Well, God bless Willie Nelson.
The country legend has canceled a coming performance at SeaWorld Orlando because of a CNN documentary called Blackfish, a profoundly disturbing account of the theme park’s exploitation of captive killer whales.
If you haven’t yet seen Blackfish, download it today. The film has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination, with good reason.
Last week, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart also scratched a SeaWorld show amid the outcry. The rock group has roots in Seattle, which isn’t far from the site of brutal roundups of baby killer whales during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
The early minutes of Blackfish present footage of one such expedition, and it’s heart-wrenching to observe the misery of the adult whales as the young ones are netted and loaded on ships. (Those that died were slit open, loaded with weights and sunk to conceal the evidence.)
One of those captured whales is still performing as “Lolita” at the Miami Seaquarium. Another that was snatched 30 years ago from the waters off Iceland is in the Shamu extravaganza at SeaWorld Orlando.
Its name is Tilikum, the subject of Blackfish. At six tons, “Tili” is said to be the largest bull orca in captivity. It’s also one of the most volatile and emotionally damaged, involved in three human deaths.
The first occurred in 1991 at a cut-rate attraction in British Columbia. A young student worker was killed after she slipped into a tank holding Tilikum and two other orcas. The facility closed permanently after the tragedy, but Tilikum was purchased by SeaWorld and put on display in Orlando.
In 1990, a man slipped past employees and climbed into Tilikum’s tank at night. The next morning the man was found dead, mutilated and draped naked across the whale’s back. Cause of death was ruled to be drowning or hypothermia.
Then, in February 2010, Tilikum fatally mauled a veteran trainer, Dawn Brancheau, as horrified tourists videotaped the sequence. SeaWorld said the accident was Brancheau’s fault, implying that she somehow agitated the whale with her ponytail.
The accusation infuriated other trainers, some of whom speak out in the documentary. After a hearing, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled that SeaWorld subjected its trainers to a hazardous environment, and ordered barriers erected to separate the whales from the employees.
A federal judge agreed. The company has appealed.
Orcas are complex, highly intelligent mammals that in the wild would be traveling vast distances in close-knit family pods. Captive specimens spend their days in glorified guppy ponds performing stunts designed purely to amuse paying customers.
In a toothless response to Blackfish, Michael Scarpuzzi of San Diego SeaWorld defended the company’s “educational presentation” of orcas, and noted the thousands of uneventful interactions between trainers and whales during “exercise, play and enrichment.”
Before Tilikum attacked Brancheau, the whale had been directed to perform the standard though not-so-enriching task of circling the pool while flapping one pectoral fin to give the appearance of waving.
You won’t see that clownish gesture from the orcas in Puget Sound, but the captive ones do it because they receive handfuls of dead fish as a payoff. Tilikum evidently missed a whistle cue, the fish snack was withheld and the rest is tragedy.
There’s no denying that places like SeaWorld and the Seaquarium have educated millions of people about the beauty of orcas. Nor does the documentary leave any doubt that the trainers and vets who work directly with the whales care passionately for them.
It doesn’t change the fact that they exist in a state of extreme and stressful confinement. Imagine spending your whole life in a backyard swimming pool. Think you might get depressed every now and then? Bored out of your skull? Pissed off?
Significantly, there have been no documented fatal attacks on a person by a wild orca. In captivity orcas are responsible for several deaths and many injuries.
Despite a history of lethal violence, Tilikum remains a star at SeaWorld. That’s because he’s a very valuable asset — his sperm, especially.
The capture of orcas was banned by the United States in 1972, so theme parks rely on captive breeding for their babies. Tilikum is a major stud, having sired more than 20 offspring for the company.
Even with its trainers barred from swimming with the whales, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. managed to take in record profits of $120 million last quarter. The company now waits for the outrage over Blackfish to subside, as it eventually did after the Free Willy films in the 1990s.
Meanwhile it’s working hard in court to overturn the OSHA decision and return to the old bareback-riding days. Said its lawyers: “Contact with killer whales is essential to the product offered by SeaWorld….”
The product being live, performing orca meat.
After watching Blackfish, you’ll wonder if that’s really what you want your kids to see on their next vacation.
(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)
Photo via Wikimedia Commons