The documentary director on perpetrating the shady cult of Seaworld
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite believes there is something seriously shady going on amidst the sun-dazzled, “family-friendly” seapark industries of Seaworld San Diego and Orlando, and Parque Loro in Tenerife. With shocking footage and highly emotional interviews, her second feature-length documentary Blackfish, reveals the behind-the-scenes blood in the pool: the story of Tilikum, a captive killer whale responsible for the death of three individuals. Even more compelling is Cowperthwaite’s own personal fears of revenge from the American multi-billion dollar company. Her eye-opening anecdotes include perversely cruel treatment of the highly evolved, intelligent shamu species, as well as the secret pressures and bullying within the “lifer cult” culture of its trainers, which rivals that of Scientology followers.
Have you visited Seaworld since you finished the film?
No, I imagine myself being on a target list, my face on a dartboard.
Did you at any point have fears of repercussions, lawsuits, and inciting a furor in the media?
I'm always afraid of that. I have a family, I have a bank account that they could drain in about a week - a lot to lose. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have cared as much - that’s what you live for as a documentary filmmaker. That said, I have an airtight document. I tell the truth, and that protects me, and helps me sleep at night.
Do you often wake up feeling empowered, knowing you’re a truth-teller, a whistleblower?
There were actually countless more incendiary stories about Seaworld that I could have shoehorned in there, that would’ve made people very angry and sad. It could’ve been a six hour film.
Why did you choose not to include those stories?
Because they weren’t part of the story I was trying to tell. I decided very early on that I would tell a truthful, narrative-driven story from begining to end. I didn’t want the audience to feel that they were sitting in on someone’s 80 minute agenda. That makes it more digestible to audiences, they remember what you tell them better, and they don’t feel overwhelmed. People are too smart. They know when you’re doing it just for the drama.
Why did they claim that Dawn Brancheau slipped and fell? Why did they say it was her ponytail? What can they do but give me a bunch of half-truths and redirect the question?
What swayed you in the ex-trainers’ favour?
There were revelatory moments for me. Like when I found out about the calf separations: I couldn’t believe that Seaworld’s upper management would be okay with that, given what we know about these animals’ social needs. I kept emailing them over the course of six months, and they said they were ”entertaining the notion of allowing me to interview them,” that it was ”looking positive.”
Do you believe that they ever genuinely intended on giving you an interview?
People who know far more about this type of thing said that they always pretend they’re going to interview you - then they don’t, in the end. I understood why they didn’t want to be interviewed. I would’ve asked them: why did they claim that Dawn Brancheau slipped and fell? Why did they say it was her ponytail? What can they do but give me a bunch of half-truths and redirect the question? I heard the disingenuous way that they answered questions up on the witness stand during the OSHA trial.
The overwhelming majority of ex-trainers remain adamantly vocal against Seaworld’s whale policies. Why do you think head trainer Kelly Clark lied and covered up in court for Seaworld?
One distinction I love making - and hope I made in the film - is that the trainers are the people that love the animals. They’re the ones who aren’t paid very much, that put their bodies through all sorts of torture and injury for these whales everyday. Kelly Clark is upper management, working on behalf of the business side of Seaworld.
But she went through the same initial training as the ex-trainers?
Correct. So then why did she end up that way? Many people call them ”lifers” - those who never get out, and are promoted by Seaworld. They tend to dig their heels in, become beholden to the process. They’re justifying their livelihood.
Is Tilikum still performing the big splash at the end of Seaworld’s shows, and is there still a suspension on trainers doing waterwork?
Unfortunately, Tilikum is still performing. The suspension is in effect but what people don’t know is that the trainers can still be in the water with the whales afterwards, backstage, and during direct training.
How is it that possible?
There was a misstep when the investigation was written up.
Has it fundamentally changed the way you view the relationship between animals and humans?
When I see those types of shows now, I don’t see love. They speak of mastery to me. We are eternally curious as human beings, but seeking understanding of another species so quickly crosses over to wanting to control. Animals for entertainment and working for their food is just the bottom of the ethical totem pole, in my opinion. Period.
What can viewers do to help, to get involved?
The three most important things are: don’t go to Seaworld - there are other ways to learn about animals. The second one is to end captive breeding. There’s already enough frozen sperm to last another 80 years collected from Tilikum and other whales! The third is advocating for some kind of rehab and release. We should let them live out their lives in a better environment, whether its larger pools or a sea pen - a cordoned-off cove of the ocean - and do a controlled, semi-release. They can’t be dumped back into the ocean because they don’t know how to eat live fish; lots of them are hopped up on antibiotics and would die. That’s a role that Seaworld could play as well. They may be the only ones with the resources to do something like that.
How is it possible that after multiple deaths and 70 plus recorded injuries and accidents, no one ended up suing Seaworld?
I was not able to get a hold of a single trainer who had had an accident in the film. I wasn’t able to vet whether or not they settled out of court. But that’s the obvious conclusion. I think a lot of people settled. Seaworld goes to great lengths to avoid any media pressure.
The way the trainers describe it, it's a cult. They get you in your twenties, when you’re fresh out of college, and the other trainers become your peer group. You’re working yourself to exhaustion.
Do you know what your next project will be about?
I do, but it's such horrendous documentary karma to talk about it.
How many more deaths do you think it will take until Seaworld is shut down?
I don’t know that they can be shut down, unless we decide to not go anymore. They’re not going to close because trainers die - they have people right now who would pay to work there, even with all the risks. It's their life’s dream to swim with orcas. Seaworld has convinced the trainers that incidents with whales are avoidable, and the better a trainer you are, the more avoidable these incidents are. Until Dawn - a top trainer, who did everything right - died, people didn’t realize that training doesn’t matter. Also, trainers don’t want to report the incidents, because they might get benched. Upper management uses love as leverage.
It's difficult to believe trainers willingly put up with such brutal working conditions, appearing mostly middle-class, well-educated, with career options in the film.
The way the trainers describe it, it's a cult. They get you in your twenties, when you’re fresh out of college, and other Seaworld trainers become your peer group. These are the people you want to impress - you’re all wearing the same uniform, and taught media training very early, so there’s a way that you talk and discuss things with people. You’re working yourself to exhaustion. Knees, ears are blown out because of the deep water swimming. Backs, shoulders go out. The fact that there’s a job that requires you to do this on a daily basis, to put yourself at risk, is kind of egregious. It becomes your life and you don’t pay attention to any science. Anyone who has any opinions about whales outside of Seaworld are written off as crazies.
What if you were genuinely terrified for your life and refused to get into the water - does that mean you got sacked?
Yes, you could be. There was one trainer who spoke to me about being terrified of being in Shamu Stadium, swimming with a killer whale, and certainly terrified of Tilikum. She was put under duress, and told, ”if you don’t do xyz, you’ll be terminated.” Soon after she quit, Dawn was killed. She said, ”I was doing deep waterwork with an 8,000 ton whale and I let management know that I was terrified, and they made me stay there. They wouldn’t let me leave.”
Blackfish is out now. Take action, visit the website set up by some of the ex-trainers featured in the film: Voice of the Orcas (VOTO)