Blackfish Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Searches For the Truth
by Brad Balfour
When SeaWorld trainer/performer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum — an orca who was a star of the aquarium/entertainment complex — the dangers of holding this wild species in captivity was spotlighted. Little did most of the public know that this wasn’t the first time this particular whale had killed. Nor did they knew how crazed the whale had become after years of being penned in.
This was such an amazing discovery for filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite that she devoted her time and money to creating the documentary Blackfish in order to answer just why and how the 40-year-old trainer died. (SeaWorld Entertainment claims the whale targeted the trainer because she had worn her hair in a ponytail.) The thought-provoking film asks what to do about marine parks like SeaWorld that exploit cetaceans for human amusement and profit.
The documentary kicks off with Tilikum’s 1983 capture off Iceland’s coast. The movie reveals how he has been harassed by fellow captive whales and was left in dark tanks for hours — incidents this director suggests prompted his aggression. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld’s stated belief that captive whales live longer, a claim that the film argues is false.
An experienced TV documentarian, Cowperthwaite has directed, written and produced for such outlets as ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery, and History Channel. Her work includes History Channel’s Shootout!, a series for which she and a cameraman were embedded with 300 Marines at Twenty Nine Palms. Cowperthwaite was also behindDisaster Tech, a documentary series about the biggest natural disasters in world history.
This new documentary has been racking up positive notices, awards and favorable response — including many protests of the whole marine mammal crisis — while also stirring SeaWorld’s ire. When the feature was about to air, this exclusive interview was conducted in Manhattan. Cowperthwaite since has seen a successful DVD/Blu-ray release and finds the film shortlisted for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar.
Why did you embark on this project?
I came at it with a burning question. How did a top SeaWorld trainer come to be killed by a killer whale? I didn’t get it. I know they don’t kill us in the wild, so I couldn’t imagine that happening.
[Dawn] was actively feeding this whale, Tilikum, before he killed her. It speaks to that fact that I think coming into a project like this without an opinion or argument is okay. You can come in with a burning question and keep digging and digging and digging. That ended up being my method. It ended up being so fruitful because all the information I was discovering. It was from a place of ignorance so I just kept feeding my brain.
I knew that when I made the film I needed it to be very fact-driven. It needed to be a narrative that had credible people like the former SeaWorld trainers [such as John Hargrove,] speaking about what went on inside. I needed to reveal it to the audience and arm them with information the same way that I was able to discover it.
Did you ever go diving one day and meet a whale?
No. I wasn’t even fresh off a trip to SeaWorld. It wasn’t anything like that. It was what happened. Then I’d read another article and I’d think: “You just told me she slipped and fell. Why are you now telling me it was her ponytail? Weren’t there cameras? Didn’t I just see this on the news?”
So I just dug, that’s it. I had a burning question. I needed it answered whether it was for my own edification or for a documentary. I knew I would keep looking until I found the answer. If I have this many questions, the world will have this many questions. If I am so shocked by the answers then the world will be so shocked.
Going from making a film in Denver to this, how and when did you make the shift? Did you do anything with nature before?
[I did a piece with] National Geographic about human phobias. It would seem like I’m this naturalist.
I guess you’ll never take your kids to SeaWorld, will you?
I can’t. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it. That’s the only way I can describe my experience. Once you know what you know, you’ll can’t look at those silly tricks and think that’s cute. You think to yourself this speaks of mastery. This makes me uncomfortable. This is so sad. Whereas three years ago I thought to myself I always described it as a cringe factor.
This doesn’t feel right, and yet it’s not abhorrent enough to get you to get up and leave if you don’t know the truth. You think to yourself this doesn’t feel right, but it must be okay because everybody is smiling.