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The Blackfish Effect

Dana Weaving dives into the ‘Blackfish Effect’, the profound public response to the harrowing 2013 documentary on the treatment of captive orcas.

In the vast and mysterious ocean, very few creatures manage to capture the awe of both scientists and storytellers like orcas do. Known for their remarkable intelligence and complex social structures, these majestic mammals have long held our fascination with seas. Unfortunately for the orca however, not everyone’s interest has been as harmless as it seems.

The year 2013 brought with it ‘Blackfish’, taking the world by storm as it shed light on the dark side of the captive killer whale industry. It sparked outrage over the treatment of captive orcas, and became a turning point in how the public viewed these creatures. ‘Blackfish’ is the story of Tilikum, a male orca who was later involved in the deaths of three trainers during his time in captivity. The story exposed the harsh treatment endured by the orcas - both physical and psychological. Leading to protests and boycotts of marine parks, the documentary sparked interest in the intelligence and huge emotional capacity of orcas like Tilikum, and the public began to demand humane treatment of the orcas, not their treatment as tourist attractions.

‘Blackfish’ sparked a debate on the ethics of keeping some of Earth’s most intelligent and complex animals in captivity, boxed in by glass and sterile waters. Image Credit: Jeffrey Surianto on Pexels.

So, what is the so-called ‘Blackfish Effect’?

The 'Blackfish Effect' refers to the profound and lasting influence of the documentary on public perception. It played a significant role in reshaping the way society views these animals, as well as extending beyond simply orcas to other species in captivity. In the wake of the documentary, legislative and corporate changes started to emerge. California, for instance, passed the Orca Protection Act, prohibiting the breeding of captive orcas. The most predominant marine park to house orcas even faced declining attendance and pressure from the public to reform its practices after the tragic passing of Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Dawn was killed by the whale Tilikum, after a performance in 2010.

Dawn’s death was a catalyst for widespread public scrutiny, ultimately contributing to significant change in how people interacted with orcas. Scrutiny continued to build as evidence emerged that the park had been previously aware of a prior incident between Tilikum and a marine trainer at another institution, neglecting to inform those who worked with him. They also continued to breed Tilikum.

Since the early 1970s, over 30 incidents have occurred involving human injury by captive orcas; in the wild, there has never been a case of intentional attack on humans. How this will change with recent events in Europe and on the Iberian coast, with reports of orcas sinking boats, is yet to be determined.

The orcas kept in captivity were exposed to many aggravators that may have contributed to the aggressive behaviour displayed towards the trainers. Kept in small enclosures for long periods of time, they were separated from their natural social groups. The most disturbing cases of social separation involved newborn calves being ripped away from their mothers, only to be shipped to other marine parks around the world.

Orcas in captivity are also trained to perform for large audiences, resulting in mental and physical stress that could be a contributing factor in the aggression displayed in several freak incidents. Moreover, the grey, artificial walls of their enclosure, plus the restrictions on their movement and natural behaviours, may also have heightened aggressive and high-stress behaviours.

An orca performs aerial ‘tricks’ for an audience at a popular marine park. The trainers are all smiles, but what is there to smile about when ethics are compromised? Image Credit: xanio on Pixabay.

The ‘Blackfish Effect’ has undeniably created a significant positive impact on orca conservation, promoting the protection of habitats from pollution and disturbance, as well as educating people on orca behaviour in an attempt to spread awareness about their conservation needs. Advocacy groups continue to push for stricter legislations to protect orcas from captivity and exploitation.

Perhaps the most prominent result of the ‘Blackfish Effect’ was the demonstration of the power of the media. ‘Blackfish’ brought the mistreatment of orcas in captivity into the light.

But the fight to protect orcas and their habitats is ongoing. It is a testament to the documentary how it inspired a global movement, advocating for the welfare and conservation of these truly unique creatures. As we move forward into a future where conservation efforts are at their highest, it is important to ensure that the ‘Blackfish Effect’ leads to lasting change and a brighter future for orcas in the wild.

About the Author: Dana Weaving is a Zoology student at Exeter, passionate about wildlife and the conservation of marine animals. Her deep connection to the topic came from childhood visits to marine parks, where she first fell in love with orcas.

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