'Blackfish' documentary probes orca's secret life.

AuthorDuckett, Richard

Byline: Richard Duckett

WORCESTER -- Native Americans called orca whales "blackfish'' out of respect for the awesome creatures. While friendly in the wild, the orca was "not to be meddled with.''

The documentary "Blackfish'' shows what can happen when such wisdom is not heeded.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's focus is on the 12,000 pound male orca Tilikum, who in 2010 pulled Dawn Branchau, a senior trainer st SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., underwater. Branchau drowned and one of her arms was swallowed. Tilikum had been implicated in two other deaths, but has continued to entertain the audiences at SeaWorld with his dramatic leaps through the air (with a human performer aloft) and seemingly cute dolphin-like personality.

Officials at SeaWorld have strongly criticized "Blackfish'' for its suggestion that Tilikum is indeed a killer whale and assertions that orca whales in general are mistreated.

But Cowperthwaite's style, in fact, isn't overtly confrontational or angrily accusative. If anything, the film could have benefited from a greater sense of the fluid and dramatic (and her use of graphics comes across as decidedly old-fashioned). Instead, Cowperthwaite is quite methodical and almost understated as she lets interview after interview with people who have been involved in the capture/training of orcas (and Tilikum in particular) build an accumulative case against meddling. Many of those interviewed were well-intentioned initially, but now have deep regrets.

The word "meddling'' is perhaps too kind to describe the calculating, cold and cruel capturing of orca whales for commercial performance purposes depicted in the film. It's a practice that goes back years, and may not be so common now only because a number of orcas have been bred in captivity (Tilikum has several offspring).

Orcas, we learn, are very intelligent and also highly social, family oriented creatures, and separation causes intense distress. The hunts invariably separated the young whales from the older, and the sounds of their long distance cries as they forlornly attempt to communicate with each other are really quite haunting. In one poignant interview, hunter John Crowe regretfully remembers them more than 30 years later.

Tilikum grew up, so to speak, in the former SeaLand near Vancouver, Canada, a cheap-looking outpost where he was with two older female orcas who didn't take kindly to the collective food deprivation punishment imposed when Tilikum...

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