Analysing The Impact of Blackfish on SeaWorld’s Orca Program
Nature documentaries as catalysts for change: Mapping out the ‘Blackfish Effect’ (2021) Boissot et al., People and Nature, https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10221
Wildlife documentaries generally have the best of intentions, but our ability to determine their actual impact is limited at best. There have been attempts to analyse a documentary’s content or impact before, but they’re few and far between (outside of financial success).
Blackfish is a 2013 documentary which brought to light the poor treatment of orcas at SeaWorld, in particular the whale Tilikum, who killed three people while in captivity. Blackfish received widespread publicity, and in the years following its release, SeaWorld saw an enormous drop in attendance. They also saw a huge drop in stock price, redesigned their orca show to focus on conservation, and ceased their orca breeding program.
Today’s researchers wanted to investigate how closely the release of Blackfish was linked to the negative impacts and subsequent revamp that SeaWorld’s orca program underwent.
What They Did
The researchers interviewed people from a range of backgrounds, including former SeaWorld employees, members of zoo-organisations, researchers, and marine biologists. They asked them to rank a list of factors related to the three major impacts that Blackfish was thought to have had on SeaWorld, 1) the stock price crash, 2) the revamp of the orca show, and 3) the cessation of the breeding program. These interviews were semi-structured and open-ended, which means that although they had to cover certain questions, participants were allowed to expand on their answers, allowing the interviewers to understand their reasoning.
Did You Know: Harmful Dichotomies
Nature documentaries often present nature as being completely free of human influence, almost as existing in parallel worlds where no human ever dared roam. The reality is that this is often not the case, with most ecosystems these days existing within some degree of human impact. The vision of nature as untouched wilderness can give a false impression of the devastating effects of fragmentation and land use change on ecosystems.
What They Found
Of the 26 individuals interviewed, 15 considered Blackfish the most important factor behind SeaWorld’s decisions to revamp their approach to orcas, and the other 11 considered it influential. Interestingly enough, SeaWorld’s reluctance to acknowledge Blackfish as the cause of its revamp was thought to have been seen as dishonest and potentially hurtful by several respondents.
There was some discord, with respondents from zoo-based organisations and marine park workers attributing SeaWorld’s drop in attendance and subsequent stock price drop at least in part to the Global Financial Crisis, while many respondents doubted this had any effect.
The list of people chosen to participate in this interview was quite wide-ranging, but I really wished they had interviewed former visitors to SeaWorld as well, or some group of people non-professionally attached to the issue. I would have loved to see their responses, however that sort of interview is perhaps best left for another study.
The success of Blackfish is not global proof that a documentary can bring about change. Blackfish was much more widely distributed than most nature documentaries, and orcas are a particularly charismatic species. Yet this study shows that with the right conditions, well-made documentaries can bring about changes both in the public’s spending habits and enormous corporate practice.
Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and is currently working for Ducky, a climate solutions consultancy which specialises in enabling people to understand their carbon footprint and how a more sustainable lifestyle can help the planet. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.