Storyville: Blackfish – The Whale That Killed, BBC 4, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

We all know the story of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. Man versus whale and neither wins. Score draw on the coupon. I’ve started the books a few times and never got beyond the first pages. Wooden ships used to go away for a year or more and come back loaded down with whale blubber and oil. Prototype factory ships.  Boiled down whale oil used to light our homes. Some of the bones were good for corsets. I can understand that. Food and oil. It’s a man’s world. Whales had a fighting chance.

I can even understand why, after the defeat of Japan, the Allies harvested the seas to feed a starving population. One whale can feed many mouths. Nowadays whales are still harvested for foodies under the guise of scientific research. Bullshit.

We’re getting to the stage when the only things left on the planet will be hominine and giant beef burghers with six legs. Blackfish takes us into a sewer even worse than that. It begins with the capture of a baby bull orca in the waters of Hafnarfjörður, near Reykjavík, Iceland in 1983. Spotter planes and speed boats using high explosives herded the group of whales into a watery cul de sac where they could separate the infant whale from its mother and family group. One grizzled veteran said he’s seen some heavy shit in his life, but the mother and other whales ‘talking’ to the traumatised baby being lifted from the water was something that stuck with him, even all these years later. Later in the programme another infant whale is separated from its mother, a captive whale in  Sealand of the Pacific in South Oak Bay, British Columbia and sent somewhere else because it was disruptive and because that’s where the money was. Whales have their own kind of intelligence. One expert suggests their limbic system, which mediates emotional responses, is far more developed than humans.  Sealand was in the business of transforming whale into performing pets. When we talk about a whale grieving for its baby and sending out sonic signals that are able to travel thousands of miles under water, we conflated anthropomorphism and basic science. All of the keepers interviewed here were fed the same diet of hearsay and became Sealand believers spouting the party line that these whales were better off in captivity, where they lived longer and received medical care. Dorsal fins that atrophy and collapse in isolation ponds and water pods is mirrored by those whales in the wild. Eh, no it isnae, but let’s face it, we don’t meet many whales when wondering down Sauchiehall Street.  The reality they later recognised was whales were cash cows used to fleece the public.

Tillicum (Tilly to its friends) the bull orca was milked for its sperm for breeding purposes and to provide a splash in performances. Bottom of the pecking order and with nowhere to flee two older female orcas given the names of Haida II and Nootka IV beat and slashed his body until male and female were separated.

Tilly killed three people. He grabbed them by the arm or leg and drowned them. Here Seaworld propaganda kicks in again. In the blame game those without money or power, the bottom of the food chain, a young female student and trainer, a man with mental health problems and a forty-year old female trainer were all to blame. They’d brought it on themselves. They’d did something they shouldn’t have. Tilly the cash cow was innocent. Money talks and Tilly walks. That’s the way the world works. It would be a good idea to fling in a few of those who invested in this barbarism into a pond with Tilly, because he’s so harmless. Only after they have been properly trained, of course. I’m not a monster.  Steel bucket filled with fish. Pair of flippers and rubber ring. Watch this and weep.



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