Blackfish – a tale of ethics and heartbreak

I wanted to write today about a film I saw a few weeks ago – Blackfish.

In brief, Blackfish is a documentary that makes a commentary on the ethics of keeping animals in captivity, using a narrative of a specific male Orca named Tilicum, and the fact that he has now been directly involved in the death of 3 human beings. The film is directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival at the beginning of the year. The movie opens with a chilling recording of the 911 call made on February 24, 2010 when SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed when she was pulled in the water by Tilikum during a live show. Throughout the film, Cowperthwaite also uses interviews with ex-trainers at SeaWorld, marine mammal scientists, and other witnesses to create this in-depth picture of orca biology, their emotional intelligence, and the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity.

The entire documentary was captivating and thought-provoking, and I was really impressed with some of the science aspect of the film. One interviewer was a neurobiologist, and the film spent probably a good 15 minutes on the CT scans of orca brains and discussing the emotional intelligence of these organisms, and how much psychological trauma they must have been through by being captured and separated from their pods in the wild. I then went down this thinking path and wondering how they even effectively performed a CT scan on a 12,000lb organism. Is it just the brain alone? Isn’t a CT scan (at least for humans) able to detect changes in brain activity because the organism is alive and different tasks activated different parts of the brain? Is my own brain getting too caught up in the logistics of all this, and what would a CT scan of my brain look like right now?

Anyways, while I did enjoy this movie, there were some parts that I wished were expanded. For example, the documentary touched on various incidences of previous random violent behaviours of orcas in captivity, where orcas would spontaneously drag experienced trainers down to the depths of the water and not let go, or randomly leap at trainers unexpectedly. The documentary tried to make a point of how common these incidences were and the lack of training and protocol by SeaWorld when these occur. The people involved also were not interviewed (at least no footage was shown), and perhaps this is because they may still be working for SeaWorld. This may be the biggest criticism of the documentary, the fact that it is one-sided and SeaWorld refused to comment during the documentary making process. Another part that I wished was further delved into was the death of a young trainer at a SeaWorld affiliated park (Loro Parque) in Tenerife, Spain. The documentary implied that the staff at Loro Parque were highly untrained, and questioned the ethics of keeping cold-water marine mammals in a tropical place, and recounted of how a young performer died from a violent orca attack. However, this was all told through interviews of the trainer’s mother and fiancée, and I was left wondering about some of the facts of what happened.

Finally, there was a particular section that struck with me and I wished was further explored in the film (this moment was the one that inspired me to write a blog post). There was a short 5 minute segment in the middle of the film regarding how SeaWorld employees were communicating inaccurate facts about orcas to the general public. The documentary does a great job of showing recorded clips of employees answering question such as the lifespan or dorsal fin appearances of orcas, and then interjecting with clips of scientists and orcas researchers and their answers to the same questions. It was a very jarring section to watch as it really relayed how different the answers are. When asked by the public as to how often the dorsal fin of male orcas collapse, the employee responded with a response of 25%, yet every single male orca within the SeaWorld family has its dorsal fin collapse. As someone who is trying to dabble in effective science communication, this clip really provoked some inner dialogue between what it means to be a science communicator versus somebody in customer service. At the end of the day, SeaWorld is in the entertainment business (its official title being SeaWorld Parks and Entertainments), and it is marketed as a theme park. While there is a small part of me that think that one benefit of keeping wild organisms like orcas in captivity is to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for the natural world, this goal cannot be attained if SeaWorld spoon-feeds tailor-made “facts” to the public and does not allow for criticism and questioning on the part of trainers and visitors.

Lastly, I saw a tweet today that bears in mind the role of museum educators (which applies to educators of all sorts):

It perfectly sums up my feelings of the role of educators: 1. Know content.

Science education aside, the film ends on a very powerful imagery of how Tilicum is now in isolation since the incident in 2010, and floats lifelessly for hours and hours on end in his pool. It really just breaks my heart as I watched footage of a highly intelligent organism being unstimulated within a very small space.

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A few thoughts on leaving school

I am currently cleaning out my belongings from my beloved office, and decided to stop and jot down some thoughts before its all over.This marks the first year since I was 5 or 6 that I wasn’t entering another school year in September. I have so many mixed emotions about this fact, from being extremely proud of accomplishing a research thesis and mentally knowing that I have to move on in order to keep growing my mind and soul, to stubbornly wanting to hold on to a piece of this life that I have loved so much. Continue reading

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International Work Experience – Part 2: China

Thanks for reading my previous posts about my international work experience – Part 1: Ireland (click here if you missed it)! This main series is inspired by the Jetlagged for Science guest post by Madeleine Barrow on Alex Brown’s blog Do You Speak Science.
Today, I wanted to share a bit of my experience conducting fieldwork in rural China. Completing any kind of fieldwork is daunting – there are usually time and equipment limitations, as well as climate and weather dependent modifications, and I admire the many of my fellow grad students who do long term field seasons every year (spending 8+ months a year in the field for 3-4 seasons). Here is a bit of my experience. Continue reading

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Perfect Vancouver Weekend!

This was the first weekend in a very long time where I really appreciated living in Vancouver! I enjoyed time in the sun with my friends and (mostly) turned my computer off! Saturday night was spent watching the fireworks from Kits beach – notable simply because I somehow haven’t been to the fireworks in last 13 years. Continue reading

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International Work Experience – Part 1: Ireland

I’ve been home for a 2 weeks now and apart from the terrible jet-lag and lethargic feeling for days, and the chaos of having my belongings everywhere (office, parent’s house, my place), I’ve been knee-deep in trying to figure out my life. Which is why there was a brief hiatus in my blog, and also, I figured, leaving readers with some pretty photos of London and Paris is a pretty good way to go!

Today, I wanted to write a little bit about my international work experiences, and my post today is a little bit inspired by the recent guest post on this blog: Do You Speak Science by Alex Brown (link), part of the SciLogs network. I’ve been following Alex’s writing a few months now, and he writes really fascinating blogposts about languages, cultures and science communication. Well, a few days ago, the blog had a guest blogger – Madeleine Barrow – an Australian science student reflecting on the international language of science (link).

In my relatively short life as an adult, I have been extremely lucky to go on short, paid, work experiences abroad. There was the amazing undergraduate internship in Ireland, a field season in rural China, and of course, the most recent internship working with an international non-profit in Italy. I felt that all these experiences built on one another, and I would not be able to be successful at each one without any previous ones.

Let’s start with Ireland, shall we? Continue reading

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