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.