The real Shamu died in 1971, which is sort of like finding out that there is no Santa Claus.)

(This video cuts well before anything goes wrong.)

Due to the controversial nature of the film, SeaWorld Entertainment sent out an email to film critics over the weekend that alleges that the allegations made against them in the film are allegedly bogus. You can scroll to the bottom to read the email in its entirety, but in summary, the email warns to take the film as a “powerful, emotionally-moving” direct appeal in advocacy of orca rights but that the film shouldn’t be taken as fact, calling the film “shamefully dishonest”.

The email claims that claims in the film about SeaWorld’s practices — removing orcas from the wild, removing them from their family structure, bullying amongst captive orcas and whether or not the lifespan of a wild orca is significantly longer than a captive orca — are “deliberately misleading” and that what the film “presents as unvarnished reality is anything but.”

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