Several former SeaWorld trainers walked the red carpet April 5 for the Sarasota Film Festival premiere of the movie Blackfish. Following the movie's conclusion, a Q&A session held with a packed crowd at the Van Wezel theatre garnered a standing ovation.
The Herald-Tribune described the premiere of the movie Blackfish as a "Heartbreaker" that benefitted "from the earnest and sincerely regretful testimonies of several former employees of SeaWorld, all of them ex-trainers of orcas."
After opening to a sold-out crowd in Sarasota, Florida, Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite along with former trainers, Jeffrey Ventre, Samantha Berg, John Jett and John Hargrove hosted a Q&A session with an appreciative audience. It was especially poignant given that SeaWorld Orlando is the home of Tilikum, the massive bull orca implicated in several human deaths including that of Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
Blackfish opens with the haunting 911 calls that were made after Tilikum's attack on Brancheau. "A whale has eaten one of the trainers," the Orange County Sheriff's Office is told. From there, the movie begins to answer the question, 'What went wrong?'
It was perhaps the most tremulous of Blackfish's premiere dates after its Sundance and Miami Film Festival screenings, given that less than a two-hour drive away, the massive orca swims in residence at SeaWorld Orlando. Yet despite living in the shadow of the giant entertainment park, enthusiastic viewers appeared to welcome the movie with open arms.
At the conclusion of the Q&A session -- where the former trainers jokingly hoped that SeaWorld's vans wouldn't be waiting to whisk them away, the audience stood and delivered a standing ovation. But there was another photo opportunity that wasn't to be missed.
Jeff Ventre and Sam Berg -- members of the group: Voice of the Orcas, stopped by SeaWorld on their way to the airport and snapped the following photo:
Voice of the Orcas
Jeff Ventre and Sam Berg -- two former SeaWorld trainers, take the movie Blackfish to the home of Tilikum.
The image, which has attained viral status across the internet, was welcomed by those seeking a better life for orcas. It was then promptly jumped upon by SeaWorld supporters.
Doctoring the image to suit their own needs, pro-captivity folks who used the image (without permission), quickly republished the photo with the caption: 'These people bash sea world and tell people not to go. But they do. Hypocrites.'
Responding, Jeff Ventre told Digital Journal:
It's funny (and hard to believe) that folks would state that our poster gesture was a trip to SeaWorld. No thanks. I'll save the $81 dollar adult admission and donate it to Sea Shepherd. We were in the area looking for a place to eat lunch prior to driving into the Orlando International Airport.
If you look closely at the poster, it's signed by the cast and crew of Blackfish, in silver ink. We put it together for our favorite celebrity philanthropist, Sam Simon, whom I hope to deliver it to on April 26, during his radio program. Yeah, there's a lot of whack pro-captivity folks out there. I really don't know what else to say.
Sam Berg echoed Ventre's sentiments and added:
You know, since I was already in Orlando on my way to the airport, several friends invited me to visit SeaWorld with them to check on Tilikum's status. I've heard Tili hasn't been doing shows and that he's not been heathy for a very long time, and that he's been spending the majority of his time alone in a back pool that is barely deeper than he is long.
I briefly considered going in the park to see Tili, but I very quickly realized that, even for a good cause, I could never bring myself to enter the Orlando park - where I worked - ever again. Honestly, it would be too painful to face how brainwashed I must have been back then to even consider that a tank was a reasonable place to keep killer whales.
I think it's pretty clear that Jeff and I were outside the park when that photo was taken. And it just goes to show you how willing the "pro-cap" types are to say anything just so they can continue to believe in the SeaWorld perpetuated myth that there's nothing wrong with keeping the ocean's top predators - large, highly social mammals who range 80-100 miles per day in the wild - in concrete tanks.
Either that, or it's a form of "cognitive dissonance" that all of us former trainers recognize so well. In order to to work as a whale trainer at any Marine Circus, a person has to ignore mounting scientific evidence that the animals are completely unsuitable for the captive environment. I've yet to hear an argument from a "pro-cap" person that doesn't ultimately boil down to fact that their desire to have a particular experience "up close and personal" with an animal somehow trumps that animal's right to a full life in the wild.
It is worthwhile to acknowledge that Cowperthwaite invited SeaWorld to participate in the movie when it was being filmed, but the entertainment park declined to be involved. Furthermore, the director told the Sarasota audience that she isn't advocating for SeaWorld's closure, rather she's presenting the story and allowing the audience to decide.
Reviews of the movie have echoed much the same. Blackfish could have been "heavy handed," writes the Sarasota Patch, but "it's not what the director wanted."
Even despite the movie's fastidious and careful approach, Blackfish it seems continues to flap more than a few flukes.