Blackfish Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite on Killer Whales and the 20th Anniversary of Free Willy

Photo: Magnolia Pictures and Warner Bros

In February 2010, Orlando Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled into the water by her animal co-star — a killer whale named Tilikum — and killed. The event shocked many, including documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who routinely brought her kids to enjoy shows at Sea World’s San Diego outpost. She began to wonder, why would a highly intelligent animal like Tilikum ever bite the hand that fed it? Through research and interviews with former orca trainers, Cowperthwaite unveiled a history of mistreatment toward captive whales and unfortunate encounters with humans – captured in 1983, Tilikum had killed two other trainers before Brancheau. Yet the whale continues to perform today. With blunt force, Blackfish asks, “Why?”

Coincidentally, Cowperthwaite’s film, which hit theaters last weekend, arrived on the tail of Free Willy’s twentieth anniversary. That ecofriendly, Michael Jackson–endorsed movie is regarded as a children’s staple, but it features a heavy activist undercurrent. Willy, like Tilikum, is an aggressive whale imprisoned in a sea park. As the rebellious Jesse comes to learn through interacting with the whale, Willy deserves to be free. Back in 1993, the movie caused a swell of support for whales, pushing Warner Bros. to help rescue Keiko, the real-life Willy, from captivity. With Free Willy in mind, we spoke to Cowperthwaite about her movie, what the childhood classic gets right, and her film’s relationship to Sea World.

Free Willy resulted in a campaign to restore Keiko back to health and train him for eventual release into the wild. Did it make any impact on Sea World?
It depends on what side of the debate you stand on. Some people think this was a tremendous success. The pro-captivity folks, including Sea World, think it’s a complete failure — proof that whales can’t be released into the wild. [Editor’s note: Keiko died about a year and a half after being released into open waters.] It’s a hot button issue. I know Sea World did not take it seriously. It’s our understanding that their numbers were not damaged by that film.

In Free Willy, they describe Willy as being a “case.” He doesn’t get along with anyone. What did you learn about the emotional complexity of these animals during the making of Blackfish?
Killer whales have very complex and convoluted brains. When they were able to do an MRI and scan a whale brain, they found that they have everything we have and an extra part that we don’t. We don’t know what it is. We can’t identify it because we’ve never seen it before. It’s theorized that it’s connected to their social and emotional lives. It has to do with the bonds with their families.

Both movies show us the importance of family to orcas. That emotion winds up affecting the trainers featured in Blackfish. So Free Willy wasn’t pulling my leg by suggesting that a human and whale could really form a relationship?
In addition to them being strongly bonded, once they’re at Sea World, they’re never with their pods again. There’s calf-mother separation, and what ends up happening is that there is constant whale on whale aggression. They’re vying for dominance in ways you don’t see in the wild. Whales have killed other whales in captivity and this phenomenon is not something scientists have seen in the wild.

They are animals who are constantly seeking bonds. They do bond with their trainers. But that’s not all they want. It just means that that’s all they have. Trainers are also incredibly bonded with the whales. That’s palpable. Even in the Sea World shows, I think what 90 percent of what people are attracted to is the love that trainers have for the animals.

Blackfish and Free Willy have a shocking commonality: They allow young trainers with zero skills to jump in the water with the whales. In the case of Willy, it’s a 12-year-old. The Sea World employees in your film don’t look much older.
I think they’re usually in their twenties, but the last trainer we interviewed had been working at the kitchen at Sea World and had been recruited to be a trainer. She had a great voice and she was beautiful and she could swim. That was the main criteria. They’ll never have a shortage of people willing to don that training outfit. There are people who pay Sea World to work there. Every trainer who worked there was told that if they messed up and were fired, there would be someone to replace them. But if they left, could they ever be assured that someone would take care of their whale as well as they had?

There’s a small, but poignant moment in Free Willy where we see that his dorsal fin has flopped over. None of the characters really know why it has happened to Willy. Twenty years later, is there more information on that phenomenon, known as dorsal collapse?
You only see the floppy dorsal like that in captivity. 100 percent of all males in captivity have flopped over dorsal fins. This is something you don’t see in the wild. We talk about in the movie, because I was desperate to know what Sea World had to say about it. They think it’s a “genetic predisposition” — that’s how they describe it. Then they say a lot of whales in the wild have it too. So right there, there’s a misrepresentation. It’s atrophy. If they swim in one pattern, in circles, with no force of the ocean pushing against the dorsal fin in any way, it flops over. It’s a part of their anatomy that marine biologists say you either “use or lose,” and it’s a useless tool in captivity.

What do you think it will take to actually change the conduct of Sea World?
It’s a $2.2 billion a year industry. The idea that they’re going to go away overnight is not realistic. That said, we do think they could evolve. Sea World themselves have the financial resources to evolve the industry. They could create rehabilitation and relief facilities, where you would keep an animal, take care of it while it’s sick, and release it back into the wild. Or a big alternative that we suggest is a sea pen, where you corner off part of the ocean cove with a net and semi-retire the whales into a cove and keep an eye on their health. You can’t just dump them in the ocean. They don’t know how to chase their food and they’re so hopped up on antibiotics they wouldn’t last very long.

It could be profit driven. You could charge people to see the whales. And what they would be seeing is real killer whales. Not semi-comatose animals swimming in circles all day or doing unnatural tricks.

Could they still be tourist attractions, though? As anti-captivity as Free Willy is, it still teaches us how important it is for young people to see these animals up close and learn to empathize with them.
That was my big thing and why I wanted to interview Sea World. I wanted to hear that argument. I think it’s a good one. Would we care about killer whales if we hadn’t experienced them through Sea World? That said, given what we know and what we’ve learned, we have to realize that there is no way we could ever give them what they need to survive and thrive. It’s really dangerous for us to even try. There is no data that suggests that the people who come to Sea World, after seeing a Shamu show, go out and donate to a nonprofit organization, start eating dolphin-free tuna, or begin to care about killer whales in the wild. There have been no studies and we know of no correlation. But there’s a strong correlation between someone seeing a show at Sea World and wanting to be a trainer.

Blackfish’s Director on Free Willy, Sea World