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Losing Your Innocence To An Orca Whale

| Sande Caplin |

This article was originally written on 4/8/2013.  We wanted to share again.

I feel like a child who has lost her innocence after seeing Sarasota Film Festival’s opening night movie called “Blackfish”.  Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite……  powerful, emotional, and revealing- just three of a slew of words I could use to describe the experience.  I was a Mom who had taken her son to Sea World.  What could be more thrilling than watching a trainer ride on the back of a two ton Orca Whale? Why is it, as a culture, we try to humanize wild animals? Take Polar Bears.  Don’t they look like fun? All white, and fluffy, and seemingly human. 

They forgot to teach us in school that we are nothing like animals.  Our urges, hungers, and protective senses, they are all within the human realm.  The urges, hungers and protective feelings of a wild tiger, well, we can observe those traits and document them by

Videography,  but their daily life is about survival.  Nothing about it resembles our daily routines and emotions.  After viewing this magnificently painful film, I felt like that small child again-the one who stuck her hand in the parrot’s cage and got bitten; the one who reached out to pet a dog who elicited a growl the likes of which I had never heard before.  That growl elicits in us the normal reaction to danger; fear, surprise, and regret.

As the movie unfolds, you are shown how fishermen in massive boats go out into the deepest and coldest part of the ocean and net the baby whales that are swimming with their mothers.  When they finally manage to get the mothers away from the babies, all you hear is crying; crying akin to baying, travailing, groaning and weeping, in a painful and haunting way that defies description within our human abilities to communicate emotion. The babies are then taken to various ocean parks across the country and are introduced to a new and completely unnatural life of performing tricks for a bucket of fish and some hugs and kisses from the trainers.  At night they go into a tank that gives them no room to separate from each other, also completely unnatural.  The first physical body part to go is their teeth. This is the result of trying to bite their way through the metal bars around the confinement cages and tanks.  Barbarically, holes are drilled into their teeth to get decay out, but then those holes are left open and make the ideal breeding ground for bacteria to seep into.  And that menacing looking fin that signals their presence in the ocean, the first sign we see when they are close, well, that lops over to one side and never stands up again after time in captivity, almost like they’ve lost their will.

I found it hard to believe that the trainers, in spite of co-workers losing life and/or limb, stayed on the job.  Perhaps they felt they could protect these mammals in some way.  It certainly was touching to see the love between the whales and their trainers.  That shared love was an illustration of the fact that we have the ability to love something wild, but we cannot be totally sure of their next move.  No trainer believed that any whale raised in captivity was looking to maim or kill anyone, but at the tipping point, or the particular moment that danger was perceived by an Orca and reacted to, it was because of the particular way whales are wired. Some emotion rose up from their wild side, from their innate, built-in behaviors, and those became like signals that had gotten crossed. Something happened that they didn’t understand. One fateful day, trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World, wore a ponytail instead of tying up her hair on top of her head. Her routine with Tillikum, the granddaddy of all captive whales, seemed to be going fine, until the whale got fixated or confused and wanted that pony tail to go away.  He continually dragged her down to the bottom of the tank and she eventually drowned.  How many kids saw that?  How many kids will be haunted by that image for the rest of their lives?  Not to mention adults, and more specifically, the trainers.

All people hold a fascination for animals.  Every child has had stuffed animals growing up, and hopefully has had the opportunity to observe animals in their own habitat; not in a prison of restriction, not in a circus or water show, not to entertain people at the cost of their lives, their health, and the cost of being taken out of the world they were made to live in. I am in awe of the producer and director of this movie.   The film has been purchased by a major studio and will be distributed in the near future.  You need to see it, and your kids need to see it too.  I wouldn’t recommend it for children under 10 years old.  Let the innocent stay innocent for as long as possible.

Laurie MirkinThe writer, Laurie Mirkin can be reached via email at

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