SeaWorld Walks the Plank: Documentary ‘Blackfish’ Leaves Theme Park Drowning in Shame


The critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated documentary “Blackfish” is making huge waves in the case against SeaWorld.

Willie Nelson. Trisha Yearwood. Heart. REO Speedwagon. These are just some of the musicians who’ve recently cancelled performances at SeaWorld, the aquatic marine park targeted in the film “Blackfish.” The musicians reportedly asked to sever ties with SeaWorld because of the negligence highlighted in the film. A viral petition on asked the musicians to cancel their appearances.

Pulin Modi of told CBS that “It’s this larger snowball effect where, in pop culture, SeaWorld has become a prime target for people who are concerned about cruelty to animals.” And it’s snowing icebergs at the theme park these days.

It’s not just musicians cancelling their performances. Soon after the film was released, Pixar announced it was rewriting the ending of the forthcoming follow-up to “Finding Nemo.” The original ending for “Finding Dory” has the characters going to live at a marine park. But the tragedies at SeaWorld illustrated in “Blackfish” changed all that, and the ending has a new direction, reports the Los Angeles Times. After meeting with “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Pixar executives said they “didn’t want to look back on this film in 50 years and have it be their ‘Song of the South,’ a reference to the 1946 Disney musical that was widely viewed to be racist.”

Even schools are reneging on planned field trips to the theme park, reports the Malibu Times, “Administrators at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School cancelled an annual spring field trip to SeaWorld last week after students and parents complained of unethical treatment of orca whales alleged at the park in the controversial new documentary ‘Blackfish’.”

And the latest blow came earlier this week when Blackstone Holdings sold 19.5 million shares of its SeaWorld stock for more than $500 million.

Still, despite the rippling backlash, SeaWorld holds firm to its practices, saying in an email the film “paints a distorted picture,” reports CBS.  “This is a coordinated campaign of digital harassment and does not in any sense represent the opinions of the American public. A far better measure is the number of people actually coming to SeaWorld,” the company wrote in an email.

It’s impossible to know how many families have changed their vacation plans as a result of the film, but it’s sure to have an impact, despite SeaWorld’s claims. And if the film—which is on the Academy Awards “short list”—makes it to a final nominee or takes home an Oscar next February, there’s bound to be even more buzz about the film, and activists hope, fewer visitors to the park.

“Blackfish” tells the tragic story of Tilikum—the largest orca in captivity—linked to the deaths of three people. Released in July in select cities, the documentary also aired on CNN in October. Former SeaWorld trainers featured in the film believe the animal has suffered psychological and emotional damage as a result of living in captivity for three decades and killed as a result of the traumas suffered. In the film, his plight is summed up by Jane Velasquez Mitchell: “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?”

If SeaWorld wants to mitigate the “Blackfish backlash”, it can take cues from the film’s director. In a recent interview with the LA Times, Cowperthwaite acknowledged that releasing these animals back into the wild might not be a realistic option, “You can’t just dump these mammals back into the ocean. They don’t know how to hunt; their teeth are broken from biting on steel gates, so they wouldn’t last very long,” she said. But SeaWorld and other marine theme parks could redefine their business model and help support healthy orca populations by ceasing captive breeding first and foremost. And, she adds, “you can return [the orcas] to the ocean and have a controlled environment like a cordoned-off cove with a net as a sanctuary, and they could feel for the first time the natural rhythm of the ocean and have infinite environmental stimulation and be able to be killer whales for the first time.”

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.