New film highlights controversy of captive whale

27th Aug 2013

A new documentary has brought the controversy of performing whales and dolphins back into the spotlight. Blackfish, released in cinemas this summer, tells the story of Tilikum a captive Orca. Tilikum has been implicated in the deaths of three people, including his trainer.

Tilikum’s trainer, Dawn Brancheau, died in 2010 while performing with the whale at SeaWorld in Orlando. While SeaWorld has stated that this was a tragic accident, campaigners argue Tilikum deliberately targeted his trainer as an result of being kept in captivity.

Brancheau’s untimely death was the inspiration for Blackfish, said film director Gabriela Cowperthwaite:
“There is no documented case of a killer whale ever killing anybody in the wild. It’s only in captivity where these incidents have happened. It’s time for this experiment to end.”

- Orca in the wild

SeaWorld has hit back, saying the film is a one-sided portrayal of events and ignores the organisation’s work in rescuing and rehabilitating whales. The whole debate is nothing new. On one hand organisations like SeaWorld say keeping these animals in captivity helps research and inspires people to conserve their wild habitats. The other side argues keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is unnecessary and cruel.

The most famous captive Orca was Keiko, the whale used as the star of Free Willy. Free Willy told a fictional story about a boy saving a performing whale. After the film’s release in 1993, fiction became real life as attention quickly focussed on Keiko’s unacceptable living conditions in an aquarium in Mexico. A campaign team started work on his rehabilitation and release.

ORCA’s Director Sally Hamilton helped monitor Keiko’s behaviour while he was being prepared to return to the wild:
“As a marine biologist with a special interest in animal behaviour, my time in Iceland with Keiko was one of the most rewarding moments in my career. Keiko presented a fascinating insight into the impact of captivity on wild animals. For the rehabilitation team, years of being trained to entertain humans meant getting Keiko to behave like a whale was a real challenge.”

In the end Keiko did experience freedom. Following extensive preparation he swam from Iceland to Norway with a pod of other whales. He spent the last year of his life being supported to live in the wild. He died in Norway in 2003.

There have been several good news stories lately of former captive dolphins and whales returning to the wild. Like Sampal, who escaped captivity in South Korea after four years and returned to her family
Recent reports show Springer, an orphaned Orca, now has a calf of her own. This is the first time an Orca has successfully bred following release. Orcas have very complex social groupings and the story of how Springer’s original pod were identified demonstrates the value of research, like ORCA volunteers conduct, into whale habitats and migration:

Get involved:

Understand more about the behaviour of wild whales and dolphins, help build a body of research by join ORCA as a volunteer
Find out more about Blackfish
Find out more about Keiko's story
Find out about Seaworld’s arguments

Article by Mary Anna Wright