"I'm a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld," says Gabriela Cowperthwaite, but that was in another life, before a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tilikum in 2010, and before that death led Cowperthwaite to make a documentary film about the events leading up to the moment that whale dragged his longtime trainer into the pool. Cowperthwaite's film was conceived as the story of one woman's drowning, but it turned into a documentary about the 49 years since people first put orcas on display, about the three people Tilikum has allegedly killed, about the trainers who risk their lives to do stunts with 10,000-pound animals that may or may not be psychotic, and about the corporation, SeaWorld, that doesn't seem to care. Many of the frightening clashes between trainers and whales are caught on the shaky handheld cameras of park-goers. The film is called Blackfish, and it is harrowing.
In SeaWorld's official statement on the film, the company maintains that "Blackfish fails to make the most important points about SeaWorld: The company is dedicated in every respect to the safety of our staff and the welfare of animals." SeaWorld's representatives have not yet seen the film, which comes out July 19. Tilikum, who is still in Orlando and still being used for breeding, was involved in the deaths of Keltie Byrne in 1991, Daniel P. Dukes in 1999, and Brancheau in 2010.
Early on in the movie, Carol Ray, one of eight former park employees interviewed for the documentary, memorably says that although she thought you'd need special training to work with whales, "It really is more about your personality and how good you can swim."
The film centers on both the morality of keeping whales in captivity for entertainment (the movie comes down firmly on the side of "immoral") and the workplace hazards faced by the trainers who work with these animals.
"I would say there's more than just whale exploitation going on," explains Jeffrey Ventre, a trainer at SeaWorld until 1995 who appears in the documentary. Several of the trainers said they participated in the film to prevent another death.
The film started as Cowperthwaite's investigation into the dangerous labor practices that led to Brancheau's death (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also thought SeaWorld was a dangerous work environment, and in August 2010, six months after Brancheau's death, it cited SeaWorld for having unsafe working conditions), but the film evolved into a cross-species investigation.
"I backed into the whole whale issue," Cowperthwaite says. "I guess I knew that I couldn't tell the story of the trainers without the whales, and I couldn't tell the story of the whales without the trainers."
"They're both victims of the system," she adds.
Cowperthwaite and the trainers all describe being "mesmerized" by the park and its consistent message of these whales are our friends, and they are happy to be here. The wild animals swimming in the tanks don't always fit that profile: In the course of researching her film, Cowperthwaite says she came across a video of a group of killer whales breaking off in the middle of the "Shamu" show to rip apart a pelican.
"This doesn't really sell Shamu dolls," Cowperthwaite says.
"I did two tours in the Shamu Stadium," Ventre says, referring to the experiences in the parlance of war. Footage of whale captures, he says, are his version of battle scars — he cries whenever he watches them. On his first "tour," he recalls, he still had his "naïve dreams" of being friends with the whales. The second time around, he had learned a little about orcas, and about how they swim up to 100 miles every day in the ocean, a difference from the small circles they swim in the pools at SeaWorld.
Former trainers also say they were underpaid for the dangerous work they were asked to do. Samantha Berg, who worked with Ventre as a trainer at SeaWorld, says she made just $7.50 an hour when she started in 1990 — and eventually earned $12.50 an hour after three and a half years working at the park.
"The pay scale has changed…but it's still, for the danger that people put themselves through and the physical abuse...," Berg begins, cutting herself off to describe the bruises and the sinus troubles, the injuries and the pains involved in leaping off whales' faces and diving into pools.
"I would not say that that was well compensated, for what we did."
None of the trainers in the film are current SeaWorld employees — several left the park in the mid-'90s. In Berg's case, it was only hindsight that made her lose her rose-colored glasses.
"Up until the point where Dawn was killed, I was generally proud of being a SeaWorld trainer," she says.
Brancheau's death also moved Ray, who says it was like "a call to action."
"Ultimately, why it happened is tied to the conditions that the animals are living in," Ray says.
Both Berg and Ray say the movie will have an impact on current SeaWorld employees "if they see it," skeptical about whether dedicated trainers will want to acknowledge the film or simply turn a blind eye. They both say they lost SeaWorld friends over their participation in the movie, and Berg says some park employees she knew refused to read Ventre's article "Keto & Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity" because they didn't want to know.
"The same people who were in charge when we were there are still in charge," Berg says.
Berg, Ray, Ventre, and Cowperthwaite all say they want a change in the structure of the park, a shift away from entertainment and toward education. They don't know if that will happen. But when they screened the movie for high school students, the teenagers "got it," Berg says. So, cautiously, they are hopeful.