Tilikum, the Killer Whale from the Blackfish Documentary

Tilikum, the Killer Whale Responsible for Trainer Dawn Brancheau’s Death

Blackfish Documentary Director

Gabriela Cowperthwaite Takes On Sea World


In February of 2010, during a moment of post-show bonding, a killer whale at Sea World in Orlando suddenly grabbed his trainer by the ponytail, pulled her underwater, and shook her violently. The trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau– literally the poster girl for the theme park– was pronounced dead on the scene. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the Blackfish documentary, had a simple question: Why?


Inspired in part by The Killer in the Pool, an in-depth expose written by Tom Zimmerman for Outside magazine, Cowperthwaite delved deeper into the murky world of captive cetacean facilities. Former Sea World trainers came out of the woodwork to talk to her for Blackfish, in large part to refute much of the misinformation about the tragic incident being spread by Sea World’s PR people.


Doing for whales what The Cove did for dolphins, Blackfish examines how whales were historically captured for facilities such as Sea World, explains why these remarkably intelligent creatures are especially ill-suited for captivity, and shines a harsh spotlight on an entire industry that uses animals for human entertainment. In the end, the film suggests that it’s not Tilikum who is to blame for Dawn Brancheau’s death, but Sea World itself (and its customers, by proxy).


There’s been a lot of controversy swirling around the documentary, with Sea World and the filmmakers (including Zimmerman, who served as an associate producer) each firing off press releases accusing the other of lying. So we were excited to get a chance to speak with Cowperthwaite about her undeniably disturbing film.


Whale Trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World

Dawn Brancheau Doing the Job She Loved at Sea World


What was it about Dawn Brancheau’s death at Sea World that inspired you to make this movie?

I didn’t understand how this tragedy could’ve happened­– how a Killer Whale could’ve killed a top-level trainer. I imagined it was an anomaly. The more I researched, the more confused I became. First it was communicated that she had slipped and fallen into the pool. Then it was said that she’d been held down by her ponytail. Then there was a suggestion that the whale, Tilikum, was associated with two prior deaths. I started vigorously peeling back the onion, and I stumbled on Tim Zimmermann’s article from Outside magazine. It was revelatory. He looked at how Killer Whales had been captured in the early ‘70s, and how they first came to marine parks all over the world. It was a very comprehensive article, so I called him and asked if he’d come aboard as an associate producer.


You interviewed many former Sea World employees in the film. Were they at all hesitant to talk, or were people eager to go on the record about Sea World?

Some trainers became vocal in the media after Dawn Bancheau’s death. They heard stories coming out of Sea World about her death, and they knew something was very off. I think what drove them to be interviewed was the desire to make sure I told a factual story. When they left Sea World, I think it was a hard decision because they knew they were leaving the whales behind. They’re speaking up now on behalf of the whales. I think that was something they all needed for closure.


Tilikum Performing at Sea World

Tilikum the Killer Whale Performing at Sea World


Did you get a sense that these folks want to atone for how Sea World’s whales have been treated?

There’s no question! That was the part of this documentary I didn’t expect– for everyone to have such strong emotional bonds with their whales. They talk about them like they’re their children. These are highly intelligent animals, capable of tremendously strong bonds. They have everything in their brains that we have, plus they have a part that we don’t have. The more I learned about whales, the more I understood how strongly humans can bond with them.


How did your respect and understanding of whales change over the course of this project?

I understand so much more about this animal’s capacity. I’ve learned there’s absolutely no way a human can provide even a fraction of what a whale needs to survive, let alone thrive. They’re so complex. They’re built for speed. They grieve the loss of their young. They swim 100 miles a day. How could we think that we can give them what they need? It’s a silly mad scientist experiment! And I think, 40 years later, we’re seeing that it didn’t work. We’re only paying attention to it now because a trainer was killed. Sadly, that’s the only reason I was making the film, so I have to call myself out here, too.


Blackfish Documentary Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite


Did Sea World ever talk to you at all, or did they simply ignore your requests for an interview?

They entertained the idea. Or at least they told me they were likely to grant me an interview. Over the course of six months, we went back and forth over emails. I gave them my list of questions, which is something you usually never do in a documentary. But that’s how badly I wanted them to have a voice in this film. Eventually they declined.


Did they give you a reason?

I’m exposing things in this film that Sea World has successfully kept under wraps for 40 years. They certainly don’t want to acknowledge that some of these things happen, let alone talk about them and examine why they happen. The more I learned about what that park has been doing, the more I came to understand that they wouldn’t talk to me.


Children at Sea World Try to Engage Tilikum

Children at Sea World Try to Engage Tilikum


Talk to me about Sea World’s statement, refuting many of the film’s facts, which came out last week.

It’s old fashioned damage control. What’s interesting is that they came after the facts, which is not fruitful stomping grounds for them. Challenging facts is not something Sea World has ever been good at, so it was odd that they took that tactic. We rebuked everything they brought up quite easily, because the facts are indisputable. But what it also did was to bring all of these people out of the woodwork that I never would’ve heard from otherwise. Former Sea World trainers who weren’t in the film are contacting me. Veterinarians are contacting me, saying that not only is Blackfish factually correct, but you’re barely scratching the surface. Effectively, Sea World opened a big can of worms.


The film opened in New York and L.A., but I noticed people on your Facebook page asking about opening dates in their area. Are you trying to let it build organically?

Magnolia Pictures has taken over the theatrical endeavor, so they’re the ones connected to the theatres. I do know that if people live in a town where the picture isn’t opening, they can go to their local theater and request it. It’s spreading to more new cities every day.


A Pod of Killer Whales in the Open Sea

A Pod of Killer Whales in the Open Sea


What do you hope this film will do for the captive cetacean industry, Sea World, and whales in general?

I hope Blackfish can be an agent of change in the way humans use animals for entertainment. We’re hoping Sea World will use some of their $2.7 billion in annual revenue to create rehab and release facilities for whales. They could create sea pens, where they cordone off an ocean cove and retire their whales to an open ocean environment. People say, “Why can’t you just release the whales?” But they were raised in captivity, and they don’t know how to eat live fish. There’s tremendous training involved in teaching them that. Doing this in a controlled sea pen environment could be a profit-driven endeavor, and I think school groups would come to see Killer Whales in the ocean. They’d be seeing the real thing for the first time. I think there is something very hopeful about where all this will ultimately take us…  –Bret Love; all photos provided by Magnolia Pictures


If you enjoyed our interview with Blackfish Documentary Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, you might also like: 

INTERVIEW: Jean-Michel Cousteau On Marine Conservation

INTERVIEW: Artist/Marine Conservationist Guy Harvey

ANTARCTICA: The Whales of Antarctica


Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Fights For Marine Life

ENDANGERED SPECIES SPOTLIGHT: Southern Resident Killer Whales

42 Responses to INTERVIEW: Blackfish Documentary Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Takes On Sea World

  • I’m intrigued to see this documentary. The Cove really opened my eyes and changed the way I think about so many things. I’ve never been a fan of orcas being in captivity, but I’m sure once I get to view this documentary I will have even stronger views about it.

  • Mica says:

    Mike was just telling me about this the other day. I have a huge problem with Zoos and places where animals are held in captivity. Its a fine line- I understand many of them would not survive in the wild but its heartbreaking to see them not in their natural surroundings, of which some don’t even have any more. There are so many things wrong with what Sea World is doing, yet it baffles me that millions of people take their children there each year. I remember when that woman died and I like to think the animal did not mean to hurt her. If their bond was strong, they would have had alot of love for each other right?
    We will be waiting to see this film. The worst of it is, I don’t think Sea World will do what Garbriela is suggesting and create sea pens. The big guys never want to do the right thing, they just want to do their own thing.
    The last time I went to a Zoo- which was the Miami Zoo with my mom- we both ran out crying. Although I did recently visit the Tasmanian Conservation Park near Port Arthur and I think they are doing great work to try to help save the tassie devils. But different scenario.

    I liked reading this. I rarely ever comment but I love you guys’ stuff.

    • Don’t wait to see it, Mica! Help us spread the word, as this film needs all the help it can get. Sea World is trying to bury it. And thanks very much for the compliments, and the comment. Would love to hear more from you! Let us know if you want to talk about that internship… 😉

  • Linda says:

    There is very little to add, really, is there? Your questions are answered directly and are complete. There are, in fact, demonstrations all over the world at places where orcas are held captive, on the 27th https://www.facebook.com/EmptyTheTanksWorldwide Hopefully public opinion can help stop this awful stuff…..then dolphins too!

    • Thanks for telling us about the demonstrations on the 27th! We had no idea that was happening. We’ll definitely do our part to spread the word. Hope you’ll share the Blackfish story with the people who might be interested.

  • I’ve been against captive animals as entertainment for years. I haven’ seen Blackfish yet but I’m sure it will only reinforce my view that humans are certainly smart enough to find way to entertain ourselves that don’t involve swimming with dolphins or watching orcas leap out of the water on command.

    • The interesting thing is that, in our experience, dolphins and whales actively WANT to interact with us in the wild. So why is it that we feel the need to imprison them and force our will upon them? Seems odd, but I guess profit is the only rational answer…

  • Terri says:

    Keeping animals captive for entertainment is cruel and unnecessary. I really look forward to this documentary causing a major change in the perception of the public and the profitability of these businesses. May they all be closed and we funnel our money into activities that sustain and preserve the natural environment in which these beautiful animals live.

    The Cove was an amazing film for dolphins and I do hope that this film will serve as proactive education on the torture that the whales, and indeed all intelligent creatures used for entertainment, endure.

    • We hope so too, Terri. The only challenge is making sure enough people see it for this to grow into a movement. Please share, request the film at your local cinema, and help spread the word!

  • The Cove definitely changed my outlook on Sea World and educated me about things I previously had no idea about as it pertains to these animals. As a diver now, seeing how much room dolphins and wales need, it’s hard to imagine locking them up. No more Sea World for me.

    • Same for me! I actually took my daughter to swim with dolphins in the Bahamas a few years before The Cove came out– we didn’t know any better– and I’ve refused to do it ever since. We do promote Dolphin Academy, a facility in Curacao, though: It’s one of only 3 in the world where they keep dolphins in massive sea pens, like the ones Gabriela describes, and then lets them out each day so guests can swim with them in the open sea. It’s incredible!

  • Jack says:

    Great interview again Bret. I’m especially glad you asked the ‘What do you hope this film will do for the captive cetacean industry, Sea World, and whales in general?’ question.

    Too many times I read very simplistic and ‘Disney-esque happy ending’ solutions to this important question. These ‘Free Willy’ solutions more or less amount to issuing a death sentence to animals currently in captivity as Jean-Michel Cousteau publicly stated on his Ocean Futures website.

    Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s answer is one of the most sensible solutions I’ve heard.

    • Thanks so much, Jack! I think it’s important to ask that question, because anyone who makes a movie like Blackfish clearly has a purpose behind their mission. I think the more we talk about that mission, the more important the film becomes, the more people want to see it, and hopefully the more change the work can effect in the world.

  • Laurence says:

    I’ve never really understood how something as big as a killer whale can be kept in captivity comfortably.

    • It’s funny, I’ve only been to Sea World once- LONG before I knew anything about wildlife conservation– back when my brother graduated high school. I has no interest even then in seeing the whale or dolphin shows, and I remember breaking down in tears at the polar bear exhibit, because you could tell how miserable the animal was.

      I still believe that having SOME animals in captivity is important, because you cannot educate children (especially inner-city kids, who can’t afford to travel) about wildlife conservation if they don’t get to see animals in person. And I also believe that responsible zoos with captive breeding programs play a crucial role in the future survival of species whose habitats are being destroyed (such as, say, pandas and orangutans). But Sea World clearly puts profit over preservation.

  • Intriguing story that makes me want to track down this film as soon as I can.

  • Thank you for posting this, I will also definitely be catching up with the documentary (although I’m sure I will find it really hard to watch). I won’t ever visit these kind of places and I believe no animal should be kept in captivity. Zoos and aquariums are a hangover from the days when people didn’t think animals had feelings and should have banished to the history books a long time ago.

  • Megan Eileen says:

    I loved this post guys! I’m absolutely obsessed with Orca Whales…so I’m really interested to see this film.

  • Jess says:

    I lost all sympathy for Seaworld when they started trying to blame the trainer for her own death. At this point, their reaction to criticism just makes it look more and more like they know they’re doing something wrong.

  • Mary says:

    I am so glad you wrote this interview. I had no idea about this film but I remember also feeling very confused about the whole incident when the trainer was killed. This will be hard to watch just as The Cove was but it is so important! Thank you!

  • Happy to read this interview, and to learn that SOMETHING is being done.

  • Ali says:

    I had never heard about this! I generally don’t like places like zoos and Sea World because I’d rather see animals in their natural habitat. It makes complete sense that a whale wouldn’t be able to thrive in this kind of environment.

  • I can’t wait to see this. I was sickened by the dolphin cove documentary and I’m so glad someone’s taken on the next level of ugly.

  • Great interview! I love people like this who care enough to make a difference on a big scale.

    • Us, too. Which is why we’re so passionate about our conservationist interview series, even though these posts don’t draw the traffic some of our travel-focused posts do.

  • Micki @ Canadian Travel Insurance Review says:

    What an interesting article! I’ve always been uncomfortable at zoos and marine parks, though I’m noticing an encouraging trend toward only housing animals that are hurt and unable to function in the wild. Thanks so much for this – it’s given me some real food for thought

    • Glad to hear that, Micki! Whales have been such an important part of our travels to Hawaii, Galapagos Islands, Dominica, Antarctica, etc. So we feel it’s our duty to tell the stories that can help protect them so we can continue to see them in the wild for generations to come.

  • Great interview Bret. I have zero interest in going to zoos etc. I guess it’s a really hard call for parents whose kids gets a tremendous amount of joy from seeing big animals in person.

    • Thanks so much, Kate. It’s important to recognize the important role that responsibly managed zoos can have in terms of wildlife education and captive breeding programs of endangered species. Particularly in the inner city of urban metropolises like Atlanta (where we live), zoos are visited by school children who might never get a chance to see a zebra or giraffe in the wild. Having that up-close experience with animals helps them learn to appreciate them, and we ultimately only protect the things we love.

  • Dale says:

    Should I feel ashamed to say I’ve never seen ‘The Cove’? ‘Cus I’m kinda feeling that way after reading this.

    Maybe that should be the next thing on my list.

    • You should definitely see it. Between that and “Whale Wars,” we have absolutely no interest in visiting Japan as long as they’re subsidizing the slaughter of cetaceans.

  • Travelogged says:

    Fascinating — now I’m really intrigued to see the documentary!

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