The Truth About 'The Truth About Blackfish'

It's never easy, coming in from the outside of an emotional debate over a popular public entertainment -- the kind that performing killer whales provide -- to adequately judge that debate's real merits, as in the ongoing battle over orca captivity that has been inspired by the documentary Blackfish. Both sides of the debate claim to own real expertise the subject, so it often comes down to a matter of evaluating the competing facts.

It's always a dead giveaway, however, as to the adequacy of each side's arguments when one of the sides decides not to really engage in the facts but chooses instead to emphasize character assassination of the opposing side.

And that is precisely how the Blackfish debate has unfolded. The documentary's producers and backers, while handling a deeply emotional subject with grace and reserve, have hewn to the facts -- as did their film.

Sea World, on the other hand, has run and hidden: first refusing to participate in the film, then refusing even to come on CNN when asked, refusing any public accountability for its practices. Its few media defenders, rather than debate facts, have simply indulged in mindless bullying.

And when it finally did go public with its response to the film, it did so in a completely non-transparent way -- undertaking a closed-shop public-relations campaign predicated around websites, videos, and ads. And the primary subject of that campaign has not been an effort to rebut the factual issues raised by the film, but an attack on the people involved in the film and an attempt to impugn their motives. A smear campaign.

Which is why, at a deep level, SeaWorld is losing. It is now fighting off legislative attempts to outlaw orca captivity. Its stock has been in decline. Its chief stockholder, Blackstone Group, recently sold off large shares. More importantly, its attendance figures are in decline, with no sign that the trend will be reversing anytime soon. Indeed, the more people who see Blackfish the more likely it is to accelerate.

This campaign is embodied by SeaWorld's web-based effort at responding to the film, namely, its website titled "The Truth About Blackfish."

At first glance, the site looks on its slick surface like a sincere attempt to humanize the people who still work at Sea World. But when you start going through its actual content, what quickly emerges is not a humanizing of Sea World but -- beyond an array of picked nits and distorted "facts" -- the website is in fact mostly a relentless smear of the people who spoke up in the film.

See, for instance, the third point in its array of supposed "facts":

The film also relies on animal rights activists masquerading as scientists: The film relies heavily on the dubious reflections of scientists who have aggressively campaigned against marine mammal display for decades, and have no expertise with killer whale behavior in captivity. These scientists include Howard Garrett, Lori Marino and Ken Balcomb. Mr. Garrett, along with cast members Samantha Berg and Carol Ray, joined with PETA in a previously filed lawsuit against SeaWorld. In this lawsuit, they equated SeaWorld's work with killer whales as slavery under the 13th Amendment. Although their case was promptly dismissed by the Court, their anti-captivity bias is obvious. Likewise, the film relies on the statements of David Duffus, a professor of geography and purported expert in the area of killer whale behavior, whom Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Judge Kenneth Welsch found "has no expertise in the training of captive killer whales.

So, which is it: Are they scientists, or only activists? In fact, every single one of the people that the site lists as "animal rights activists posing as scientists" is, yes, a scientist. Real scientists, not fake or -- perhaps worse yet -- corporate ones. Which, as you'll note, the entirety of the rest of the paragraph admits, while qualifying that these scientists have no expertise in captive whales. But Garrett and Balcomb, in fact, have abundant experience with killer-whale behavior in the wild. Indeed, Ken Balcomb is one of the most respected wild orca researchers in the world, having carefully catalogued the populations and behaviors of the Pacific Northwest's Southern Resident killer whales for the past forty years. His Center for Whale Research is recognized around the world as one of the leading authorities on the species.

Likewise, Lori Marino is one of the most respected (and celebrated) specialists in cetacean neurology in the world, having been one of the scientists who ascertained that dolphins have mirror self-recognition. It's true that she has not worked with live killer whales, though it should be noted that their morphology is quite similar to that of the bottlenose dolphins with whom she has extensive experience. More important, she is one of the only scientists to have participated in an MRI study of a killer-whale brain -- which in fact is what she came on Blackfish to talk about.

But that also brings up the other aspect of how SeaWorld smears these and other scientists who have spoken, by dismissing them as activists. Because Lori Marino also is a key faculty member of the Emory Center for Ethics -- one of the nation's leading scientific-ethics think tanks, a place where scientists, especially biologists, go to think about the ethical dimensions and ramifications of their work.

Here's how "The Truth About Blackfish" concludes, describing Marino's assessments:

All of the falsehoods and misleading techniques in Blackfish are employed in the service of the film's obvious bias, one that is best revealed near the end of Blackfish by a neuroscientist with no known expertise in killer whales. She claims that all killer whales in captivity are "emotionally destroyed," and "ticking time bombs." These are not the words of science, and indeed, there is not a shred of scientific support for them. Rather, they are the words of animal rights activists whose agenda the film's many falsehoods were designed to advance. They reveal "Blackfish" not as an objective documentary, but as propaganda

This obviates the nature of scientific ethics, which SeaWorld seems to believe is only valid when it's done on behalf of a corporate interest. When Marino speaks out about the ethics of orca captivity, she does as someone bound by the nature of her work to consider whether orca captivity is the right thing to do on a purely scientific basis. And on that basis, SeaWorld loses. It is not even close. And it is the same for all the other scientists that SeaWorld tries to smear this way: They speak out not because they are loopy-eyed ideologues, but because their extensive scientific experience with these animals compels them to speak up about what they know.

The same can be said of the several former SeaWorld trainers who appeared in the film, describing the company's dubious practices. These are people who "The Truth About Blackfish" devotes considerable energy to attacking, largely on the basis that their credentials were not extensive enough to speak authoritatively. Most of these trainers and the film's producers have replied to these smears adequately, but it shouldn't be necessary; SeaWorld condemns itself simply by going this route, rather than addressing the content what these trainers had to say to the cameras.

Moreover, on that score, SeaWorld's attempts at responding on a factual basis are not only woefully inadequate, they are riddled with falsehoods, inaccuracies and distortions.

The most egregious of these, of course, is its ongoing claim that the lifespan of captive orcas is similar to, or perhaps even longer than, that of wild orcas. In order to make this claim, SeaWorld has to rig its statistics by including only SeaWorld orcas in its database, and then only deaths that have occurred in the past 15 years. Considering that it, and many other marine parks, have held many more orcas over the nearly fifty years they have been in business, that's an absurdly skewed database.

Moreover, while it has managed to buffalo a few journalists into believing that "scientists don't really know" the lifespans of wild orcas, the data that have been collected so far justify scientists' widespread confidence that the lifespans we see in the well-studied Pacific Northwest orcas are reasonably representative of their lifespans in other habitats. There are no scientists who study wild orcas who believe that captive lifespans are even close to equivalent, and indeed the real data demonstrates conclusively that this is the case.

And that is reflective of SeaWorld's ignorant and fundamentally unscientific approach to the facts. In the "detailed analysis" of Blackfish it offers, it actually makes the assertion that that adult orcas must leave their mothers in the wild, because, as they write, "if no adult offspring ever leave their mother, there would be no genetic diversity necessary for survival or separate pods of killer whales."

This, to put it nicely, is monumental, risible ignorance. In fact, among resident fish-eating killer whales, both and female orcas remain with their mothers their entire lives, forming extremely tight social circles; they overcome the genetic-diversity issue by primarily mating with resident orcas from other pods. This is well-established scientific fact, and the fact that SeaWorld says Blackfish "offers no scientific basis for this statement" and that "SeaWorld is aware of none" demonstrates its only abysmal understanding of the animals in its care.

This kind of nonsensical distortion and afactuality pervades "The Truth About Blackfish". Another deceptive claim on the website is one of its most prominent:

Through stock footage and video mismatched to the narrative, the film implies that SeaWorld collects killer whales from the wild and separates mothers and calves. NEITHER IS TRUE

But in fact, SeaWorld manages to obtain orcas for its inventory that are "rescued" from the wild, because as the dominant figure in the captive-orca industry, it is able to access any orcas that are captured for other venues. A classic case of this is Morgan, the wild orca calf recently rescued in the Netherlands; she was placed temporarily at Loro Parque off the coast of Spain until a court could determine her disposition. In the interim, as Gabriella Cowperthwaite noted in an interview, SeaWorld began listing her as one of its corporate "assets." Sure enough, the Dutch court eventually concluded that Morgan was legally in their possession. Moreover, there has been a recent surge in captures of wild orcas that has significantly increased the overall pool of captive orcas, and some of the recent captures are almost certain to fall within its corporate sphere eventually.

Even more risible was SeaWorld's claim that it doesn't separate mother orcas and their calves. This is only true if by "calves" you mean young under one year of age. But in fact SeaWorld regularly and with impunity separates mothers and their offspring -- which, as we just noted, is a completely unnatural occurrence in the wild. Moreover, the assertion isn't even true all of the time for one-year-old calves; SeaWorld has a long track record of separating mothers and calves at birth, and even more often when they become older than a year. Indeed, the orca and calf whose image illustrates SeaWorld's assertion were, as a matter of fact, separated when the youngster was four.

Some simply fly in the face of what we know already. For instance, there's this:

The film falsely suggests that SeaWorld "blamed" Ms. Brancheau for her death. We have never done that. She was our colleague and we mourn her loss to this day. The film, however, does blame Ms. Brancheau, and it accomplishes this through former trainers with little or no relevant experience. These trainers were not present on the day she died, and callously presume to critique her interaction with Tilikum

Yet anyone who has seen the film knows that this is simply, baldly false. Not only does the documentary provide two clear examples of SeaWorld employees and spokesmen blaming Brancheau for her own death, the speculation by trainers about the events leading up to her death were a far cry from these blatant examples of victim-blaming.

Yet anyone who has seen the film knows that this is simply, baldly false. Not only does the documentary provide two clear examples of SeaWorld employees and spokesmen blaming Brancheau for her own death, the speculation by trainers about the events leading up to her death were a far cry from these blatant examples of victim-blaming.

And as if to underscore that blaming Brancheau was in fact the official company line for the better part of a year at SeaWorld, the company's chief investor -- Blackstone Group chairman Stephen Schwarzman -- went on CNBC (after "The Truth About Blackfish" made these claims) and in fact blamed Brancheau for her own death. Challenged about SeaWorld's stock, Schwarzman told his host that the company had only "had one safety lapse -- interestingly, with a situation where the person involved violated all the safety rules that we had."

The company quickly tried to backtrack, saying that Schwarzman had "misspoken," explaining that "his comments did not accurately reflect the facts of the accident or SeaWorld's longstanding position on it."


Then there is the matter of Tilikum himself, the killer whale who is the focal point of the film. SeaWorld tries to pretend that he's just fine and healthy:

What clearly is supported by the facts is that prior to Ms. Brancheau's accident in 2010, Tilikum had engaged in numerous interactions with trainers and veterinarians safely and without incident over a period of 18 years. Tilikum remains at SeaWorld, where he cooperates with trainers, socializes with other killer whales and our guests

The reality that I, and other observers, have seen at Sea World Orlando is quite different for Tilikum. The park continues to keep him socially separated from most of the other whales, allowing him only the company of other males, usually one at a time, but he spends most of his days floating in more or less one place.

This is where SeaWorld's campaign not only fails, but backfires utterly. Rather than persuading its core audience -- average Americans, people who appreciate science and reason and nature, people inclined to support a conservation ethic and the humane treatment of animals -- that what it is doing is the right thing, it spend all of its energy trying to make its critics out to be bad people. And after awhile, that kind of campaign just become a kind of mirror: Everyone outside of the company can see that they are projecting.

Certainly, the facts are not on their side. The reality is that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that orcas are not animals that are fit for captivity, and ethically speaking, continuing the practice has to be considered inhumane. Scientist Naomi Rose -- yes, she's also one of those experts they choose to dismiss as an "activist" -- has compiled a white paper that lays out the case.

Longevity/survival rates/mortality
In 1995, Small and DeMaster published a peer-reviewed paper on the survivorship rates of several captive marine mammal species.This paper showed that, through the end of 1992 (the last year for which a complete set of annual data was available) orcas had significantly lower annual survival rates in captivity than in the wild. Their annual mortality rate (the inverse of survivorship) was more than two and a half times higher in captivity than in the wild. Thus to date the maximum lifespan of captive orcas has matched the mean life expectancy of wild orcas. As a corollary, very few captive orcas who have died achieved the mean life expectancy of wild orcas.
... The infant mortality rate in captivity ("infant" defined here as an animal six months of age or younger, including near- to full-term pregnancies where the calf does not survive birth [stillbirths]) is approximately 50%.

Age distribution
Of more than 130 wild-caught orcas held for public display, only 13 survive in oceanaria around the world. Nine of these are older than the vast majority of captive orcas who have died and, given that they represent less than 10% of the wild-caught animals, should be considered outside the norm in terms of captive longevity. The remaining 29 living captive orcas are captive-born and therefore younger than 25 (with the death of Kalina, the oldest living captive-born orca is now Orkid, aged 23 years). Indeed, 17 of the surviving captive-born orcas are younger than 11 years of age.

Fin Collapse
All captive male orcas have collapsed dorsal fins as adults, most completely folded over the back. Because of their visibility, these fins tend to draw attention and questions from the public. SeaWorld attempts to characterize the fully collapsed dorsal fins of its male orcas as a normal phenomenon; however, in the wild, only 1-5% of male orcas in some populations (and none in others) have fully collapsed dorsal fins.

Causes of Death
The most common causes of death in captive orcas, wild-caught or captive-born, are pneumonia, septicemia, and other types of infection. That many infections turn lethal in captive orcas highlights the fact that wildlife often does not manifest clinical signs of illness until it is too late for treatment. This raises the logical question of whether veterinary care provides a significant advantage to captive wildlife. Clearly it helps some animals, but others die before treatment can be started or take effect.

Dental health
The high rate of lethal infection may also be a function of poor dental health. Captive orcas routinely show damaged dentition, primarily broken and worn teeth with the pulp exposed. This is in contrast to wild orcas: many show little or no tooth wear, while those who do tend to specialize in prey with abrasive morphology. Broken teeth in wild orcas are rare.

Aberrant behavior
The only recorded fatal attack by one orca on another occurred in captivity. Incompatibility among captive orcas is frequent, with certain individuals bullied by others, resulting in lacerations and other wounds, and eventually needing separation from dominant individuals. In the wild, aggression has been only rarely observed; where it was, serious injuries did not result.

Human injuries and deaths
Throughout recorded history, there have been no reliable reports of wild orcas killing a human being. In contrast, four people have been killed by captive orcas. Three orcas drowned a part-time trainer in 199190. One of these three was involved in the death of a member of the public eight years later and this same whale killed his long-time trainer 11 years later. A fourth whale killed his trainer only nine weeks earlier.
There have been very few reports of serious injuries inflicted by wild orcas on humans; one surfer required stitches in his leg in 1972. The few other reported incidents were minor and resulted in little or no injury. In contrast, there have been dozens of significant incidents between people and captive orcas, including serious injuries requiring hospitalization, throughout the 47 years this species has been on public display.

The obvious conclusion is clear cut and unambiguous:

Considering orca natural history, it is unsurprising that orcas do not thrive in captivity. They are kin-bonded creatures, with a long dependency period on the mother and life-long family ties to her, their siblings and more distant relations. When in captivity, they are kept in artificial social groups with no resemblance to those in nature. They are cooperative predators, whose home ranges are hundreds if not thousands of square kilometers in size, and who can and often do swim almost 200 kilometers in a day. When in captivity, they are made to exist inside a comparatively small concrete enclosure, less than one ten-thousandth of normal habitat size.
Captivity cannot adequately provide for such large, social, wide-ranging predators. A captive orca bears little resemblance to a wild one and the evidence is mounting that these animals, raised within or born into profoundly abnormal circumstances, are themselves abnormal. However, for 47years oceanaria holding orcas have been telling the public that captive orcas thrive and indeed that they might even be better off in human care than facing the challenges of a wild existence. The facts show otherwise

This is the truth about SeaWorld and its PR counteroffensive against Blackfish: It cannot face the facts, because the facts mean they have to completely rethink their business model (and Rose has some ideas about that, too).

Rather than address the real issues underlying the matter, it chooses to attack the people involved and touting their business credentials; their chief argument seems to be that they are better people -- even while they lie through their teeth to us at every turn, whether it's telling people that captive orcas live as long as wild whiles, or claiming to be really all about conserving orcas in the wild.

Indeed, the most laughable part in all this comes when Sea World tries to claim it is also a leader in conservation and wildlife recovery efforts for the animals in its care. That may be true of Florida manatees, but it is simply a flat-out lie when it comes to orcas.

Indeed, the most laughable part in all this comes when Sea World tries to claim it is also a leader in conservation and wildlife recovery efforts for the animals in its care. That may be true of Florida manatees, but it is simply a flat-out lie when it comes to orcas.

One thing we know for a fact about SeaWorld: Even though it preaches a "conservation message" to people who come to their theme parks, it does almost nothing of consequence in the real world to assist in the conservation of wild killer whales.

The Truth About 'The Truth About Blackfish': What You See and Hear at Sea World

click to play video

When people at those parks ask what they can do to help killer whales in the wild, they are given generic answers such as watching what lawn fertilizer they use, or not littering, or assisting in beach cleanups. In the video above, you can hear a guide telling children that those are the steps they should take at home to help wild orcas.

But these things do little if anything at all to actually help killer whales in the wild. Indeed, you will find only scant references at Sea World parks to the only officially endangered population of killer whales -- the Southern Resident population of the Salish Sea. And if you do happen to hear about them, you will be told that their chief threat is boats and pollution.

What you will not be told is that in reality, the Southern Residents face a doubly whammy. The first whammy came in the loss of over a third of its historic population during the period 1964-75, when SeaWorld and its cohorts founded the captive-orca industry by removing some fifty resident killer whales from Puget Sound waters. Since then, its population has wavered between seventy and a hundred whales -- we are currently at 81 -- in large part because of the second whammy: a lack of salmon, particularly the Chinook salmon that comprise their preferred diet.

Recovering the orca population is necessarily focused on restoring our salmon runs, both in the Salish Sea and in the Columbia River and elsewhere, including Northern California. It is a long and difficult fight, one in which the progress has been slow, in large part because of a lack of financial support for salmon restoration.

Where has Sea World been in all this? Nowhere. They have not funded orca-population studies or censuses, let alone communications and ship-noise studies that are needed. We did see them briefly during the Springer episode, when SeaWorld lent local scientists the use of a diagnostic lab and an overseeing veterinarian to test a sample of Springer's blood before she was transported north and successfully reunited with her familial pod. For that, they now claim credit for the entire project.

There has been some recent research at SeaWorld that actually helps advance our knowledge of killer whales. For instance, researchers there have established recently that dialects in killer whales are in fact learned behaviors. There has also been some recent impressive work on the energy orcas expend in the process of swimming. One could argue that this research is long overdue, but at least SeaWorld is now undertaking research that could actually help conserve orcas in the wild -- something that was not true for many years.

If you scroll around "The Truth About Blackfish" and SeaWorld's website, you'll find a page full of videos "featuring employees talking about the park's animal conservation and rescue efforts, as well as its care for its animals and how interactions with them inspire visitors." This is all very heart-warming. But it's as phony as a three-dollar bill. In fact, SeaWorld spends well under 1 percent of its annual revenues on conservation efforts.

If SeaWorld were serious about assisting orcas -- and serious about their claims to being a conservation-oriented organization -- they would be a major presence in the Northwest in the long hard battle to restore our salmon and save our killer whales. Instead, they are nowhere to be seen -- too busy teaching orcas to breach in triplicate and rolling in the revenue stream that creates.

They also specialize in lying about and smearing the people who are in fact actively engaged in the work of saving wild killer whales in their native habitat. This tawdry public-relations effort is just another iteration of what we have seen from them all along.

It's telling enough that when the Blackfish filmmakers challenged SeaWorld to a public debate, they simply refused. They knew, of course, that they would lose. It's even more telling that, when SeaWorld has gone to court on these issues -- as it has with the OSHA ruling ordering its trainers to stay out of the water with killer whales, the end result of Dawn Brancheau's death -- it in fact loses, as it did recently, once again.

At some point, it will have to figure all this out. But by then, it may well be too late for it to pull out of its self-inflicted death spiral.

This post originally appeared on Orcinus and Crooks and Liars.