The director of the SeaWorld exposé, documentary film Blackfish, issued a challenge to the multi-billion dollar corporation. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite asked SeaWorld to engage in a debate over issues addressed in the film after the company released a statement claiming the film is “propaganda” and untrue.

“As we have always maintained, we welcome an open and honest discussion with SeaWorld,” her statement on The Dodo says. “Unfortunately, Sea World’s business model is built on an antiquated form of animal entertainment which is dwindling in popularity and is no longer seen as humane by many people.”

Cowperthwaite also responded to SeaWorld’s assertion that Blackfish is “emotionally manipulative.” “We believe our audience is intelligent and in control of their own emotions,” she said. “We urge them to conduct additional research on topics such as SeaWorld’s separation of mothers and calves, the increased mortality rate of orcas in captivity, the impact of captivity on orca health, and the frequency of killer whales injuring one another and trainers.”

The filmmakers asked SeaWorld to address the following concerns:

“SeaWorld claims it does not capture killer whales in the wild.”

Evidence shows that SeaWorld has other groups capture wild animals for them. Cowperthwaite notes that SeaWorld is currently attempting to import wild-caught beluga whales from Russia. “‘Rescues’ are often veiled attempts to secure wild animals,” she said. “A whale called Morgan, rescued in the Netherlands in 2010, was not released as local law required but was instead transported to a park in Spain. When SeaWorld published documents listing its ‘assets,’ Morgan appeared as part of its ‘collection.’”

“Why SeaWorld stays relatively quiet on wild captures and killings.”

In the midst of the annual culling and slaughter of wild dolphins in Taiji, Japan as well as the capture of orcas and beluga whales in Russia, SeaWorld remains relatively quiet, despite touting claims of its conservation efforts. The company has vast resources and could be a strong voice against the cruel practices of killing and capturing wild cetaceans. SeaWorld obtained a pilot whale in 2010 that was reportedly captured in a drive hunt. Cowperthwaite notes that the company could easily provide evidence of how its beluga whales and other animals are captured, if there is nothing to hide.

“SeaWorld claims it does not separate killer whale mothers and calves.”

Orcas are highly social animals that live in matrilineal family groups and work very closely with their pods for survival. Orcas stay with their family groups for life. Capturing orcas from the wild, particularly separating calves from mothers, as with other cetaceans, is an extremely inhumane and traumatic act. “SeaWorld’s claim that it does not separate them is patently false,” Cowperthwaite says. (See list of mother-calf separations).

Separations are extremely cruel and can lead whales to injure themselves or become severely depressed. “For example, during the course of our investigation we learned the story of a killer whale who became distraught when her daughter Skyla as shipped to another park,” she notes.

Kalina “broke open her face,” suffering lacerations from banging into the gate separating her from her baby, who was only two years of age at the time. At the same moment, Skyla was being harnessed and craned out of the pool. According to our sources, Kalina and other whales can stop eating and “shut down” due to the trauma of these unnatural separations, and may even be put on diazepam (valium) in an attempt to ease the stress.

Even the image that SeaWorld uses to advertise that it keeps mothers and calves together shows a calf that was, in fact, separated from its mother in Texas. The mother, Takara, is kept at SeaWorld San Antonio and the calf, Kohana, was moved to Loro Parque, Spain.

SeaWorld separates moms and calves










“SeaWorld maligns individuals who draw less than favorable conclusions about their practices.”

SeaWorld brands scientists, anti-captivity activists, former trainers, and independent researchers, who report on SeaWorld’s practices, as “radical activists.” The documentary Blackfish features interviews with individuals who captured wild orcas for SeaWorld as well as former trainers and scientists who have studied wild orcas for a living. “Maligning them on [the basis that they have independently come to a conclusion that is not favorable to SeaWorld] does not make for responsible criticism,” Cowperthwaite says.

In addition, SeaWorld has created a misleading marketing effort to hide human deaths caused by orcas in captivity. One well-known example is the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, whom an executive for SeaWorld said should be blamed for her own death. SeaWorld also reported that the cause of Brancheau’s death in 2010 was purely a result of her own “mistake” and that her death was a result of “curiosity” or “play” by the whale Tilikum. However, “The nature of Tilikum’s attack on Dawn Brancheau was prolonged and violent,” says Cowperthwaite.

SeaWorld also refuses to acknowledge that captive orcas die at nearly three times the rate at which they die in the wild, and are often prescribed medication to deal with chronic symptoms brought on as a result of captivity. Captive orcas exhibit physical signs of distress as well as emotional. In captive male orcas, 100 percent exhibit dorsal fin collapse, which is suspected to be caused by whales spending lots of time floating at the surface of their tanks and swimming in circles or in the same direction in small containment pools in which they spend their entire lives.

On Friday, SeaWorld responded to the invitation for debate, rejecting it outright. Fred Jacobs, vice president for corporate communications at SeaWorld called the suggestion to hold a public debate “little more than a publicity stunt.” Jacobs further said that the company has “no interest in helping promote a film this dishonest and manipulative.”

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.