Campaign for real whale


I’m republishing this review which I originally posted on 14 June, as those in the UK who weren’t able to see it on the big screen during its arthouse theatrical run in July can now actually respond by buying it or screening it! (Also, it’s still getting some fantastically positive reviews, which vindicate my own feelings on seeing an early preview. Deep breath.)

Blackfish is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen, and my favourite documentary of the year so far – despite strong competition. It tells the tragic tale of one specific captive killer whale, Tilikum, a 22.5 ft (6.9m) long, 12,000 pound (5,400 kg) bull who lives – if you can call it living – at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he still performs for whooping audiences. His name comes from the Chinook word for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people”, which is ironic when you think for longer than a few seconds about the fact that whales in swimming pools are by definition separated from their extended families. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, aged around three years old, and has lived in swimming pools for most of his showbiz life. While held at Sealand in British Columbia, his first “home”, he and two other orcas were herded, every night, into a “holding” pool just 20 ft (6.1m) deep and 28 ft (8.5m) in diameter.)

Blackfish was made by documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who did not start out with an agenda. She had, in fact, taken her kids to SeaWorld and bought into the whole corporate myth that these beautiful cetateans are not “forced” to perform their tricks and do so willingly out of a love for their human trainers. (The word “killer” is usually dropped in the official commentaries at these shows.) Having done the same thing myself in 1994, no matter how conflicted I felt at the time about seeing two whales doing tricks for fish at what was then Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, California, it has haunted me ever since and hardened my anti-zoo stance. I guess I am the choir to which the film could be accused of preaching to, although it’s hard to imagine why any right-thinking person would be happy about large, social marine mammals being kept in prison when they’ve committed no crime.

The orca is an apex predator, but has never attacked a human in the wild. Incidents of whales “turning on” their trainers, however, are more common than you might idly think. The engine that drove Gabriela to make her film was the awful death on February 24, 2010, of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando, which was witnessed, unknowingly, by a whooping audience. The precise cause of death is still murky, but Brancheau seems to have been pulled by Tilikum into the water by her ponytail, possibly in a moment of confusion over fish.

The whales performing on that occasion had been unresponsive and agitated, and only get fish after successfully effecting a trick, so they were especially hungry. Eyewitness accounts differ. Brancheau’s autopsy indicated “death by drowning” and “blunt force trauma”, and noted a severed spinal cord, and “sustained fractures” to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra.

SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but insists that OSHA’s findings are “unfounded”. The implication, as ever in cases like this, is that human error led to the tragedy. This was the story instantly spun around the death at a Cumbrian safari park of zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed by a Sumatran tiger. The news media ensures that our first reaction to the story is never, “What is a tiger doing living in Cumbria?”


You will learn more about all this in the haunting film, which provides plentiful context: historical, behavioural, neurological (orcas have a section of brain that even clever old humans don’t have) and, yes, emotional. It may make you cry. I met Gabriela at a private VIP screening of Blackfish in June laid on by distributor Dogwoof for representatives of various NGOs and activist groups (you might say a “captive audience” if the phrase wasn’t so inappropriate!) and she is a calm, logical, unhysterical advocate of basic commonsense in this area. Here she is.

Blackfish VIP Event GC_AC

In her film, she speaks to a whole parade of ex-SeaWorld trainers, who confirm that incredible bond between animal and human, but who still question the motivation behind SeaWorld’s entire business model. The marine park chain currently has 22 killer whales in captivity, which remain big box office. For them, it’s all about money and turnstiles. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re a corporation. Blackfish is as much a critique of corporate America as it is of animal cruelty. (You won’t be surprised that SeaWorld refused to put up a representative to speak on camera, although transcripts of their defence at a previous court case speak volumes.)

Again, I refrain from urging anyone to see a film. There may be issues closer to home than Orlando that come higher up your priority list. You may simply think: well it’s obviously wrong that massive whales are kept in a zoo, I don’t need to see a film about it to have my beliefs hardened. It’s not a snuff movie – you don’t actually see any trainers die, but you do see the bloody damage distressed whales do to each other when cooped up, and you do see some unprecedented “behaviours” which rather suggest psychological damage. Poor Tilikum seems mostly to be kept as a sperm bank these days. (He’s “sired” 21 offspring in his time, 11 of which are still alive.)

Artificial insemination is a common practice in animal husbandry, on farms, at stables, in zoos and elsewhere, and it’s done for reasons of conservation as well as commerce. However, you might find the sheer scale of doing it to a killer whale rather disturbing. Maybe those are double standards, I don’t know, but I love killer whales. When I saw one in Vallejo in 1994 and sat right up against the glass of its viewing pool while it swam past my nose, I felt privileged to have seen it. And then sick that I had seen it in that unnatural setting.

I have a recurring dream which I’ve mentioned before, in which I am close to the edge of a pool in which huge killer whales are swimming. But it’s not a nightmare. I am terrified of falling in, and in awe of the whales, but I never do fall in, and they never harm me. No need to analyse that one, Freudians.

Oh, and I urge you to see Blackfish now that it’s available in armchair-friendly form. (Damn!)


We are not abused

This is by way of an administrative apology, really. You may have encountered a bit of trouble leaving comments on my blog for the last month or so. Only today, I’ve had one of you leaving a perfectly legitimate and interesting comment three times, clearly out of frustration that it didn’t appear the first time you posted it. Well, just for the record, the comments are moderated, so if I’m away from my computer (and I don’t use a smartphone, so unless I’m sitting down, I’m not online), comments are queued. However, to make matters more inconvenient for you, I have had to add in a spam filter and a registration wall in order to discourage abuse. Clearly, I’m not going to go into any details, as the haters and the irritants usually do it to get attention, and even by typing this I’m sort of indirectly acknowledging their existence – but it’s a necessary level of protection for me. I don’t invite abuse. I do my best to write in a fair and balanced way – irritatingly so, at times, I should imagine – and even in my critical writing, about films or books or TV shows, I make it my business not to slag off for its own sake. I’ve done my slagging off. When I was a hungry NME journalist in my twenties, I’m sure I wrote some horrid things about Elton John and Mick Hucknall, but it was in the spirit of the publication and anyway, you grow out of that.

As someone who writes, and broadcasts, in the public domain, I accept that I am fair game to a degree. Also, as a user of Twitter, I’m above the parapet by choice. But I do not accept abuse, especially when it is posted anonymously. So I’ve put in a few mechanisms, provided by WordPress, to keep the tiny minority of timewasters at bay. I have an email address which is public and available to all, but to use it requires an email address, and those who abuse and waste time are not looking for a dialogue. They are, as I’ve stated before, doing the equivalent of knocking on your front door and running away.

So, once again, apologies if it’s harder to get in than it was once, but you’ll respect my reasons for doing it, I’m sure. You are the good guys and girls. I welcome comment. I encourage dialogue. And a lot of you read this thing now, which I really appreciate, and as proven by the comments left after the more serious recent entries about the financial meltdown and the riots, an encouragingly fair and intelligent debate often ensues.

When I’m on the radio, with text and email and social networking in full swing, it’s a piece of piss to lob an insult at me, or my Saturday morning co-host, and yes, it stings for a few seconds, and the first instinct is to reply, but you must never do that, as it seems to be what a lot of anonymous idiots are fishing for. On Twitter, if someone has a go at me, I can block them instantaneously, and then not only will I not hear from them again, they will not hear from me again, so everybody should be happy. They can go and slag off someone else. The Guardian Telly Addict review worried me when I started it, as a minority on the Guardian website use it as a forum for rampant nastiness, but they seem to have either been very kind to me, or disinterested, either of which is a result.

Tim Adam wrote an interesting piece on the psychology of anonymous online abuse in the Observer a couple of Sundays ago, which didn’t exactly crack it, but at least organised a few examples. Have a read of it. We’ve seen a lot of people wearing masks to achieve anonymity and doing stupid, despicable things this week – in real life – and I guess anonymous looting on CCTV in broad daylight in some cases puts online abuse into perspective. It’s braver to go and loot a shop, but only marginally.

I’m not sure why what I do attracts the abusive. I’m not really a table-banging shouter. I have shall-we-say unconventional views on the culling of animals and the rights of complementary practitioners to go about their business, but I have learned to keep these views to myself, rather than broadcast them here, as you will have noticed. Why? Because I do not set out to rub anyone up the wrong way. By and large, I will be preaching to the converted by even saying this, but I’m saying it anyway. And I’m certainly not fishing for compliments or ego-stroking, believe me. I have long since stopped visiting the Word message boards where I seem to draw frequent slings and arrows, and yet I adore that magazine, and feel it is a privilege to write for it; this is a shame, but what’s the point of raising my own blood pressure defending myself, and my work, against a handful of insult-mongers? Best to retire gracefully and let them get on with it.

To paraphrase something Michael Moore once said to me, when I asked him how he stays so certain that he is right: “If I’m wrong, I’ll change my opinion and then I’ll be right again.”