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I am a consultant and general counsel to International Ride Training LLC as well as a practicing attorney in Avon, Connecticut. A particular focus of mine is the legal needs of the amusement and tourism industry. My focus on the amusement industry derives from my pre-law career as an operations manager with Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Universal Orlando. Having started my career as a ride operator at Cedar Point in 1992, I progressed through the seasonal ranks and ultimately became the Manager of Ride Operations and Park Services at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. I also worked in Universal's operations department during the construction and development of Islands of Adventure. Today, I am an active member of the New England Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions and the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. I have been invited to speak at amusement industry meetings and seminars and have worked on a variety of matters relating to this industry.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Blackfish / White Lies? (Pt. 3): Undisclosed Facts & Muddled Messages

So here we are (a little later than originally planned), the final piece of this series, and my last foray into Blackfish until, perhaps, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals rules on SeaWorld's OSHA appeal sometime in the coming months.  In the time since the first two pieces of this series hit the blogosphere, Blackfish has moved from near-nightly airings on CNN to on-demand availability on Netflix.  Additionally, the film has stayed in the headlines due, in no small part, to the recent media attention surrounding the decision of several musical acts to cancel their appearances at SeaWorld in an apparent act of protest.  It is clear that the “Blackfish effect” is powerful both in its message and its longevity.  But what is its message exactly?  And do the facts presented in Blackfish support that message in a fashion that lives up to the claim of its director, Gabriala Cowperthwaite, that the film is nothing more than a “truthful, fact driven narrative” that errs “on the side of the journalistic approach”and is, in fact, “not at all advocating for anything.”  My belief is that Blackfish itself plainly belies any contention that the film is anything other than a piece of animal-rights advocacy – one sided in both fact and presentation.   

In the first two pieces in this series I looked at the people involved in Blackfish, many of whom have undisclosed (and sometimes radical) animal-rights agendas, and the filmmaking techniques used to steer the viewer toward one, and only one, position.   To finish, I thought we should take a closer look at Blackfish’s substance - the claims it makes and its overall message. 

Remember, Blackfish is being passed off by its director as erring “on the side of the journalistic approach.”  That means that its statements should comply with journalistic standards:  they should be fact checked, unambiguous, and not misleading.  Why is that important?  Because if the film conveys a false factual impression or is inaccurate or untruthful as to even a single point, it can (and does) degrade the credibility of the film as a whole.  To continue the analogy from Part 1 of this series, this film is, in essence, the star witness in the Court of Public Opinion's trial of SeaWorld.  The audience must, therefore, assess its credibility as to the facts presented, just as it would any other witness.  A falsehood, even a little white lie, calls into question the rest of what the film says.  If the film lies about little things, the audience - the jury in the Court of Public Opinion - has a right to wonder whether the film is lying about bigger things too.  

Did SeaWorld REALLY Not Tell Its Own Trainers About John Sillick?   

The first claim I want to look at has to do with the story of John Sillick.  As you may recall, Mr. Sillick is the trainer that was seriously injured in 1987 when a killer whale jumped out of the water and landed on him while he was riding another whale during a show.  The video footage of this event is shown in the film and it is tough to watch.  The film makes the argument that, in the immediate aftermath of this incident, SeaWorld effectively concealed its occurrence from its trainers.  Here’s what Samantha Berg says in the film about this issue:

“John Sillick was the guy who in 1987 was crushed between two whales at SeaWorld of San Diego.  Now, even though I’d been working at SeaWorld for 6 months, I had no idea that that had even happened.  I never even heard that story.  And the SeaWorld party line was that … it was “trainer error.” 
That sounds pretty bad doesn’t it?  At the time of the incident, SeaWorld did not even bother telling its own trainers who were working with killer whales and who might have known Mr. Sillick about a significant incident resulting in his life threatening injuries?  Wow.  But does Samantha Berg really know what SeaWorld told its trainers in 1987 about the injury to John Sillick?  No.  There is no way she could.  Why you ask?

Because Samantha Berg did not work at SeaWorld in 1987.  This fact is never mentioned in Blackfish, but it takes only a few minutes online to discover that she didn’t start working at SeaWorld until 1990.  If Samantha Berg did not start working until 1990, she could not have known what SeaWorld told its employees in 1987.  She wasn’t there.
So is Samantha Berg just outright lying in Blackfish?  While possible, I think it is pretty unlikely given how easy it is to check the real facts.  So what is going on here?  Assuming Ms. Berg is not actually lying, why does it look like she is? I see two possibilities:
  •  Possibility No. 1:  Gabriela Cowperthwaite took her words grossly out of context to make it appear that Samantha Berg had personal knowledge about what SeaWorld said / did in 1987 and thus to make it appear that SeaWorld had never told its own trainers, such as Ms. Berg, about John Sillick.  If this is what happened in the editing booth, Gabriela Cowperthwaite is just lying to the audience – an act that would clearly be the antithesis of erring “on the side of the journalistic approach.”  But there is another possibility.

  • Possibility No. 2:  Samantha Berg is trying, inartfully and ambiguously, to say that she had been working at SeaWorld for six months – starting in 1990 – before she found out about John Sillick’s injury three and a half years earlier.  That would be consistent with statements she has made to other media outlets, but that’s not actually what she says in Blackfish. 

My guess is that Samantha Berg and Gabriela Cowperthwaite would point to Possibility No. 2 as being correct.  But, assuming that’s the case, does that mean that the film is not lying to or misleading its audience about this rather inflammatory issue?  No it doesn’t.

As a matter of journalistic honesty, Ms. Berg’s statement is, at best, far too ambiguous to be presented without clarification by a responsible film-maker concerned only with presenting a “fact-driven narrative.”  Gabriela Cowperthwaite had to have known the kind of damning indictment that Ms. Berg’s statement was levying at SeaWorld, and, in the interest of journalistic integrity, should have done something to clear up the reasonable inference the audience would draw from it – i.e. that Ms. Berg was recounting her experience as a whale trainer in the days, weeks, and months following Mr. Sillick’s injury and was never told that it had even occurred.  Remember, the film never tells its audience when Samantha Berg worked for SeaWorld, so the audience has no reason to believe she was not there in 1987.  If that was not the factually correct and / or intended message, responsible journalism requires clarification so that the audience is not misled.  But if you are making an advocacy piece that pursues an agenda, then this ambiguity serves the argument well.  But telling the story through the use of a false inference …. well, that’s not really “fact-driven narrative,” is it? 

Now, I suppose some may argue that this is really making too much out of a minor point in the film. - an assertion that gets only a few seconds of screen time.  But, the import of this ambiguity cannot be measured by screen time.  This is an important component in Blackfish's narrative that SeaWorld conceals the truth from its trainers and deflects negative attention from its whales.  As presented, the audience feels outraged at SeaWorld’s apparent corporate callousness about the injury to one of its trainers and its apathy about the safety of its other trainers displayed by Seaworld’s decision not to share "the truth" of this incident with them.  But if presented honestly and clearly, if the audience knows that the timeframe Samantha Berg is talking about is more than three years after Mr. Sillick was injured, then the outrage falls away and the audience says to itself, “So what?  Why does it matter that  SeaWorld did not tell one of its new employees about an incident that occurred at another park three years earlier?”  Think about it in a more typical employment context:  When someone is hired to work on an assembly line around dangerous equipment, is it routine to sit down and go through all the workplace injuries that have occurred over the last three-plus years within the plant, much less at other plants?  I doubt it.  Why should SeaWorld be any different?    

Now, I can already hear some of you saying, “But she was a killer whale trainer.  She should have been told about this injury regardless of the fact that it was three years earlier and regardless of the fact that it was at another park.”  And, if that were true, I would be inclined to agree.  But what if Samantha Berg was not a killer whale trainer?  Wouldn’t that change things pretty significantly? 

In fact, that is precisely the case.  At the time Ms. Berg seems to be referring to, i.e. six months after she started working at SeaWorld, it appears that she was not even working with orcas. Instead, she was working with dolphins and beluga whales in another part of the park.  She does not appear to have started working with orcas until a year and a half into her SeaWorld tenure – and the film never says whether SeaWorld made her aware of Mr. Sillick’s incident at that time – once it was actually pertinent to her job.

Blackfish leaves its audience believing that SeaWorld concealed vital safety information from its own trainers and, in doing so, it lies either overtly – by editing Ms. Berg’s statement in an intentionally misleading way – or by omission, by failing to provide the audience with the information necessary to understand what Ms. Berg was actually trying to say.  Why?

Because contrary to the director’s claim, Blackfish is a piece of advocacy disguised as journalism.  The story that SeaWorld didn’t tell its own trainers about a life-threatening incident is pretty damning.  Far more so than the apparent truth.  After all, if you were trying to portray SeaWorld as an uncaring corporate behemoth that conceals the truth from the very people who need it most, which story would you rather have in your film?  This?

“John Sillick was the guy who in 1987 was crushed between two whales at Seaworld of San Diego.  Now, even though I’d been working at SeaWorld for 6 months, I had no idea that that had even happened.  I never even heard that story.
Or this?
“John Sillick was the guy who in 1987 was crushed between two whales at Seaworld of San Diego.  Now, even though I was hired three years later to work in an entirely separate area of the park having absolutely nothing to do with killer whales and even though there was absolutely no certainty that I would ever work as a killer whale trainer during my SeaWorld tenure, I didn’t hear about that incident for 6 months.”
One of these makes a compelling story and casts SeaWorld in a very poor light.  The other is the unremarkable truth.  

Does SeaWorld Really Lie About Orca Life Expectancy?

The issue of orca life expectancy features prominently in Blackfish and it is an issue that has really stuck with people after watching the film.  Walking away from Blackfish, many in the audience are left with the impression that orcas in the wild live to be a hundred years old, while Seaworld's orcas live only 25 or 30 years.   To many, that’s all the proof needed to show how much harm SeaWorld is doing.  But is that really the case or is Blackfish omitting some important facts necessary to tell the "fact driven narrative" in a way that is "not at all advocating for anything? 

This issue is particularly tricky for the audience in the film to assess accurately.  Why?  Because the information regarding orca life expectancy is not presented consistently throughout the film and because of the way this information is edited and presented to the audience.  Here’s how this goes down:

  •          About twenty-four minutes into the film (based on the Netflix viewing time), Howard Garrett states the following: 
“They live in these big families.  And they have life spans very similar to human lifespans.  The females can live to about a hundred, maybe more. The males to about fifty or sixty.”
  •          About sixteen minutes later, the film returns to the issue of life expectancy and the audience hears more from Mr. Garrett:
“Because the whales in their [i.e. presumably SeaWorld’s] pools die young, they like to say that all orcas die at twenty-five or thirty years.” 
  •          This is then followed immediately by “hidden camera” footage showing two different SeaWorld front line employees saying, “twenty-five to thirty-five years” and a third employee saying, with a conspicuous edit right in the middle of her sentence, “they are documented in the wild living to be ... [unexplained edit] ... thirty-five, mid-thirties.  They tend to live a lot longer in this environment because they have all the veterinary care.” 
Put all this together and it’s no wonder many in the audience are outraged.  Apparently orcas in the wild live around sixty years longer than orcas at SeaWorld (that 100-year figure has really stuck with people).  But is that really true?  And is SeaWorld really deceiving the public by spreading false information to cover up the fact that its whales systemically die prematurely?  I don’t really know, but I don't think Blackfish makes that case in a "truthful, fact driven" manner either.     

First, pay close attention to Howard Garrett’s first statement – the one that says female orcas “can live to about a hundred.”  Notice that he is not even purporting to state an average life span for orcas.  He is saying how long a female orca can live, not how long the average orca actually does live in the wild.  Think about it.  Humans can live to be a hundred and ten, but is it the case that the average human lives to be that old?  Of course not.         

Second, when the viewer hears the SeaWorld employees saying, in total isolation, "twenty-five to thirty-five years” – ask yourself, "What question are they answering?We don’t know because the question is never provided.  We assume we know the question because just prior to these statements the viewer hears Howard Garrett saying that SeaWorld tells its guests that “all orcas die at twenty-five or thirty years" and then we immediately hear SeaWorld employees throwing around those exact numbers.  But we don’t know what question the interviewer asked of these employees.  If these employees were asked, “When do all orcas die in the wild?,” (which would be a very strange question to be sure), then Mr. Garrett’s statement would have some credibility.  But if these employees were asked “how long do orcas typically live?” or “what is the average orca life span?,” then the film is just misrepresenting the truth by making it appear that SeaWorld’s employees are saying something they are not.  The film would be making the point that SeaWorld's employees are talking about maximum life expectancy (as Mr. Garrett did) when they are actually talking about average lifespan.  But because we never hear the precise question that is being asked, the audience has no way of knowing whether Mr. Garett and the SeaWorld employees are really talking apples-to-apples or not.  We don't know whether it really is true that SeaWorld tells people that "all orcas die young" just like their whales who only live "twenty-five to thirty-five years."

And this is a hugely important distinction because there is a marked difference between an orca's maximum lifespan (the 100-year figure Mr. Garret references) and an orca's typical lifespan (a figure Blackfish never mentions to its audience).  According to the Office of Protected Resources of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,,“males typically live for about 30 years” and “females typically live about 50 years.”  Notably, the makers of Blackfish have publicly confirmed the accuracy of these statistics - even though not mentioned in the film itself.  Measured against these statistics instead of Mr. Garrett's 100 year figure, SeaWorld’s assessment of orca lifespans don’t seem to be that far off – particularly with respect to males (and again, we don’t know whether the filmmakers factored gender into their hidden camera questions of SeaWorld’s employees). 

More importantly, the NOAA data calls into serious question the central tenant of Mr. Garrett’s statements in the film:  that SeaWorld is essentially robbing killer whales of decades of life expectancy.  The objective scientific data, which the filmmakers themselves do not seem to dispute, just does not seem to back up that claim.   If Blackfish were nothing more than a "fact-driven narrative" there would be no reason to leave out the NOAA statistics and confuse this issue as it does.  But, presented in the way it is, it is very effective as a piece of advocacy intended to portray SeaWorld in the worst light possible.

Oh yeah.  One last really important thing.  There is absolutely no evidence in Blackfish that SeaWorld’s whales actually “die young” like Howard Garrett claims.  Watch the film closely - it's just not there.  An odd omission, don’t you think?  Don’t you think that if Gabriella Cowperthwaite, or any of the people interviewed in the film, actually had evidence or data that SeaWorld’s whales “die young,’ it would have been prominently featured?  In the absence of evidence, though, the film uses a neat trick to convince its audience that SeaWorld’s whale do, in fact, “die young.”  Mr. Garret tells the audience SeaWorld covers up the fact that its whales "die young" by telling the public that all orcas die at the same age as SeaWorld's whales.  When we then immediately hear SeaWorld employees presumably saying that the lifespans of orcas in the wild is twenty-five or thirty-five years, the audience assumes that this is just SeaWorld's way of covering for the fact that only its whales die at twenty-five or thirty-five years old.  But where’s the evidence that any of this is really true?   

In the wake of the film’s release, the filmmakers have stated that “In captivity, most orcas die in their teens and 20s and only a handful have made it past 35,” but, even assuming this unattributed statistic is accurate, this does not say what the average lifespan of SeaWorld’s orcas are.  The statistic seems to take into account every orca in captivity ever – including those held by irresponsible owners in conditions far worse than anything at a SeaWorld park today.  If the argument is that SeaWorld's whales "die young," then the audience has a right to know just how long SeaWorld's whales actually live on average without lumping in all the other facilities that have ever existed since such statistics began being recorded.  So how long is that?

SeaWorld itself says that five of its whales are older than 30 and one is close to 50.   I have been unable to find any indication (even from the filmmakers) that SeaWorld is being untruthful about these figures.  Those numbers not only are consistent with the hidden camera footage in Blackfish - particularly the third employee who says that Seaworld’s whales live beyond their mid-thirties - but also appear to be generally consistent with the NOAA statistics on average orca lifespan in the wild – suggesting that SeaWorld’s whales actually do not “die young.”  In fact, the only evidence Blackfish presents that SeaWorld’s whales “die young” is Mr. Garrett’s bald claim that they do.  And  in a film that is supposed to “err on the side of the journalistic approach,” and that is not supposed to be an advocacy piece, that is just not good enough.

What Exactly Is The Message Of Blackfish?
There are other examples of factual assertions in Blackfish that just don’t seem to hold up to modest scrutiny, but this piece is long enough.  Buy me a drink someday, and I’ll be happy to fill you in on the rest.  At this point, and to bring this series to a close, I want to ask:  What exactly is the message of BlackfishBlackfish has put SeaWorld on trial in the Court of Public Opinion, and, just like a real trial, there should be a clear theme - an unambiguous message - that the jury may consider in reaching its verdict.  So what is it?

Is it an anti-captivity film arguing that orcas should not be held in captivity at all?  Perhaps.  But, if so, why point the finger at SeaWorld in isolation and virtually igore the rest of the entire animal industry?  The film barely mentions the fact that orcas are held in captivity in any number of other locations around the world (and only does so in the context of tying these facilities to SeaWorld).  If this were a film about anti-captivity, wouldn’t it have been more effective to focus on the truly deplorable conditions in other facilities?  Wouldn’t focusing on orcas in those facilities, even if in addition to SeaWorld’s, have been more effective in making an argument against captivity in general? 

Is Blackfish intended to demonstrate that SeaWorld turns naturally friendly killer whales into killing machines bent on taking human lives out of frustration caused by their environment?  If so, why does the film compare orcas to pit bulls and suggest that Tilikum shouldn't be bred because of his history of aggression to humans?  If it is true that aggression toward humans is a learned behavior and not an instinctual one, then what is the safety concern with breeding Tilikum?  If aggression is learned, it couldn't be passed down through heredity.  His offspring would be no more naturally agressive toward humans than any other newborn orca.  If that is the message, it doesn't work very well. 

Or is Blackfish a film about the way that SeaWorld allegedly puts profits above the safety of its employees?  The film spends a considerable amount of time persuading its audience that SeaWorld hid the truth about Tilikum’s dangerous tendencies from its trainers, put them in harm’s way intentionally, and blamed them, rather than the whales, when things went awry.  But, if that's the intended message, why spend so much time on the captivity issue?  Why bring Howard Garrett and Lori Marino into the film when neither speaks about the actual corporate practices of SeaWorld?  Why not tell the audience more about the serious sanctions imposed on SeaWorld as a result of the OSHA hearing (sanctions currently being appealed)?  If this is a film about SeaWorld being a supposed irresponsible employer, it seems apparent that it could have been a more convincing one.

After multiple viewings of the film, I don’t really know what the message of Blackfish is.  Maybe it is a combination of all three.  As a piece of  “fact-driven narrative” that errs on the side of journalism, though, the film's message is sloppy and leaves it audience guessing about several issues.  But  one thing requires no guessing:  Blackfish brilliantly and effectively makes its audience mad as hell at SeaWorld – by barraging the viewer with any number of reasons one-after-another and without thought to opposing viewpoints, inaccurate statements, or undisclosed biases  - and as a piece of advocacy, that is, I guess, the point.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Thank you so much for your extensive debunking of this piece of animal rights advocacy. I hope more than a few people in the public will take the time to read this and understand what you are saying. Our society seems addicted to sound bytes and entertainment-as-fact, but your analysis should get out there as much as possible (I've posted links on my Facebook page.). There is another advocacy piece recently done and featured on PBS is called Parrots Confidential. It is not near as emotionally wrenching as Blackfish, but it does paint aviculture (parrotkeeping) in a very poor light. The few wild conservation parts are good, but what's featured insofar as U.S. parrots-as-pets are a couple of people who refuse to take their share of responsibility for behavioral issues, and most of it features what I call "hoarding" rescue/sanctuary groups (that rarely place birds in homes because no home is good enough, plus then they won't have all those hundred of parrots in faux-jungle-flights to raise money off). This piece is undulgent of these "rescue martyrs" to a fault, and is very anti-bird-breeding and anti-parrots-as-pets. Because of a "policy paper" funded by an animal rights group, pressure on the USFWS to list more parrots on the ESA Endangered list (requires permitting, etc.), pressure being brought to bring birds under the AWA guidelines, and increased seizures (under color of law) of parrot collections, aviculturists who are watchful understand there will likely be a big push by the anti-aviculture groups to eliminate parrot-keeping (and certainly breeding) as much as society will allow. Obviously, few of us can put forth the funds to fight multi-pronged legal attacks as can a large corporation. My web site has an animal rights page with LOTS of links to articles, etc. birdcompanions.com/animalrights.htm. Thanks again for your efforts. Marcy Covault

  2. I can tell you everyone at SeaWorld really appreciate's this. Thank-you.

  3. As a current employee who believes in the good this company has done and continues to do with the efforts in our animal conservation, I thank you. I recently watched 'Blackfish' with my partner and could not get past all the negatives noted. After completion we discussed several aspects involved, the one that bothered me the most was of 'SeaLand'. They place no blame of mistreatment upon those ex-employed or that company, yet make Sea World out to being this "bad guy" for having this "troubled" animal. I believe everyone is in titled to their own opinions, but I hate that everyone is try to constantly pick a fight with me over my employer because of this "documentary".

    1. I saw the documentary, thought it was good, well done and did what it wanted to do. That was convey a message and argument against Seaworld. Thats the goal of any documentary, to get the viewer to side with the production team. As a younger individual, an Inconvenient Truth was the first documentary I really watched and was affected by. America loves getting whipped into a fury by documentaries because no one takes them with a grain of salt. They think it is all facts, no spin. I am not an expert on Seaworld or sea creatures, I don't think animals should be locked in cages, but thats me. I also don't like when a corporation gets criticized because its just a big buisness that doesn't care about its employees. I also really hate that people watch one movie and become an expert. I don't think Seaworld deserves all the blame it is getting. It may deserve some, but that should be determined by those who truly know. Finally, the guy who snuck in and tried to swim with the whale had it coming.

  4. Finally a piece on this issue that exposes facts relevant to the discussion. Thank you!

  5. There are valid points in this blog. I would like to make a comment in a specific one, which is probably the most important one. You ask about how long in average a killer whale lives in captivity... that would be 9 years. Some few days, others over 30 years. In the wild, on the contrary, longevity is about 70 for females (some are known to be over 100) and around 40 for males. Those numbers are being reviewed, since we now know much more than few years ago, but yes... killer whales do live several decades more in the wild than in captivity...

    1. Thanks for you comment. While I usually don't respond to comments, I would look to clarify something so that we are all on the same page. I didn't ask "about how long in average a killer whale lives in captivity." I asked "How long do SeaWorld's whales in particular live in captivity." The point being made is that Blackfish points a very stern finger at SeaWorld specifically, so it is unfair to judge SeaWorld using statistics that take into account all orcas in captivity everywhere. There may be a valid reason for concern that the lifespans of SeaWorld's whales are, in fact, shorter than average lifespans in the wild, but so far, I haven't seen any evidence of that in Blackfish (or anywhere else - and, trust me, I've gotten a lot of email about this). Also, would you please clarify whether your longevity statistics are meant to convey average life expectancy or maximum expected lifespan and where those figures were obtained since they obviously do not match either the NOAA statistics cited above or the numbers cited by Blackfish's filmmakers for average life expectancy. I am not challenging the veracity of your statistics, but am only interested in looking at them for myself. Thanks again for your comment and for reading.

  6. Brilliant piece. But we all must keep in mind that people only believe what they agree with and objective thought is becoming extinct. Blackfish thrives largely based on a simple minded, lazy populous. Keep putting actual factual reporting out there though. I like to believe there are still a few folks out there that do not need people directing them what to think.

  7. Fantastic series, thoroughly enjoyed reading all volumes of this Blackfish examination. It's rare to see people calmly pick apart and deconstruct such a 'sensation piece', much less to find them on the internet. Glad I did! As for the age of killer whales, I've just done some number crunching, and used the number crunching done by someone else as well. Some acquaintance of mine had taken the time to calculate the true average lifespan of wild killer whales (http://skyebobpiepants.deviantart.com/journal/Average-age-for-Wild-Orcas-392136751). She's looked at age at time of death of almost 300 animals, not including captured animals and not including those who died at or under the age of three years old (simply to filter out the enormously high mortality rate in the first years of life). She came to average lifespan of 30.14 years for both sexes, with 27.8 years for males and 38.48 for females. I've just gone through the historical records of Seaworld's killer whales (http://orcahome.de/orcastat.htm) to do the same for their animals, so no animals who died at an age of younger than 3 and no animals from the wild (it has to be Seaworld's animals of course). To my surprise I found only SIX of Seaworld's captive born orcas to meet these criteria - they gave me the average age of 16.3 years for all, with 13.8 for males and 17.6 for females. The problem with these statistics is, of course, the very VERY small sample size. So, for good measure, I went in and calculated the same for all of Seaworld's wild captured killer whales who have consequently died in captivity, adding their years at seaworld to their ages at capture. This gave an average for all of 15 years, with 15,4 years for males and 14,8 years for females. It should be noted though that these deaths were mostly during Seaworld's early days, in which the knowledge to care for these animals was very much lacking in comparison to how they are cared for today - i.e. smaller tanks, unnatural behaviours, not always high up on health care, etc. Basic point is that the average for wild Killer whales is not nearly as high as the movie has its viewers believe, and there are not enough records to calculate a reliable average age for Seaworld's killer whales. It's interesting though to look at what animals are still alive at the Seaworld parks today, and their ages. There's currently 6 animals in captivity at Seaworld parks who are older than the average for a wild animal, at 34, 36, 36, 37, 47 and 47 years of age. These are all wild-caught animals. The numerous captive-born Seaworld animals currently range from a couple of months to 25 years of age. It's really a matter of a lot more years and a lot more whales before a good average lifespan for seaworld born and bred, and also died, killer whales can be calculated.

    1. nicely done. Very objective and reasonable assumptions.

    2. Question; How many Killer Whales have been released back in to their natural ocean to reproduce and thrive.
      Answer; ZERO ZILCH NONE Not ONE single prisoner allowed out of the Sea World prisons. All Sea World Orcas get a life sentence until dead. To make matters worse the baby Orca offspring from stolen semen get a life sentence also. To make matters even worse than imaginable Sea World is now engaged in teaching Russians and Chinese captors how to capture whales in the wild. Disgusting beyond belief what is happening at Sea World. I will teach peace and hope for the best for the whales.

    3. "How many Killer Whales have been released back in to their natural ocean to reproduce and thrive."
      A73, also known as Springer, was successfully released back into her native waters after becoming lost in 2002. This summer she was seen with her first calf. And yes, SeaWorld WAS involved in her rescue and release, along with many other aquariums and scientists in North America who came together to make it happen.

    4. I don't know if you are aware of this but you don't just release a captive whale into the wild because yes, it will die. There is almost no chance a whale would live. However the whales are representatives of their species and people can gain a fond apperciation of them through Seaworld's programs. Additionally, Seaworld is involved in many killer whale foundations that try to rescue killer whales globally that are in horrible conditions and try to protect them from marine poachers who kill them out of spite. Killer whales are actually on comeback and in the process of being delisted from the endangered species list. You're not an expert on animal welfare because you watched a propaganda documentary.

      Honestly if you are someone who wishes for these whales to be released into the wild, you're the one sending them to their death.

    5. Furthermore, no CETACEAN that has been in a captive environment for any extended time has been successfully released back into the wild. Stranded rehabilitation animals - yes. But there is a huge emphasis on not allowing them to be conditioned to humans at all. Even attempted release of bottlenose dolphins have not been successful. Read NOAA's conditions for Release and Reintroduction. Keiko (Free Willy) was never successful at his release, he never ate 100% on his diet on his own. And he did seek out human interaction, which can be extremely detrimental to not only him, but to other whales. Imagine kids thinking it's Keiko jumping into the water with a strange whale to play.

      Those who are truly about these animals' health, happiness, and survival will keep the wild ones wild (no feeding, interacting, etc.) and the captive ones in human care where they can thrive, reproduce, and be ambassadors for their wild counterparts.

    6. 'not including captured animals and not including those who died at or under the age of three years old (simply to filter out the enormously high mortality rate in the first years of life)' - i don't see this as a reason to omit the whales who died at a young age? Surely a better average would include the whales which die young for both the average lifespan of whales in the wild and those in captivity. Because when you omit them you are not showing which set of whales has a higher mortality rate in the first years of life.

  8. I agree with the above poster. Your bio hardly lends itself to one of being unbiased, since you make a living defending these abusement parks. Cetaceans do not belong in captivity, period. Whether you agree or disagree with some of the points in Blackfish is irrelevant to the real issue at hand. It raises awareness, and makes people question the morality of keep these intelligent beings for our entertainment. Even children get it now.

  9. so how did you know that America was discovered in 1492 if you weren't "there" oh right see there are these wonderful things called BOOKS and VIDEOS and MUESEUMS that tell people just exactly what happened. How do you know about Dinosaurs??? oh right MUESEUMS. Your argument is just as pathetic as the fact that it's clear that SeaWorld paid you to diagnose the documentary when you yourself forget one very tiny detail. The documentary itself said " SeaWorld repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this film" so why didn't you fully diagnose that part huh? your arguments are invalid considering that Blackfish is not the only piece of information that explains why Killer Whales should not be in captivity, they all say the exact same thing, and they all repeat the same information. How can you go against real life Marine Biologists and Scientists who have studied for years and years?! You also missed the part where the Neuroscientist said "All Whales Suffer Psychological abuse not just Tilikum" so why didn't you diagnose that part??. Why didn't you diagnose the part where they force Tilikum to masturbate huh? or the part where the mother orca was separated from her baby? clearly you just "scratched the surface" as the expression goes. I'm a student studying Biology and I can honestly say this has got to be the biggest insult to my intelligence and the rest of the people who are not easily bribed with money. How dare you contradict trainers who were there. FYI you weren't "there" so how can you say that that's not what happened.

    1. You do realize that it is impossible to diagnose an animal with a psychological disorder. And even if it were possible, how would that neuroscientist be able to study the whales in captivity without working alongside those animals and their trainers. No animal is forced to give a semen simple. Sorry, you can't FORCE a killer whale to do that, they are going to have to actively participate. And after being present for a few semen collections, it doesn't take a lot of asking on the trainers behalf. I guarantee that the majority of people that study these animals in the wild will undoubtedly use information collected from SeaWorld parks.

    2. As a fellow biologist, I'm going to have to ask you to step back from your emotions. Emotion has -no- place in science, as it clouds over fact. While you've made a rather emotional statement, you have neither disproven any of the facts that the author of this article discussed (and also provided links for, something most journalists fail to do), nor proven anything yourself other than what was shown in Blackfish. Simply repeating what you saw in a movie rather than researching the issue itself can drastically detract from your credibility in an argument. If you spend some time looking into the Blackfish claims you have restated, you'll find some interesting things:

      1) Seaworld has consistently denied interviews with animal activists for YEARS for the exact reasons that the blog publisher explained- things are often show out of context by the interviewers (like the orca longevity talks) to manipulate a topic.
      2) You cannot force a several thousand pound mammal to masterbate. It's simply not possible. The only way it can be done is through positive reinforcement training (where no behaviors are forced and punishment is not a possible consequence), something Seaworld has consistently utilized with it's orcas. Read 'Don't Shoot the Dog' for a more thorough understanding of animal training if it interests you, it's a fantastic read!
      3) They claimed a mother orca was separated from her baby, yes. How old was the whale that they claimed to separate? 4-4.5 years old. They only say this briefly though, likely because all the footage they show you was a several month old calf swimming with it's mother. A 4-4.5 year old orca is virtually full grown, and will have been weaned and grown apart from it's mother by this age. Yet they don't say this- they just show a baby whale (not what they were talking about) swimming about, and make accusations that this occurred yet provide no footage asides from trucks moving and whales (that are NOT 4-4.5 years old) being moved about. Where is -their- proof that this happened?
      4) Perhaps most importantly, you should look into the backgrounds of the 'scientists' that are interviewed in the film. The 'neuroscientist' is Lori Marino, who is likely THE biggest animal advocate around in regards to orcas. Instead of a neuroscientist who could remain impartial when looking at the facts, the filmakers interviewed the most biased scientist out there in regards to orcas in managed care.

      I really hope the original poster gets a chance to read and more importantly research the things I have mentioned- if you are studying biology, you do a disservice to both yourself and your field by not digging beneath the surface, as the writer of this article so expertly did.

  10. I agree with the two posts above. Go whale watching if you want to see them. Let them be free to swim for miles as they are intended. Forget the entertainment of it all. Read a BOOK.

  11. I appreciate intelligent, civil debate and comments from all sides of any issue I write about. Abusive comments from anyone will and have been deleted.

  12. "Go whale watching". You mean disturb these animals in their native environment? Whale watching cruises are a highly consumer-centered activity and several studies have recorded changes in cetacean behavior in response to whale watching. Changes in surfacing, acoustic, and swimming behavior as well as changes in direction, group size, and coordination occur as more than 13 million tourists encroach on migrating pods every year. The majority of whale watching operations around the world are not doing what they can to minimize their impact on the ocean and it's animals. Much to the detriment of cetacean populations internationally.

  13. This is awesome. About time someone said something and pointed out flaws in a "documentary". SeaWorld declined to comment bc they did not agree in what was being said bc it is not true. This is a one sided documentary. Ppl who believe this probably believe in every conspiracy out there too & he's absolutely right! If captivity is so horrible you need to foxus on ALL animals being held in captivity bc that is not there natura habitat either. If you wanna really have concerns for animals go protest companies that test products on animals THAT is animal cruelty and needs attention not seaworld who actually does care for there animals. And let it be told that this was addressed in the movie Free Willy YEARS AGO....if you didn't care then, don't start now bc obviously nothing has changed. Care for animal life that you ACTUALLY see being abused not go off other ppls words who are twisted by the media.

  14. I was at Sea World in 1987 with my husband and young children when the incident with John Sillick occurred. It was terrifying for everyone. I agree, that from the audience, it definitely appeared to be "trainer error". I don't believe the error was John's. There were too many trainers giving commands and the whale became confused. The whales were swimming fast in opposing circles. As I recall there were at least three trainers giving commands.

    1. Hi, I would love to interview you about what you saw at John Silick's accident. You are correct and it was not trainer error. Please send me an email at onefishblackfish@hmamail.com and we can set something up. Thanks!

    2. That was another error in Blackfish. In the movie, when the John Sillick incident was mentioned, all of those interviewed were arguing that it was impossible for it to be trainer error because he was riding the whale. It wasn't an error on John Sillick's part, it was the trainer who sent the whale on the jump. The comment above seems to support the claim that it was trainer error, "There were too many trainers giving commands and the whale became confused."

  15. This article is filled with as much trash as the documentary.

  16. Excellent articles on this movie! I am so glad someone besides myself is not simply taking all claims made in "Blackfish" for face-value, but is questioning the supposed facts it presents & the credibility of those presenting them. Thank you for putting this out there! While I definitely think SeaWorld needs to make some changes, in particular discontinuing AI and improving living conditions for the whales, I don't feel that misleading people is the correct approach to take here. Ultimately, truth does matter.

  17. I live in Orlando, FL. I go to Sea World regularly and will continue to do so. I met Dawn a number of years ago and got to touch Tilikum on his back. Most amazing day of my life!!! My children have learned so much about animals because we go to Sea World. Orca are beautiful creatures and the trainers who work with them know that they can be unpredictable. They accept this fact when they take the position. Think about all of the animals that are extinct,near extinction or injured. Without hands on knowledge there would be no way to save them. This ludicrous film never mentions word one about the good work Sea World has done and is doing for these animals.

  18. Hmm, where to start? First up, as this film is made by humans for humans, of course the film will not be perfect, and it just seems to me that people who don't like the movie try their best to prove the film is not perfect and therefore completely false. Well, of course the film is not perfect, but the film is also not completely false. It's true, you have given a very convincing argument that there is fault in the film, and I know you are not trying to completely discredit the film. Also, due to film, people can only sit so long before they get possibly amazingly bored and don't want to continue watching or leave because they have other things to do. I read the director saying once that she collected 300 hours of raw film and she watched every minute; it's going to be difficult to shrink 300 hours of raw film into an approximately 90 minute movie(who wants to watch a 300 hour long movie? If you answered yes, go see a counselor). So, if the film is advocacy as some people think, at least it's not a film made by PETA(otherwise it wouldn't be as popular with audiences). And it's true that not all the facts and details can be presented in about 90 minutes, since the history of orca captivity goes back almost 50 years. So yes, people should go out and do their own research, but what I think is that this film is this: even though it's not perfect and it is highly possible that the film is a piece of advocacy, the film does a reasonably good job of introducing people to the topic. The director has also stated multiple times she doesn't want to see SeaWorld close down and she didn't make the film to do that, she just wanted to inform people through a a film that tells a story(which does have facts even though it's possibly an advocacy film) so that people would no longer just be passive consumers. Also, we should be able to talk to each other and look at both views on a topic. In my own reasoning, people who call some members on a side "radical extremists" "misinformed individuals" or even "crazy lunatics" are themselves extremists for only accepting their view on the issue and refusing to listen to the opposing view.

    1. Oh, I forgot to say something. If you want a more in-depth view to try and dissect, read the book Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. It's either 400 pages long or has almost 400 footnotes, though the book may even have both. And I do admit I haven't read the book myself, but after reading many reviews and listening to what the author has said, it's likely the book does take a closer look at the issue for those of the human race that may want more details.

    2. I really need to finish my thoughts in 1 comment. The books author is David Kirby, an investigative journalist who like Gabriella Cowperthwaite had no interest in the topic until Dawn's death(which I'll admit is a horrible way to be introduced to any topic, but it still happens all the time).

  19. Excellent finish to this series. You have touched on several areas of interest to me, and I thank you! Something else the film and its supporters also fail to discuss is the origination of this species being held and studied in captive display facilities. They show the captures from years ago, and yet they do not bother to even touch on the actual history of the animal. How misunderstood the species was, and the atrocious treatment they were subjected to in the wild. The film fails to acknowledge the benefit and knowledge gained through studying this species in a captive environment. Nor does the film touch on any of the "hard" feelings, for lack of a better word, that certain individuals in the scientific community might have toward SeaWorld due to unrelated history. As for longevity, average life span and life expectancy, I applaud your discussion on this matter. I consistently see those against SeaWorld insist that captive animals die far to young, and yet when looking at the data on wild stock (those that we have actual data on, bearing in mind that there are populations that no data exists on as of yet), the numbers simply do not add up to the claims being made. When questions have been presented to some of the individuals featured in the movie (as well as the book "Death at SeaWorld") no answers are ever given. Again Mr. Beard, Thank You. This is a well written, objective and thought provoking series!

  20. You can get ages of cetaceans in all facilities in the US, both living and deceased, via the Marine Mammal Inventory Report. It's not hard to verify that several of Sea World's orcas have died at a young age. For example, Sumar was 12, Halyn was 2 1/2, and Vicky was 10 months. Incidentally, all three of these orcas were rejected by their mothers, and Halyn and Vicky were bottle fed by trainers. (Though they do have five orcas over the age of 30.)

  21. You make a few good points, and I am a huge activists myself, but I stand firm on Blackfish is such an informative film. And the bottom line is Tilikum has killed many people and it really is not right to keep for his sperm. What kind of life is that for him? And how many lives could have been saved if Tilikum was let down after the incident with Keltie Byrne.


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