Blackfish Explores the Psychology of Killer Orcas

Photo by Jo Kassis

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary Blackfish explores the lives of orcas living in captivity. Tilikum, a male orca at the center of the story, allegedly killed three people. Blackfish explores how animals are treated in captivity and how it may affect their behavior. The documentary includes interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, marine biologists, and a neuroscientist.

Dawn Brancheau

When paramedics responded to SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010, animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was found scalped. One responder said that there was no blood and that Tilikum still had a hold of her. He said that Tilikum wouldn’t let go of her arm and eventually swallowed it. According to the autopsy report, Brancheau had several injuries including lacerations and fractures. 

Brancheau was reportedly a very conscientious and experienced trainer. People who knew and worked with her remember her fondly. They don’t recall her mistreating the animals. Brancheau took her job seriously and would review tapes of her performances to evaluate what she needed to improve.

SeaWorld called Brancheau’s death an accident caused by “trainer error.” However, those who worked with her disagree. Trainers working that day said that the orcas had been behaving erratically all day, for example, chasing each other. During the last show, Tilikum grabbed Brancheau’s arm. At some point, the orca grabbed Brancheau’s ponytail and dragged her under the water.

Tilikum performs at SeaWorld
“File:Tilikum (orca) (Shamu).jpg” by Milan Boers is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Tilikum’s History

Tilikum was captured in Iceland in 1983 when he was 2 years old. Before arriving at SeaWorld in 1992, Tilikum performed at SeaLand Marine Park in Victoria, British Columbia. Former SeaWorld trainers said that Tilikum was isolated because he was being “beaten up” by the other orcas in captivity. Trainers described how orcas will bite each other. When the trainers would take a look at Tilikum in the morning, he was covered with bites. Tilikum was isolated for his protection. However, the trainers recall that Tilikum was “eager to please” and compliant. They also say that he seemed to enjoy working with them, and none of them were afraid of him.

Other Victims

Blackfish describes other deaths that Tilikum was allegedly connected to. In 1991, when Tilikum was a performer at SeaLand, trainer Keltie Byrne died during a show. SeaLand ruled that Bryne’s death was an accidental drowning. According to a 2017 CNN article, “Tilikum, killer whale at center of ‘Blackfish,’ dies,” Byrne slipped and fell into the whale tank with Tilikum and two other whales. Park visitors witnessed Byrne being pulled underwater.

Blackfish includes an interview with two women who visited the park that day. Both corroborate this account and say that they heard Byrne screaming. The two also identified Tilikum as the orca that dragged Byrne under by his distinct “flopped over” fin. They said that they were never contacted by anyone to ask what they saw after the incident.

Former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg recalled that when trainers were around Tilikum, management seemed nervous and even told them to stay away from him. Management reportedly never told SeaWorld trainers about what happened to Byrne at SeaLand.

In 1999, Daniel Dukes, 27, was found dead in the orca tank at SeaWorld. In one account, Dukes was found floating in the whale tank. However, according to Blackfish and a 2017 Live Science article, “Blackfish Orca Dies: How Tilikum Compares to Wild Cousins,”  Dukes was found on Tilikum’s back in the morning. According to Blackfish, Dukes had been arrested for breaking into SeaWorld. Dukes was described as “mentally disturbed,” and he allegedly wanted the “magical experience of swimming with an orca.” SeaWorld claimed that Dukes died of hypothermia. However, a trainer who saw the body said that Dukes had been mutilated. According to both Blackfish and Live Science, there’s no evidence that Tilikum killed Dukes.

An orca pokes their head out of the water.
“Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)” by Franco Folini is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


In Blackfish trainers detailed how newly captive orcas—always very young orcas—would be “broken.” The young orca would be put in a tank with adults. If the new orca didn’t perform, the other orcas were punished. Trainers claim that the orcas were deprived of food. 

Former SeaWorld trainer Carol Ray told a disturbing story about how a mother, Kasataka, was separated from her calf, Takara. She said that management did this because Takara was disruptive during performances. Takara was set to be shipped off to SeaWorld San Diego. She said that normally, Takara wasn’t as vocal as the other orcas. However, after being separated from her mother she began “screaming and crying.” Takara was put in another tank with females who Ray said checked on her periodically during the night. After Takara was gone, Kasataka began making a high-pitched noise unfamiliar to trainers. When they had someone come in to analyze the sounds Kasataka was making, they said that she was making long-distance calls to try to find Takara.

Banned from Washington State

During the 1970s, SeaWorld once sent crews to Washington State to round up young orcas. Diver John Crowe described how these crews would use planes and boats to round up the orcas and separate the calves from their mothers. He said that once the calves were caught, the other orcas just could’ve left the area, but they didn’t. They stayed and continued to vocalize and communicate back and forth. He said that he realized what he was doing. Crowe said it was “just like kidnapping a little kid from their mother.” He said that he continued to work but he eventually “lost it.”

The state eventually got a court order in 1976, banning SeaWorld from capturing orcas in the state. SeaWorld then went to Iceland to capture orcas.

An orca pod swims in the ocean.
“_BRK2563 Killer Whale (Orca) Pod through rain” by kasio69 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Wild vs. Captive Orcas

The documentary includes input from marine biologists including Howard Garrett, Ken Balcomb, and Dave Duffus, who observed orcas in the wild for many years. Comparing an orca’s life in the wild to the one experienced in captivity gives insight into perhaps why Tilikum and other orcas may become aggressive toward their trainers.

Tilikum passed away on January 6, 2017. Both Blackfish and Live Science compared the life of a captive orca to orcas in the wild. Tilikum was 36 years old when he died, measured 22.6 feet (6.9 meters), and weighed 12,500 lbs (5,600 kilograms). Live Science cites statistics from the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the lives of wild orcas. When comparing the two, Tilikum died younger, weighed much less than average, and was smaller than his wild cousins.

According to both, orcas live longer in the wild. Blackfish reports that according to SeaWorld, orcas have a lifespan of 30-36 years. However, in the wild male orcas can live up to 50 or 60 years old and females live anywhere from 50 to 100 years. 

While Tilikum was 22.6 feet (6.9 meters), wild males reached an average of 32 feet (10 m) and 28 feet (8.5 m) for females. Live Science adds that SeaWorld reported that Tilikum was on the “high side of average length for an Icelandic killer whale” and that the average length for a wild Icelandic orca is between 19 and 22 feet or 5.8 and 6.7 m.

Furthermore, whales in captivity are captured young. Wild orcas stay with their mother until their mother dies. Both Blackfish and Live Science report that orca pods are matrilineal. Both male and female calves stay with their mothers for life. While some orcas stay in one area, others are transient and will travel long distances in smaller groups. Live Science cites conservation organization Wild Whales as saying that even transient males stay with their mothers. If a male orca is swimming alone, it usually means his mother has died. Tilikum had only two years with his mother. 

Live Science also compares the diets of captive vs. wild orcas. In captivity, Tilikum was fed from 125 to 438 lbs (57 to 199 kg) per day (1 to 3.5 percent of his body weight) of smelt, herring, and squid. However, in the wild, an orca’s diet varies according to where they live. Their diet is more diverse including seabirds to seals and fish and other whales. The difference in diet could explain the difference in size and lifespan in captive vs. wild orcas.

The final statistic both Blackfish and Live Science provide is the number of human deaths attributed to captive versus wild orcas. Tilikum was blamed for three deaths. Wild orcas? None.

An orca pokes their head up from the water.
“Lolita Orca” by HockeyholicAZ is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Mind of An Orca

By far the most interesting piece of scientific evidence in the case against keeping whales in captivity is provided by neuroscientist Lori Marino in Blackfish.

Marino performed an MRI scan on the brain of an orca. She found that orcas have a part of the brain that humans don’t that extends out from their limbic system, which processes emotions.  Marino said that the “safest inference is that these animals have highly elaborated emotional lives.” She adds, “It’s becoming clear that dolphins and whales have a sense of self, a sense of social bonding, that they take it to another level much stronger, much more complex than in other mammals, including humans.”

The Truth About Blackfish?

SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for Blackfish. However, as far as the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau goes, they blamed it on the fact that she wore her hair in a ponytail. After Blackfish was released, SeaWorld denied this, contradicting the statements issued in 2010 that Brancheau’s death was due to “trainer error.” 

In response to Blackfish, SeaWorld created a website to refute the claims made in the documentary, called “The Truth About Blackfish.” It should be noted that the opinion is divided as to whether or not Blackfish is truthful. I should also point out that SeaWorld isn’t the only person to say that the documentary is misleading.

Scientists or Animal Rights Activists?

The Dodo published an article in 2014, detailing SeaWorld’s criticisms of the film Blackfish, “The Truth About ‘The Truth About Blackfish.’”  Dodo reports that SeaWorld claims that the people interviewed for the documentary were “animal rights activists masquerading as scientists.” The scientists in question are Howard Garrett, Lori Marino, and Ken Balcomb. These scientists did join former SeaWorld trainers and PETA in filing a lawsuit against SeaWorld regarding the treatment of orcas. Dodo points out the backgrounds of each scientist. Garrett and Balcomb have extensive experience with wild orcas. Balcomb has researched orca behavior for 40 years, observing the Pacific Northwest’s Southern Resident orcas. He also founded the Center for Whale Research which is recognized as one of the leading authorities on orcas. According to Orca Aware, Garrett has been researching orcas for 66 years and, yes, is an activist.

Marino is also highly respected in the field of cetacean neurology. Most notably, Marino is one of the scientists who determined that dolphins have mirror self-recognition. While Marino hasn’t worked with live orcas, their morphology is very similar to the bottlenose dolphins which she does have extensive experience studying. Her information on the orca’s brain comes from an MRI study.

However, all the site points out in response to Marino’s comments is that she is an animal rights activist whose comments are falsehoods and propaganda. No scientific research is provided to refute Marino’s or any other marine biologist’s claims regarding orcas. These individuals are scientists who have studied dolphin and whale behavior. Perhaps, they are siding with PETA as well as former trainers because of their research findings regarding orca behavior.

An orca jumps from the water.
“Killer Whale (Resident Orca)” by Shawn McCready is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Was Blackfish Made by an Animal Rights Activist?

According to the website SeaWorld Fact Check, Blackfish filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite has no history of being an animal rights activist before making Blackfish. The website goes on to report that she had taken her children to SeaWorld in the past. After hearing about Brancheau’s death, she thought that the incident wasn’t consistent with SeaWorld’s claims that the orca trainers have an “amazing bond” with their charges. She initially set out to make a film about Brancheau. However, the more she looked into the matter, “[…]she realized the story was also very much about Tilikum, the other orcas and trainers, and SeaWorld itself.”

The website states that “Prior to making Blackfish, Ms. Cowperthwaite was unknown to the wider anti-captivity movement, including PETA. When she contacted various scientists and advocates, including those responsible for this website, for interviews and background, she was doing so as a journalist making a documentary, not as an activist.”

The site points out that Cowperthwaite did contact SeaWorld for their participation. They declined. 

A 2013 Live Science op-ed by Jeff Nesbit, “‘Blackfish’ Is an Intense Look at Orcas in Captivity,” quotes Cowperthwaite as saying, “I think SeaWorld is just looking to sow a seed of doubt because they have to. […] There were so many things I didn’t include because they took us away from Tilikum, but they were very disturbing and could have easily loaded the film and turned it into a piece of activism—which was never my intent.” She told, “I never started out thinking I wanted to shut SeaWorld down. I’m not an activist. I am a storyteller.”

The Trainers

Maybe the trainers are disgruntled employees. The following 2017 article, “The Truth Behind The Film ‘Blackfish,” on Odyssey, reported that the trainers each had some issue with their employment which led to them either quitting or being fired from SeaWorld. According to the article, some never worked with the orcas or in the same SeaWorld branch where Tilikum lived. 

People quit or lose jobs for several reasons. Furthermore, other than ex-employees, marine biologists and a neuroscientist were interviewed (recall John Crowe’s memorable comments). Does it really matter which specific SeaWorld park they worked in? After all, every park probably has the same protocol and procedures. We can speculate over every little detail. However, I just couldn’t find any criticism that I couldn’t question. It’s all just speculation.

An orca fin is visible as it swims in the ocrean.
“Surfaced Orca I” by A.Davey is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

From the Petting Pool to Performance Training

The article,“Blackfish Revisited” by Robert Anderson on Medium poses an interesting question. He points out that, since its founding, SeaWorld has had 62 orcas in captivity. Out of 62 orcas, 27 have a record of one or more incidents with trainers. Some of these other orcas were discussed in the documentary Blackfish. 

Anderson points out that the incidents documented in Blackfish involved 11 out of 16 orcas with four or more incidents: Kalina who bullied Tilikum when he first arrived at SeaWorld; Kasataka, the orca who was separated from her calf; Takara, and also had an incident where she pulled a trainer, Ken Peters, underwater; another, Kandu 5, is shown bleeding to death after a fight with Corky 2. Orkid and Splash pulled Tamarie Tollison underwater, breaking her arm. Then there’s Keto, who killed trainer Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque.

These orcas do have something in common. Each one spent time in SeaWorld’s dolphin petting pool while in training. The petting pool is about the size of a municipal swimming pool. Visitors to the park could go to interact with the animals. There are no documented incidents of visitors being harmed. According to Anderson, the orcas experienced very close and positive interactions with visitors. From the dolphin pool, the orcas moved on to training and performing and allegedly isolation and captivity. Anderson’s theory is that the orcas went from a warm, positive, and friendly environment to an extremely lonely and abusive one. Take this information and pair it with Marino’s observations as a neuroscientist. Could this explain the orca’s aggressive behavior?

The Future of Orcas at SeaWorld

As of 2016, SeaWorld announced that it will no longer breed orcas. The current generation of orcas remaining at SeaWorld will be the last. In a 2016 article on The Dodo, “VICTORY: SeaWorld Will Never Breed Orcas Again,” SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said that the theatrical orca shows would be phased out. However, SeaWorld plans to continue to rescue and rehabilitate sea animals. “As one of the largest rescue organizations in the world, we will increase our focus on rescue operations—so that the thousands of stranded marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions that cannot be released back to the wild will have a place to go,” Manby said.

The website Endless Summer Florida has a page for “The Orca Encounter at SeaWorld Orlando (2022)” that describes a new version of the “Shamu Show” which launched on January 1, 2020. The show includes a 30-minute educational presentation on how orcas live, hunt, and play, a video presentation, and trainers interacting with the orcas.

According to SeaWorld’s website, the “Orca Encounter will leave you with a deeper understanding of these magnificent animals and will inspire you to care even more profoundly for the wonders of our natural world.”   

Many articles present opposing viewpoints that question the film Blackfish. While the opposition’s speculations do make sense, the points raised just aren’t compelling. For example, none of it is scientific data that discredit the data presented in the documentary. It’s an interesting subject to take a deep dive into.

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Written by MD Bastek

Just a person who loves horror and writes about unusual things

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