'Blackfish' documentary taking aim at SeaWorld opens in Central Florida

By Mike DeForest, Reporter, mdeforest@clickorlando.com
Published On: Jul 29 2013 05:30:54 PM EDT
Updated On: Aug 09 2013 11:58:48 PM EDT

"Blackfish," the documentary about SeaWorld, opens in a Central Florida theater.

ORLANDO, Fla. -

"Blackfish," the documentary about SeaWorld, opened in a Central Florida theater on Friday, and some shows were sold out.

[WATCH: Blackfish clips]

The movie, which opened Friday at the Enzian Theater in Maitland, attempts to explain why the 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum might have drowned Dawn Brancheau, the trainer who fed and cared for him.

"We've just seen a lot of interest on social media, a lot of phone calls, people very excited to see this critically acclaimed documentary," said Jennifer Gruhl, spokeswoman for the Enzian.

Most people were silent when they walked out those theater doors, some with red teary eyes.

Many Central Floridians were already familiar with the SeaWorld trainer's death, but some theater-goers told Local 6 the film has changed their opinion about what happened.

"They knew this was going to happen," said Jane Blankenship. "It's happened over and over again, and lives were taken because of it. It's terrible."

Blankenship said she will not be renewing her SeaWorld annual pass after watching the documentary.

Nicole Lebeau worked as a lifeguard at SeaWorld's Discovery Cove years before Brancheau's death.

"Do I look like I've been crying, 'cause I don't want to look like I've been crying," said Lebeau. "Having worked there, I was just amazed at how much I was lied to. I always kind of thought it was a little suspicious."

SeaWorld officials, meanwhile, say the film is not accurate. They said "Blackfish" fails to show the good work the company does rescuing and rehabilitating.

SeaWorld refused to participate in the film.

"Blackfish makes no attempt to tell the story of SeaWorld and its long history displaying killer whales with any degree of balance and fairness.  It focuses on a handful of incidents over nearly five decades of SeaWorld history at the exclusion of everything that is positive," a SeaWorld representative said.

"I know why they didn't participate," said Blankenship."It's plainly clear why they didn't participate."

"It was eye opening. I will never ever go onto a place that has animals in captivity ever again," said Lebeau. "I'm almost embarrassed I worked for them."

Lebeau said she still has friends who work at SeaWorld. She plans to encourage them to see the movie and spread the word about it on social media, but she also acknowledges that documentaries generally do not get huge audiences, so she doesn't know how much this film will impact SeaWorld's business.

The film will be playing at the Enzian Theater for at least two weeks. The movie will also be shown next week at AMC at Downtown Disney.

"Blackfish" is scheduled to air on CNN in the fall, followed by DVD and Blu-ray releases.

About the film

During the opening credits of the new documentary "Blackfish," audiences hear the chilling 911 calls placed by SeaWorld employees in February 2010 reporting the death of Brancheau.

"We need (the Orange County Sheriff's Office) to respond to a dead person at SeaWorld," stated one of the callers. "A whale ate one of the trainers."

The filmmakers who created "Blackfish" hope their movie will make visitors think twice about buying a ticket to SeaWorld. But park officials, who declined repeated requests to appear in the film, claim the documentary is scientifically inaccurate.

Using interviews with former SeaWorld trainers and graphic video showing captive whales pulling trainers underwater, "Blackfish" suggests that stripping orcas away from their natural families and placing them in captivity may cause psychosis and aggression.

Marine mammal experts featured in the film state that no humans have been killed by an orca in the wild. Of the four deaths that have occurred at marine parks, Tilikum has been implicated in three of them.

The filmmakers tracked down two sisters who say they witnessed Tilikum drown part-time trainer Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada in 1991. Eight years later, after SeaWorld purchased Tilikum, a drifter named Daniel Dukes reportedly snuck into Tilikum's tank after the park had closed. The next morning a SeaWorld employee found him dead and lying naked on Tilikum's back.

Two months before Tilikum drowned Brancheau, a different SeaWorld-owned orca drowned trainer Alexis Martinez at a marine park in the Canary Islands.

In a statement to Local 6, a SeaWorld spokesman said, "Blackfish appears to repeat the same unfounded allegations made many times over the last several years by our opponents in the animal rights community. Importantly, the film fails to make the most important points about SeaWorld: The company is dedicated in every respect to the safety of our staff and the welfare of animals."

Several film critics said they received an email from SeaWorld calling the film "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate."

After Brancheau's death, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration issued safety citations against SeaWorld, accusing the company of endangering its trainers.

"Blackfish" director Gabriella Cowperthwaite traveled to the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford in 2011 when the company unsuccessfully attempted to get the citations overturned. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Cowperthwaite showed video footage that was played in the courtroom showing killer whales pulling trainers underwater.

Although SeaWorld trainers have remained out of the water since Brancheau's death, the company still allows employees to have close physical contact with killer whales despite OSHA recommendations that trainers remain a safe distance away or behind barriers.

SeaWorld lawyers who are appealing the citations believe their new procedures governing whale interactions are safe and comply with OSHA requirements.

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