Killer whales are a hot entertainment commodity. Just ask SeaWorld and its parent company, The Blackstone Group, who not only reap hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits (and paid zero income tax in 2011) from their shiny Shamu-based business model, but stand to raise even more mountains of cash with an imminent IPO.
But now the darker side of keeping killer whales in captivity is gaining a foothold in the American conversation, fueled in part by a spate of films and books on the subject that seem to be approaching something close to critical mass. Indeed, as The Hollywood Reporter recently put it, “Orcas in Captivity Are Having a Hollywood Moment.”
This holiday season, and into the New Year, as you parcel out your entertainment dollars for yourself or as gifts, there are many ways you can have a good time—and learn about killer whales, and why they are better off in their ocean home than a concrete tank full of artificial seawater.
Here are some suggestions. Grab some popcorn and (trust me) a hanky, and settle in.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Killer in the Pool
Killer In The Pool, by investigative journalist Tim Zimmermann, first appeared in Outside magazine in 2010 and is now available at Amazon. It remains the most comprehensive yet concise journalistic account of the notorious orca Tilikum and his three human victims, including SeaWorld Florida trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Photo: Matthieu Belanger/Reuters
Now available on DVD, The Whale tells the gripping, heartwarming, and ultimately tragic tale of Luna, a young male orca from the Northern Resident killer whale community of British Columbia, who becomes separated from his family in the stunningly beautiful waters of Nootka Sound, a narrow fiord on Vancouver Island’s west coast. With no orca pod to care for him, Luna begins bonding with people—creating a problem for boaters in the sound, and a danger for Luna himself. The journalist/filmmaking couple of Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm collaborated on this gorgeously shot, deeply moving chronicle of Luna’s longing for people. The film, a Critics’ Pick at The New York Times and the Washington Post, is narrated by Ryan Reynolds, who executive produced the picture with his wife at the time, Scarlett Johannson. It will leave you both uplifted, and haunted.
Photo: Courtesy Michael Parfit
This highly anticipated work by filmmaker Gabriela Cowperwaithe was one of just 16 documentaries selected for official competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Little information has been released to date, but the film is already gaining big buzz. The Sundance website provides some clues why: “Blackfish unravels the complexities of…the story of notorious performing whale Tilikum, who—unlike any orca in the wild—has taken the lives of several people while in captivity. So what exactly went wrong? Shocking, never-before-seen footage and riveting interviews with trainers and experts manifest the orca’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity over the last four decades, and the growing disillusionment of workers who were misled and endangered by the highly profitable sea-park industry. This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature.” Critic Aaron Peck said the film “may end up being The Cove of Sundance 2013 [The Cove won the 2009 Audience Award for US Documentary at Sundance and the 2010 Best Documentary at the Academy Awards]. I have an affinity for sea life and abhor the imprisonment of these types of animals.”
Photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters
Rust and Bone
This gritty French art-house love story is not about captive orcas per se, though the animals do figure prominently in the troubled life of one main character, played by Oscar-winning marvel Marion Cotillard. Her star-turn as an orca trainer at Marineland Antibes, who loses both legs in a killer whale incident, has won rave reviews and Best Actress nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes and, almost likely, a shot at another Academy Award. Rust and Bone also earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Interestingly, Cotillard herself is avidly anti-captivity, and found working on the set at Marineland to be unsettling, to put it mildly. Back in May, she told Empire Online that one scene in particular left her shaking. “There were two whales and the first one went kind of mad at me,” she said. “It was the only time I was really scared and freaked out… I’d rather see whales in their own environment and not in a swimming pool. Today Cotillard vows never to visit another captive-orca facility. Rust and Bone is playing now, mostly at independent theaters.
Photo: Bex Walton/Creative Commons via Flickr
A thriller novel out this week (Kindle edition) by William Neal, introduces us to “enigmatic billionaire Mitchell Chandler” who “churns out obscene profits at his aquatic theme parks driven by the spectacular killer whale exhibits. Then the orca at Chandler's Seattle Park dies. Now the animal rights activists have all the ammo they need to shut him down.” In the end, we find that “the mighty orcas have simply returned... to exact justice.” Kirkus Reviews called it, “An action-packed thriller about greed, corruption, and power... adrenaline-pumping... compelling,” and author/marine biologist Karen Sullivan described it as “A maritime Da Vinci Code meets Jurassic Park.”
Photo: William Neal's Facebook Page
Death at SeaWorld
At the risk of sounding overly self-promotional, it’s worth noting that the paperback version of my book, Death At SeaWorld, Shamu And The Dark Side Of Killer Whales in Captivity (St. Martin’s Press) will be released right around the same time as The Lost Whale. The paperback will offer a brief update for readers, including the result of the big trial against OSHA in the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau (SeaWorld largely lost), the federal appeals process that continues to this day, and recent high-publicity incidents including the severe injury of the male orca Nakai at SeaWorld San Diego. Meanwhile, there is currently some interest in Hollywood in making Death At SeaWorld into a major motion picture, and the book enjoys representation from the top-flight Creative Artists Agency.
David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, Death at SeaWorld, was published by St. Martin’s Press.