Taking its title from the name the First Nations people and the coastal communities gave orca whales – Blackfish, the 2013 film focuses on Tilikum. He was a male orca stolen from the wild as a young 2 year old calf.
The most grueling sequence in Blackfish shows a 1970s orca hunt using multiple boats to capture wild orca calves.Once the babies were hauled aboard the boats, the rest of the pod were released from the nets that separated them from the little ones.
Instead of swimming off, they formed a line with their heads above water and exchanged heartbreaking calls with the captive. Recalling that scene some four decades later, one of the orca hunters described it as “Just like kidnapping a little kid away from their mother.”
He also remembers how, when three members of the orca pod died in the nets, he and two other crew members were told to fill their eviscerated bodies with rocks and sink them in the ocean.
He couldn’t stop the tears from springing to his eyes as he worked — and confesses that time hasn’t kept the memories of that day from haunting him:
“I’ve been a part of a revolution and two change of presidents in Central and South America. And seen some things that’s hard to believe, but that is the worst thing that I’ve ever done.”
Wild orcas live in inseparable family groups, each with its own culture and language. We now know, in spite of what marine parks tell their audiences, that the females live from 80 to 100 years; the males, from 60 to 70.
The bonds between wild orcas are SO strong that even fully grown individuals never leave their mothers’ sides. Science reports a remarkable statistic from a University of Exeter study analyzing 40 years of data collected on 589 wild orcas.
They found that male orcas younger than 30 “were three times more likely to die in the year after their mother’s death” than those with surviving mothers. For males older than 30, the “risk of death increased more than eightfold.”
What might account for such extreme bonding? The filmmakers interviewed neuroscientist and whale expertLori Marino, who explained the results of an orca brain scan.
“What we found was just astounding. They’ve got a part of the brain that humans don’t have. A part of their brain has extended out right adjacent to their limbic system. The system processes emotions.”
What does Marino think this research is telling us?
“The safest inference would be these are animals that have highly elaborated emotional lives. It’s becoming clear that dolphins and whales have a sense of self, a sense of social bonding that they’ve taken to another level much stronger, much more complex than in other mammals, including humans.”
If Marino is correct, what does that mean for male orcas like Tilikum? He was torn his mother’s side as a calf, but never experienced her physical death.
Could that emotional trauma account for the drooping dorsal fin that gave him — and all other captive male orcas– such a depressed and defeated look? Among wild orcas, 99 of 100 males have strong, erect dorsal fins for their entire lives.
Meanwhile, we humans (who spend our teen years fighting to break away from Mom and Dad!) tend to think of fish and marine mammals as mindless amoeba. We eat fish without a second thought for the lives they lived and the families they left behind.
Or we watch orcas, dolphins and seals for entertainment, never asking why it is that they deserve a life of enslavement. Such a horrific experience may have been the driving force behind Tilikum’s involvement in the deaths of two trainers and a Sea World intruder.
If there’s a bright side to Blackfish, it’s that backlash from the movie persuaded Sea World to finally end their orca breeding program (much of it the result of artificially inseminating their females with Tilikum’s sperm).
Tilikum spent his final days in isolation, and died in captivity on January 6, 2017 after spending 33 years away from his mother.