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Blackfish Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Searches For the Truth

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the acclaimed documentary “Blackfish.”

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 behind Disaster 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.

Knowing the cruelty of humankind, it’s not that hard to understand. What would be an appropriate space for a cetacean? Are there environments large enough to keep them without just setting them loose — which can’t happen for those raised in captivity?

We do advocate for sea sanctuaries, which would be a cordoned off cove with a net, because of course these captive animals can’t be tossed back into the ocean. They don’t know how to hunt. They can’t chase their own food. Like Tilikum whose teeth are all messed up.

They could be released into these sea sanctuaries. It would be better in terms of what kind of enclosure can emulate their natural environment, but that’s a tough one when they can swim up to 100 miles a day. It doesn’t mean they would do that. I would just be guessing since this is not my area of expertise, but you have to have a big enough space so they can feel like they can get away from you.

How far are we from communicating with these creatures? I wonder what will happen when we do?

Sometimes I think about that and it’s so overwhelming to even imagine what it would be like to communicate with an animal like that. An animal that has been on this earth for that long and they’ve emerged as an apex predator. They’re a predator’s predator. They can take down great white sharks. They live in relatively peaceful communities or pods. So even the transients and residents, when they’re forced into captivity together, they don’t even speak the same language so they don’t get along. In the wild, those animals, when they do migration patterns just pass each other by peacefully. When you think about what they could teach us, it’s astounding.

It would be fascinating to learn the languages of these animals — like in that Steven Spielberg series.

You think of the range of vocals, the languages. They can isolate languages based on the vocalization of a certain orca. So they can figure out where that orca’s family is.

Are killer whales the most carnivorous ones? I assume they eat tunas.

For the most part the residents are the tuna and salmon eaters, but the transients go for dolphins, seals, and sea lions. It’s this uncomfortable fact, that they eat dolphins, an animal we also love. There’s some things you learn about these apex predators that wouldn’t be suitable for SeaWorld’s literature because they’re trying to create this image that this is a fuzzy, huggable animal that you can then buy in a store on your way out.

Like a lion.

Or a teddy bear.

How long did this take to make?

It took two years.

Did you tell SeaWorld what you were using the footage for when you asked them?

SeaWorld knew very early on what I was doing. I called them and sought out an interview for about six months and we went back and forth as they were considering it. At that point I was sure they were going to be a voice in the film — they had to be I thought.

Dawn died in the park and I came from no animal activism; I’m just a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld. So I thought this was safe territory for them. However, the moment they realized that I had been interviewing people who had worked at their parks and had captured whales for them, they declined. It’s a minefield for them. For 40 years they’ve successfully kept these truths under wraps.

Besides the two deaths, were there others that involved whales?

There were the two deaths, Kelty and Daniel, Dukes, Dawn, and Kito that killed Alexis Martinez. So that’s four human deaths and over a hundred documented injuries — that’s just the documented ones. From what I’ve heard from SeaWorld trainers there are thousands of undocumented ones.

Where do you go after you’ve had that job if you’re not going to be a trainer? How did you persuade people to talk against SeaWorld? Was it to avenge the deaths?

That was what spurred them to come out and start speaking in public about it. They heard the spin that was coming out of SeaWorld after [Dawn’s] death. She slipped and fell, or it was her fault.

They started hearing that and said, “No, that couldn’t be true.” They worked with [Tilikum] and were there. I think, and this is corroborated, the former SeaWorld trainers speak out because all of them had a hard time. Most of them had a hard time leaving and leaving their animals behind.

The former SeaWorld trainers bond with their animals. When they’re forced to leave, they are forced to leave an animal they’re afraid will never be taken care of. They basically didn’t feel like leaving without knowing that they were going to be doing something for the whales and speaking out for the whales.

Did you expect the response this film has gotten? And where does that lead to?

I didn’t expect it. I always make the joke that documentary filmmakers never expect their films to be seen on purpose. We always imagine people will run across them on the television — maybe — but you never actually expect people to pay for it. So I have been blown away by the response. It’s the idea that you created this intact document that can now get in the world and go do some work. That is like a dream come true.

Documentaries give me so much to worry about, now I have to worry about SeaWorld! Have you seen other similar documentaries such as The Cove or movies like Free Willy as research? Do you want to go further into this subject, or are you done with it?

I do love the doc medium, I have to say. This is my storytelling home. I don’t know what comes next. Sometimes you think to yourself maybe another topic out there needs the kind of energy I put into Blackfish. Then there’s the other side of me that says there’s a momentum here and I don’t want to leave until I know… This 80-minute document has an amazing surrogate. Whether it’s a cause for me, [to support] sea sanctuaries.

I haven’t hitched my horse to any one cause out there, as much as I’ve gathered information from all of them out there and said, “Okay, what’s resonating with me and all the people that have seen Blackfish?” It’s the idea of these sea sanctuaries. It’s the idea that you have to stop the captive breeding and put them in sanctuaries.

Has anyone made the connection between your movie and 12 Years a Slave — another film about captivity and slavery?

Oh yeah. It’s tricky because that is probably the fastest way to turn off members of the general public, by saying anything about animals being slaves. Because that word is so heavy and it really speaks about human horrors and atrocities. It has offended a lot of people that I have spoken with. “How can you liken what has happened to us with 40 killer whales at SeaWorld?” It’s very tricky territory.

What’s next?

I’m percolating some things right now. It’s terrible documentary karma to ever talk about anything you’re doing. It will vanish the moment you think it’s something, before you’ve gotten into it.

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: January 7, 2014. 

Photo Credits:#1 © 2013 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

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