Water Parks Bring Out the Killers in 'Killer Whales'


The first time I saw a killer whale in real life I was awed by the creature’s majestic beauty. It was at Marineland of the Pacific in 1983.

The next time was at Sea World in San Antonio in the late 1990s. It broke my heart to see the large orcas that in the wild live in sub-Arctic climate and often swim some 100 miles a day a comparatively tiny pool on a sweltering Texas summer day. My sorrow soon turned to anger at how the killer whales were kept, and I began entertaining “Free Willy” fantasies.

My change in perspective is what the recent documentary film “Blackfish” should hopefully inspire in others. The movie is centered around the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau caused by Tilikun, a captive orca at Sea World Orlando. It makes a compelling case for why killer whales should no longer be kept in captivity.

Brancheau was the third person killed by Tilikun, aka Tilly, over the 30 years since he was captured Though orcas are called killer whales, there has never been a reported incident of one ever killing a human in the wild. The name comes from the fact that they are the only cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) that eat red meat such as seals and other small whales. It should be noted that orcas have been kept at marine parks in the same pools with dolphins, and not only are they not natural enemies but they bond. Speaking of bonding, one persuasive feature about “Blackfish” is all the former Sea World trainers that appear in the movie speaking out against the company’s practices. This is a trend with people who work with captive cetaceans.

Ric O’Berry – who was seen in “The Cove” a 2009 documentary that exposed dolphin hunting in Japan – captured and trained dolphins in the 1960s for one of the earliest marine parks, Miami Seaquarium and then went on to train the dolphins used in the TV show “Flipper.” He is now a leading anti-captivity activist through his organization The Dolphin Project. Dr. John C. Lilly, who pioneered interspecies communications research with dolphins, also came to feel he could not in good conscience work with captive dolphins.

From the first time I saw a dolphin up close at age eight at Marineland of Florida, I was enthralled with these small whale creatures. My ambition was to follow Lilly in the quest to communicate with them. When the first orca was taken into captivity into 1965, I was further fascinated. But as I became more knowledgeable these animals, the more I have come to oppose their being held in there marine mammal parks.

If one examines the intelligence, social structure and natural existence of killer whales, the ways in which they are kept, trained and used at places like Sea World makes Guantanamo look like a Caribbean resort. Sea World claims that this contributes to both research and public understanding of whales and dolphins. That’s bull. They are used for entertainment and profit.

I have to commend “Blackfish” for actually not taking its case as far as I would, and ergo ensuring that it is stronger. My contention – bolstered by biology – is that small whales are the aquatic cousins of mankind. By all biological measures they possess a similar if not equal and maybe even greater intelligence. It’s a different sort of intelligence

And Sea World and its ilk reduces these animals in captivity to performing stupid tricks. In my view, no wonder Tilly rebelled and attacked one of his trainers. I am surprised it didn’t happen earlier. That these creatures even cooperate and interact with humans as they do in captivity shows emotional qualities that we describe as “humanity.” Now is the time for humans to step up to the plate and show that to them.

Attitudes are evolving on this issue. The oceanarium where I first became enchanted with dolphins is now Marineland Dolphin Adventures, which offers interactions with the animals in the water. Seven years ago I enjoyed a similar encounter with captive dolphins that was one of the most magical experiences of my life. And since then I have further evolved on this topic to where I now would only do a wild dolphin encounter. Supporting even the kindest captivity is something I can no longer do.

Although I’d like to see all marine parks closed now, it’s not going to happen. But “Blackfish” takes matters a major step forward in that direction.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2014


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