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Cover 08/07/2013

Can Captivity Kill?: New documentary targets SeaWorld

Photo: Courtesy Photos, License: N/A

Courtesy Photos

A penny for your thoughts—where would Tilikum rather be? At SeaWorld or in the wild?

Photo: , License: N/A

Related: “Blackfish” Documentary Echoes Seaworld San Antonio Troubles

A slick black lump of blubbery flesh flops around on a ledge in a shallow pool of water while an audience—who’d come here to be entertained and, hopefully, educated—watches. Whether they’ll find the next few minutes entertaining is debatable, but they are about to get an education.

The rain is beating down on the pools at SeaWorld Orlando, so the show everyone’s come to see has been postponed. The trainers have headed indoors because the threat of lightning makes it potentially dangerous for them to be in the water. So the crowd’s attention settles on this one whale—a short-finned pilot whale, dark with a stubby nose—lying on the ledge. Some in the crowd seem to think he’s in distress, and they yell for somebody to help him. Nobody comes. Another whale pops out of the pool and touches the one on the ledge, making it look as if it’s trying to help—or encourage— the other whale back into the pool. A hysterical child screams for someone to help the “dolphin,” the crowd’s yelling becomes higher pitched and an adult male voice is heard swearing with anger.

A female voice comes over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, I do understand that you can see some whales sliding up over on our other pool,” she says, trying to calm the spectators. “They can get back into the pool. They do slide up on their own.”

But on this day, just last month, this particular whale doesn’t quickly slide back into the pool on its own. Instead, it bats its tail around and looks limp. One park-goer, Carlos De Leonibus, says he went to find staffers to ask them to help the stranded whale, but he was told it was fine. Eventually, staff members did have to go out to assist the whale back into the water. But in the meantime, De Leonibus videotaped the scene and put it up on YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Now it’s been shared via the Huffington Post, NBC News, the Daily News and other national media outlets, alongside interviews with De Leonibus saying that his family was horrified, his daughter traumatized. Hardly mentioned in most of the coverage is the fact that the formerly wild whale was found beached and stranded in South Florida last Labor Day and now lives at SeaWorld Orlando because it wasn’t deemed fit for survival on its own in the wild.

“The pilot whale shown in the video is not stranded or beached on the ledge at SeaWorld Orlando’s whale and dolphin stadium,” SeaWorld said in a statement released after outcry over the video reached a peak. “The whale was never in danger. This is social and play behavior our trainers see daily and sometimes hourly by the pilot whales. If you listen closely, the trainer on the microphone is trying to tell the audience just that.”

The incident came at a fairly inconvenient time for the theme park giant, which operates SeaWorlds in San Antonio, Orlando and San Diego. Just a couple of weeks ago, on July 19, Magnolia Pictures released a documentary film called Blackfish that puts SeaWorld in the hot seat. It’s a detailed exploration of the events and aftermath related to the 2010 death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by a wild-caught orca whale named Tilikum. The massive whale pulled her underwater and battered her body during a normally lighthearted Dine with Shamu show. A horrified audience and her helpless coworkers witnessed the whole tragedy. Three years later, the publicly traded theme park giant is still battling with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over citations and fines related to the incident—OSHA says the park willfully puts its trainers in harm’s way on a regular basis. SeaWorld insists that safety is its first priority. Blackfish challenges that assertion.

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