How film caused the rise and fall of dolphin shows

Cetaceans
Blackfish/Courtesy

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Humans have long used art as a means by which to engage with our surroundings, especially with nature; in modern times, this art has begun to take on an increasing amount of social significance, especially in activist circles. This trend is perhaps most starkly noticeable in the long history of cetacean-oriented film.

Few animals appear so often in human art as cetaceans, and our relationship with them far predates film — from indigenous folk tales of the Pacific Northwest to ancient Minoan frescoes, our artistic tie to cetaceans has proven both global and intimate.

Given humanity’s fascination with cetaceans — their relative exoticism to our terrestrial species and their considerable social intelligence — it’s no surprise that the camera’s love affair with dolphins began early on. Almost as soon as fishermen realized that the dolphins they boated around (and occasionally accidentally snared) were not aggressive, gargantuan fish but rather complex and curious beings, our attempts to capture and build an entertainment industry around them began.

One of the earliest well-known instances of dolphins in film was the 1960s television and film franchise “Flipper.” Fondly known amongst fans as an “aquatic Lassie,” Flipper got his human friends into and out of hijinks that made him a household name.

Behind these seemingly effortless on-screen adventures was the rigorous work of a team of trainers and at least five dolphin stars. The dark fate of one of these dolphins planted the seed for a growing anti-captivity movement. Like humans, dolphins gain a sense of self as juveniles; but unlike humans, dolphins are voluntary breathers. In 1970, Kathy, one of the five stars of “Flipper,” drifted to the bottom of her tank, closed her blowhole and consciously drowned herself.

The rumblings of anti-captivity surrounding Kathy’s death came to a head with another very famous film starring a dolphin — 1993’s “Free Willy.”

Keiko, the star of “Free Willy,” hailed from Iceland, where he was captured as a calf. He bounced from facility to facility across North America until Warner Brothers found him in Mexico, in a tank too small and too warm for a Northern European bull orca, and cast him in the film.

“Free Willy” is often cited as an example of popular film’s impact on environmental activism. The straightforward underdog story of a young boy freeing a captive whale captured the hearts of adults and children alike, who rallied for better conditions for Keiko and even his eventual release.

Film and anti-captivity would converge again with the 2013 release of “Blackfish,” a documentary investigating the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by the killer whale Tilikum. Relentlessly brutal and created by a team of prominent anti-captivity activists, “Blackfish” had a ripple effect with civilians and lawmakers alike that resulted in a legal ban on orca breeding and a tangible negative economic impact on Seaworld.

For all the anti-captivity sentiment in popular media, pro-captivity is still a movement with considerable traction, equally aided by the film that seems to decry it. “Blackfish” immediately faced backlash from SeaWorld and its supporters alike, who accused it of at best being factually inaccurate and at worst exploiting a tragedy to spread an agenda.

Even more prominently, the pro-captivity movement is bringing Keiko’s situation once more to the forefront of the public consciousness, as efforts to release another captive orca grow. The release of Lolita — currently a resident at Miami Seaquarium and in middle age — is a popular cause championed by anti-captivity activists.

Her tank conditions — far too small for a social animal with a wide daily swimming range — have changed little through the nearly 40 years that she has spent in captivity. Worse yet, she has lived alone ever since the self-induced death of her tankmate Hugo in 1980.

The fight for Lolita’s release is troubled by the fact that Keiko died in his native waters just one year after his release. Many, especially those in the pro-captivity camp, asked whether Keiko, a whale accustomed to human company, even wanted to be released. They saw his death as a failure of the anti-captivity movement and a cautionary tale against any future release efforts.

But this narrative spun by the pro-captivity camp isn’t the whole story — when Keiko died at 27, he actually died of pneumonia, a common ailment for wild males of his age unrelated to a failure to reintegrate. Moreover, the release plans for the two whales are radically different; whereas Keiko was merely turned loose amongst whales he didn’t know, plans for Lolita include retiring her to a sea pen next to her known and well-studied family unit (including her elderly mother). She won’t be as isolated as Keiko was in his release.

Regardless of this debate, however, the decline of cetacean-based entertainment, and particularly, Seaworld’s suffering ticket sales, indicates that fewer and fewer people are buying into an industry built around the captivity of its stars.

The rapid rise and fall of cetacean shows is a testament to film’s ability both to popularize an industry — as “Flipper” did for cetacean entertainment — and, on the flip side with films like “Blackfish,” to raise ethical questions to the public.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].