All Hands on Deck: A Science Writer Looks at Blackfish

How Blackfish is a gateway to fixing the system that risks all life on Earth.

Posted Oct 23, 2014

Note: On October 16 & 17, 2014, a series of Blackfish-related events—attended by former SeaWorld trainers Samantha Berg, Dr. John Jett, and Dr. Jeffrey Ventre—took place in Moscow, Idaho, and at the University of Idaho campus. What follows is an edited transcript of my 12-minute Introduction to that series of events, just before a screening of Blackfish for a packed local movie theater.
You can watch the video of this Introduction here, and you can see the entire series of events—including a Q&A after the movie, a panel discussion with university faculty, and a scientific seminar by the former trainers—here. Blackfish is available to stream on Netflix. I'll post more about this series of events soon.

My name is Rachel Clark, and I’m a science writer. But back in 1993 I was a biology major on the east coast. During my senior year, I was accepted to work as an intern at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.  For an entire semester I got to work with the dolphins, Beluga whales, and their trainers. At the time, I thought I was one of the luckiest girls in the world. There was one day, when I was leaving the big show auditorium to go back to my dorm across town, and a Beluga was swimming alongside me in the tank as I walked by. I stopped. Turned to face the whale. She faced me head on, as if I were looking in a mirror. I tilted my head. She tilted hers. I waved. She waved back. I nodded my head. She nodded hers. I twirled in a circle. She twirled too. This white whale was dancing with me in perfect synchrony. And I was 20 years old: young enough to feel the joy and amazement, but also young enough to walk away because I was late for dinner. That was 21 years ago. And that Beluga whale has been living in a tank ever since.

Only a few months later, I came out to the west coast to take a biology course at the Friday Harbor Marine Lab on San Juan Island, in Washington. And one day, on a whim, my friends and I rode our bikes out to Lime Kiln Point on the west side of the island. Rumor had it you could see the wild killer whales from shore. We scrambled down to the rocky edge and looked out over Haro Strait. And way out there, there they were: wild orca. At least a dozen of them. Herding fish. Then something magical happened. They came alongside shore and swam right by us. One, a large male, came so close I could smell his breath. He didn’t stop. He didn’t turn to face me. He didn’t wave or spin in a circle. He swam right by, living his life alongside his family, a family he swims with to this day. And in that life-changing, humbling moment, I knew the truth of the white whale: she had danced with me for one reason only. She didn’t have access to her own life.

I walked away again, but this time I went home devoted to writing about the natural world and human impacts on it. And somewhere during those early years as a science writer, the idea came to me for a novel—about killer whales, a native elder, a teenage girl, and the state of our world. But I ignored it. I couldn’t write a novel! How do people do that? 

Instead, I kept covering science and the environment, and in short order, my then partner and I moved west so he could study how Pacific Northwest dams impact salmon populations.  Meanwhile, I kept writing: about climate change, the impact of toxins on breast cancer risk, ecology and invasive species, hummingbirds and worms, wildfires across the west, and…more and more about the impacts of climate change on everything.

Fast forward to 2012.  It’s mid-August. I’m in the Moscow Public Library, and there is this book on the new shelf: Death at SeaWorld .  I almost couldn’t pick it up. My thought was: Oh man, I need to read this book, but oh man, I don’t know if want to read this book. I was afraid it would make me cry.

I took it home and it did a lot more than that. Once again, a life-changing truth—this time from a black and white whale we call Tilikum—tapped something in me that was ancient and human. Something like solidarity. Something like fellowship. Something like outrage. Two weeks later, the day my boys went back to school, I sat down and wrote the first draft of that novel I mentioned in less than three months.

You see, the story David Kirby tells in Death at SeaWorld is based on the same story you are about to see in Blackfish. In a way, both the book and the movie—like all the best examples of investigative journalism—managed to de-classify information that SeaWorld wanted to keep hidden.

When I first heard about Blackfish it was on its way to Sundance in early 2013. Then Magnolia picked it up. Then it went to CNN—where it debuted almost exactly one year ago today. Its ratings skyrocketed, and everything changed.

And everything is still changing.

Because here’s the thing: I knew when I read Death at Sea World that it was about much more than killer whale captivity. At that time, here’s what I wrote in my blog Shamu the Slut:

I knew this book was also about our society, how it’s structured, and the systems we have in place that allow, and even encourage, brutalization of animals, women, indigenous peoples and the Earth…

And the same thing is true for Blackfish. This movie taps into something very big in our world right now. It brings home in a visceral, accessible way, the very real, very disturbing dysfunction of capitalism when corporate systems fail to account for natural systems …and which the world is now confronting as a crisis: climate change is the biggest, most dangerous symptom of all.

So as a science writer whose covered human impacts on the environment for twenty years, I’m paying close attention to Blackfish. Right now, only a year after its release, it’s triggered a flood of healthy, positive change. Things happen to people who learn this story. It’s like an alarm bell clanging: “All hands on deck! All hands on deck!”

It all began with Gabriela Cowperthwaite: a mom who’d taken her kids to SeaWorld. When a trainer was brutally killed by a killer whale in 2010, she wanted to know why. Along with another disturbed reporter, Tim Zimmerman who broke the story in Outside Magazine, Gabriela made the movie Blackfish.  But the film wouldn’t exist without the grit and courage of the former SeaWorld trainers you’ll get to know in the movie.  John, Jeff, and Sam are now part of The Voice of the Orcas organization and website, and they are also central characters in David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld.

Meanwhile, because of tens of thousands of people who jumped on deck after seeing Blackfish, we now have a law on the table that, if passed, will end captivity of killer whales in California. Other states are following suit. We have a rising tide of people and organizations linking the fate of the endangered killer whales of Puget Sound to the health of salmon populations across the Pacific Northwest.  We have a global effort to empty the tanks in aquariums around the world. It is now illegal to hold marine mammals in captivity in India, Croatia, Hungary, Chile, and Costa Rica. And in the single year since Blackfish was released, SeaWorld stocks have nose-dived. As of this summer, it’s considered junk stock. Gabriela Cowperthaite spoke about SeaWorld. She said:

People always wonder whether I believe SeaWorld should be closed down. I always say no. They have tremendous financial resources and could play a key role in creating sea sanctuaries which could be a profit-making endeavor. I believe people would flock to a site where a killer whale is being a killer whale for the first time -- something infinitely more satisfying than seeing a killer whale dance the Macarena.

But so far—despite repeated calls to evolve their business model—SeaWorld’s response is to build bigger tanks, and offer an industry website called The Truth About Blackfish where they say, and I quote, “Blackfish is propaganda, not a documentary.” 

Compare that to this recent news: The National Aquarium in Baltimore—where I once danced with a white whale—now plans to retire its captive dolphins to a seaside sanctuary, the first ever in the United States. Because, they said, of what scientists have learned about these profoundly social and intelligent mammals…The National Aquarium in Baltimore is a non-profit institution.

 All this has become so recognized by the media, that it’s now called The Blackfish Effect. And we’re only one year in. So take note. Now you’re a part of something bigger than any single one of us. Because The Blackfish Effect may be about whales and captivity on the surface, but it is also about something much bigger. It’s a gateway to overhauling the system that’s putting all life on Earth at risk. And it’s proving just how fast we can make change for the good of all: change that’s crucial for human hope in an era where so much has to change so quickly. 

All hands on deck.

[You can also see my Introduction to the Blackfish Screening on Youtube (at 2:00)]

With thanks to Voice of the Orcas, here is the complete series of links to the post-movie Q & A with Dr. John Jett, Samantha Berg, and Dr. Jeff Ventre, University of Idaho panel discussion, and the research seminar presented by the former SeaWorld trainers. I'll post more about this series of events soon. 

 Join the Mothering Nature conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

© Rachel Clark. Reprint with the specific permission of the author.

More Posts