A birthday trip to SeaWorld turned disturbing when a young pilot whale beached itself and then apparently couldn't get back into the water. Video footage of the "stranded" whale has gone viral, though SeaWorld officials say the whale's behavior was normal.
On the heels of the stranded whale video comes "Blackfish," a documentary that may do for killer whales at marine parks what the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary "The Cove" did for dolphin slaughter in Japan.
Like the viral video, "Blackfish" began with a family trip to SeaWorld. The documentary explores what may have caused Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca, to kill three people, including veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
News of Ms. Brancheau's death during a show at SeaWorld in Orlando inspired director Gabriela Cowperthwaite to explore what happened. SeaWorld first claimed that the trainer had slipped and fallen; later, it said Tilikum had been spooked by Brancheau's ponytail.
"Tilikum did not attack Dawn," SeaWorld said in a written response to the film. "All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water."
The director, who has made documentaries for ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the Discovery and History channels, said it took two years to make the film. She procured footage from local and national newscasts, people's personal archives, and through the Freedom of Information Act.
"It was just perseverance when it came to getting footage," she said in an interview. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Once you see that, you can't unsee it. In my mind. that gave me my directive. Now that I know the truth, I have to tell the truth. I didn't imagine that I was going to be making this film. I thought I was gonna be making a completely different film about relationships with our animal counterparts. So it was really learning through interviews and stuff and seeing footage."
Key footage became public after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration took SeaWorld to court and the images became exhibits in the case, she said.
She recruited animal-behavior experts, marine park patrons who witnessed whale attacks during performances, and former SeaWorld trainers willing to go on the record.
"Personally, I started learning stuff about the animals I didn't know, and I was working there," said former SeaWorld orca trainer Samantha Berg.
Tilikum, born in the wild near Iceland in 1983, was captured and sent to a marine park near Vancouver before he was sold to SeaWorld in Orlando. The film shows divers trapping and kidnapping baby whales for shipment to theme parks while their mothers watched and screeched in agony.
In its statement about the film, SeaWorld said it hasn't captured killer whales from the wild in more than 35 years and that 80 percent of its animals were born there or in other zoological facilities.
The director says she sought comment from SeaWorld, which owns parks in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio. But the company declined to appear in "Blackfish," opting instead to issue its July 12 statement, which characterized the film as "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate."
Another former SeaWorld orca trainer, Carol Ray, said whale watching is a wonderful way to see these majestic animals up close.
"If you could afford to take a family of four to a SeaWorld Park somewhere around the country, then you can also take your family to a place where you can watch the whales from the shore," Ray said. "Those are great opportunities for seeing them where they're supposed to be... When I have friends that come to me and say things like, 'Yeah, I really want my kids to see them up close,' (I say), 'You know, your kids love dinosaurs, right? They do. They are fascinated by them. They have never seen a dinosaur, have they?'"
"Blackfish" opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday.