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‘Blackfish’ filmmaker saves the whales

“Blackfish” focuses on a SeaWorld orca who killed three people.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite

“Blackfish” focuses on a SeaWorld orca who killed three people.

What the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary “The Cove” did for dolphin slaughter in Japan, “Blackfish” may do for killer whales living in captivity while performing at marine parks. Like “The Cove” and Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” “Blackfish” is as much about human hubris as animal behavior.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, “Blackfish,” which opens Friday, explores what might have caused one whale, Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca, to kill three people, including veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, in 2010. It was news of Brancheau’s death during a show at SeaWorld in Orlando that sparked Cowperthwaite’s interest. SeaWorld first claimed that the trainer had slipped and fallen; later, the company claimed Tilikum had been spooked by Brancheau’s ponytail.

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“I didn’t come from activism. I’m a documentary filmmaker but also a mother. I’ve gone to SeaWorld in San Diego with my kids,” says Cowperthwaite, 41, during a visit to Boston. “When I heard about Dawn Brancheau being killed, I thought, ‘What a strange aberration; what a sad event.’ And so I began researching the issue. I could not come to terms with why the whale Tilikum made that decision. Was he playing, or just curious, or was he angry? Whatever it was, I didn’t think those things happened at SeaWorld. I thought this was a place of loving bonds. I was naive, I guess.”

During the two-year filmmaking process, Cowperthwaite says she came to realize that “nothing at [SeaWorld] is what it seems.” Besides animal behavior experts and patrons who witnessed whale attacks during performances over the years, Cowperthwaite tracked down former SeaWorld trainers willing to go on the record. They talk about safety lapses, questionable training practices, and the living conditions — Tilikum was kept in a small, dark tank for more than 14 hours at a time — that might have pushed Tilikum to deadly aggression.

Tilikum, born in the wild near Iceland in 1983, was captured and sent to a marine park near Vancouver before he was sold to SeaWorld in Orlando.

“I knew the only way for this movie to have credibility was to hear from people who had touched the other side,” says Cowperthwaite, a Colorado native and University of Southern California graduate who lives in Los Angeles. One who had significant inside experience is John Crowe, who provides the film with one of its most chilling interviews.

A former diver, Crowe trapped and, in his words, kidnapped baby whales for shipment to theme parks while their mothers watched and screeched in agony. Haunted by these memories, Crowe quit the business. “People told me that all those old divers were either dead or not talking,” recalls Cowperthwaite. “It took me 50 cold phone calls to every John Crowe in Canada and Washington. I finally found him in Newport, Ore., where he owns a bar.”

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“Blackfish,” which will air on CNN later this year, contains powerful footage of whale attacks at marine parks. Cowperthwaite obtained much of it through the Freedom of Information Act once the Occupational Safety and Health Administration took SeaWorld to court and the footage became exhibits in the case.

But for all its compelling footage and interviews, it was crucial to Cowperthwaite and co-writer and editor Eli Despres that “Blackfish” unfold as a story in thriller-like fashion.

“I didn’t want it to feel like medicine. I didn’t want it to feel like an ethical boxing match,” says Cowperthwaite. She’s directed programs for Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, among others, but her only other feature is 2010’s “City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story.” “I would rather tell a story and tell the truth; and if the audience feels something, then I know that feeling is completely authentic.”

She sought comment from SeaWorld, which owns parks in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio. The company declined to appear in “Blackfish” but issued a statement that the film “appears to repeat the same unfounded allegations made many times over the last several years by animal-rights activists. . . . [Sea World] is dedicated in every respect to the safety of our staff and the welfare of animals.”

News of an orca killing a trainer at SeaWorld in 2010 inspired Gabriela Cowperth-waite to make “Blackfish.”

Andy Kropa/Invision via AP

News of an orca killing a trainer at SeaWorld in 2010 inspired Gabriela Cowperthwaite to make “Blackfish.”

“I tried to talk to them. I saw during the trial how they would answer questions, how they have such marketing and PR spin, how automated and polished their responses are,” says Cowperthwaite. “They have had the floor for 40 years and controlled the entire message, so I am OK with 80 minutes to myself. I gave them every opportunity.”

Although he has not yet seen “Blackfish,” one of the most respected whale experts in the country, Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, says orcas “roam thousands of miles each year in tight-knit social groups and [marine aquariums] put them in tiny cells. It’s absurd.” Such parks are more circuses than educational centers, Mayo says. But if the facility is honest about what it is presenting, then there is “some limited teaching value” in keeping animals in captivity. “But to say it is natural or that it is teaching the public about the ecosystem is a stretch beyond credibility.”

Cowperthwaite doesn’t think SeaWorld should cease operating — it’s a $2 billion a year business and she isn’t that naive — but she does hope her film will affect how the park exhibits whales. “The marine park experiment 40 years ago wasn’t about understanding the species. I honestly think it was about curiosity and wanting to connect. But when it starts being lucrative, the relationship becomes about control.”

Although “Blackfish” has earned kudos on the festival circuit, Cowperthwaite says she’s nervous about the film opening in Orlando where SeaWorld “butters a lot of people’s bread.”

“SeaWorld could drain my bank account in a day,” she says. “But I know I’m armed with the truth. That’s where I derive my confidence.”

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.

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