Hi, I'm Gabriela Cowperthwaite. I'm a documentary filmmaker who has directed, produced and written a variety of real life stories, including Blackfish, an award winning Sundance Grand Jury Nominee.

Blackfish premieres tonight on CNN at 9 ET/PT. Ask me anything.

social media: https://twitter.com/CNNFilms/status/393394579799805952

update: John Jett, former Seaworld trainer is here with me answering questions too, so he might chime in here and there. EDIT: John had to catch a flight, but will be live tweeting the premiere tonight!

Update: Thanks so much for your questions! Love to hear what you have to say on twitter tonight during the broadcast on CNN at 9pmET/PT. We'll be using the #blackfish to live tweet the premiere. Eyes Open! Gabriela

Comments: 481 • Responses: 35  • Date: 

mtown4ever172 karma

John - I was extremely taken by your experience with Tilikum and have been really impressed with the way you have explained the treatment of orcas and animals in captivity at places like SeaWorld. I read the paper you and Jeff Ventre co-wrote. I just wanted to say thank you for your efforts. Let it be known, I have two boys, 8 and 6, and they will never see the inside of a SeaWorld or animal park of the like.

Gabriela_C119 karma

Hi, John Jett here. Thanks for your kind comments. Dr. Ventre and I will continue to write on the evidence surrounding this terrible practice as we both think the public should be educated on the issues surrounding captivity. While I applaud SW for some of their past work, killer whales simply aren't cut out for life in a concrete box. The evidence is clear. Orcas should be written out of the script. Once you see orcas in the wild you'll immediately understand the broader picture. Best, jj.

thewaybaseballgo141 karma

What can I, just a regular person, do to help stop the captivity of orcas for entertainment?

Gabriela_C161 karma

Encourage SeaWorld to stop the captive breeding program, encourage people to stop attending SeaWorld until they begin evolving us out of animals for entertainment, into sea sanctuaries, where killer whales can live out their lives in a dignified and sustainable fashion. Head to Voice of the Orcas to find out more! http://voiceoftheorcas.blogspot.com

Jerksica23118 karma

I see most of my questions asked here so let me just say this; This film has inspired me to NEVER take my family to places like Sea World. I'm only one small family but I feel inspired to not support the captivity of these animals. Thank you for spreading the word.

Edit: Thanks for the gold, kind stranger.

Gabriela_C43 karma

Thank you so much!

acking130976 karma

Do you know, Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove? Have you worked together at all?

Gabriela_C108 karma

We've become friends since Blackfish premiered at Sundance. We haven't worked together but we stand firmly behind one another's causes.

weenisbug49 karma

How has SeaWorld tried to shut you down throughout your journey?

Gabriela_C107 karma

They did not. They've operated for decades without having to defend let alone acknowledge the truth about their parks. I'm sure they didn't see this independent documentary as something to worry about.

brandi9108246 karma

As an animal lover, this film really shocked me. I took my 9 year old daughter to see it because I felt like it was important that she see the harsh realities of life in captivity for an intelligent mammal. No seaworld in our future.

Do you see yourself doing any further work on captivity? Has it become a passion for you now?

Gabriela_C49 karma

Hi this is John Jett. Congrats on taking your daughter. I think it's important that young folks be told and shown the realities of the world around us, even though sometimes it's not too pretty...as in the case of seaworld and killer whales. My plan is to keep writing on the issues of orca captivity and speaking on the topic when I can. It is important as the animals are simply too sophisticated and evolved to ignore their plight, especially within the context of profit. I have many personal and professional interests and telling the truth about this topic is one of them. Best,jj

Gabriela_C33 karma

Thank you for taking your daughter. I too showed it to my kids. I have completely changed how I feel and think about animals. I am passionate about this issue and hope that me, my cast, and the film continue to do good work out there.

Frajer40 karma

So I know it's impossible to ask him but do you think Tilikum meant to hurt Dawn/ what do you think his intent was?

Gabriela_C104 karma

Hi, John Jett here. I think Tili was able to procure a novel experience and he acted on it. Tili spends almost his entire life floating motionless at the surface of his small tanks. His tail drags the bottom in all but two pools at SeaWorld. There is no place to swim and nothing much to do. He's bored. His teeth are in terrible shape, which causes him to be chronically infected. He's often sunburned. He's bullied/beat up by the more agile females. Consequently, I'm sure he doesn't feel well. Given his boring life and ill health (and history killing people) it comes as no surprise that he killed her. I think it was primarily a function of extreme boredom, although we'll never know for sure. For more information on captive orca stressors you can download: Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity at the Voice of the Orcas website. The paper summarizes the stresses killer whales experience in captivity. Best, jj

Shelbykate33 karma

Gabriela - were you nervous going into this film? Knowing that you would almost be challenging a billion dollar corporation? And John -- what was the turning point of your career at SeaWorld, where you knew that what they were doing wasn't right. Was there a specific incident?

Gabriela_C94 karma

Hi, John Jett here. I knew very early on in my career that things didn't work out well for the animals, despite what I was trained to tell the public. Actually, my public relations training at SW cued me into the fact that they were nervous about the public knowing the truth. The longer I stayed, the more difficult it became for me. I had a difficult time seeing the whales float around most of the day. In one particularly troubling event I watched a very docile female named Winnie get beat up severely by Katina and Gudrun (now deceased). Winnie had no place to run; no place to hide. The water was so dark with her blood that the Shamu show had to be canceled. Winnie used to cower in the corner as she was always afraid she'd be beaten up. This made a deep impression on me. I finally left after Nayar, a young calf (2 years old), died. I didn't have it in me to continue seeing the animals in their chronically ill, socially-stressed, environmentally-deprived state. My exit was liberating on the one hand, but I've been plagued by my knowledge of what the whales experience since I left. Best, jj.

Gabriela_C93 karma

I was nervous making this film. I have a family and even if you do everything right, who knows what a corporation that size is capable of. But it's a good fight that's long overdue. I want my kids to see their mom doing that.

Emmash32 karma

What do you think would be a solution for orcas in captivity right now? Could there be a section of ocean for them that could serve as a sanctuary? I know we shouldn't breed anymore, but what's the solution for Tilikum and those like him right now? Thank you so much for making this film. I know it has inspired thousands and made big strides for captive animals!

Gabriela_C68 karma

Hi this is John Jett. One easy solution for the broader problem is to end the captive breeding program. Females can easily and effectively be placed on birth control. Killer whales live short lives in captivity so after 10 or so years most would be dead and the problem would be solved. As for the sanctuary question the answer is complex. Yes, some animals could certainly live out their lives in a sanctuary. Tilikum for example will always need human intervention as he is a sick animal, as are many of SW's orcas. His teeth are in very poor shape and he is chronically infected. Absent ongoing antibiotics/human intervention he would likely be dead in a short period of time. While ocean pens is certainly a viable option for some animals, sick animals might have a difficult time even enduring the transport, which are very stressful for even healthy animals. Tili will likely die at SW. Heartbreaking. Best,jj.

q7t132 karma

In your research for the documentary what startled you the most about captive whales?

Gabriela_C80 karma

I was stunned by the fact that they fight all the time in captivity. There's tremendous social strife in captivity and because they're not in the open ocean, no animal ever gets to flee the aggression. That was a hard fact for me to stomach. I was also blown away by their awareness, what their brains are capable of.. the list goes on and on!

mtown4ever30 karma

Thank you for doing this film. It is by far the finest documentary I've seen this year and really affected me. How happy do you feel that there is so much focus on this film and the treatment of orcas because of it? I mean, Disney changed the ending of Finding Nemo 2 likely because of it. That has to feel awesome.

Gabriela_C37 karma

I truly believe the film simply hit a nerve, and articulated something we were all already feeling or already suspected. I feel fortunate to have had the former trainers, scientists, researchers and more trust me to tell their story.

garyploski27 karma

Congrats on the success of Blackfish! I've recommended it to many friends & family who have then done the same after seeing it.

  1. Seaworld didn't provide much in the way of comments on the topics address in the film and instead chose to attack the doc after it was released. Did you hope to include interviews of Seaworld employees in your original approach to the doc to offer some (perceived) balance?
  2. Much of the footage shown was from in-house Seaworld cameras, how did you manage to get that footage?

Gabriela_C50 karma

Yes I tried for 6 months to get SeaWorld to agree to be interviewed. Much of the footage was obtained via Freedom of Information Act.

tepperrob26 karma

Hello Gabriela, I watched your film recently and I'd like to put a copy of it on every car windshield in the sea world parking lot. Thank you for making a doc with such heart and insight. Hello John as well. How are these atrocities still allowed to go on? What's the best way for 'we the people' to take action?

Gabriela_C30 karma

Encourage SeaWorld to stop the captive breeding program, encourage people to stop attending SeaWorld until they begin evolving us out of animals for entertainment, into sea sanctuaries, where killer whales can live out their lives in a dignified and sustainable fashion. Head to Voice of the Orcas to find out more! http://voiceoftheorcas.blogspot.com

hrnbrgr26 karma

One of the film's sequences focuses on a trainer who was repeatedly dragged to the bottom of the pool (but survived). Did you have an opportunity to talk to him? Did he suffer long-term injuries?

Gabriela_C49 karma

I didn't get a chance to speak to anyone who works at SeaWorld and he continued to work there. He was seriously injured but he is very admired throughout the corporation and his video is essentially used as a "how to not get killed" tutorial.

jesseparrott8820 karma

Thank you for making such a beautiful and important film! What inspired you to want to make this film?

Gabriela_C46 karma

I don't come from animal activism and didn't know anything about killer whales. In fact, I took my kids to SeaWorld. I began making the documentary because I couldn't understand why a top killer whale trainer came to be killed by a killer whale. The facts of this tragic story didn't add up.

Kanickie17 karma

Hi Gabriela, I volunteer for Planet Whale and I'd love everyone to find out about Whalefest which is the worlds largest whale festival in Brighton, UK next March 14th-16th 2014. http://www.whale-fest.com/ Blackfish has really made a huge impact on me and I am now campaigning to empty the tanks! I'm sure you are aware of the amazing Dr Ingrid Visser's wonderful work but I wondered if you were supporting any causes such as FreeMorgan? It's so important we try and free these whales who are great candidates to continue their lives in the freedom of a sea pen! :)

Gabriela_C16 karma

Absolutely. Morgan is a story that we covered as well. I am a big fan of Ingrid Visser and an advocate of sea sanctuaries.

rhinothinks16 karma

Hi. So much love for what you do. Thank you! Question -- curious, how much pushback have your efforts gotten from Blackstone?

Gabriela_C19 karma

No push back from Blackstone. When I tried to interview them, they punted to SeaWorld, claiming essentially that SeaWorld takes care of its own issues.

MrsSmithhisler15 karma

Have any other Sea World trainers come forth with any other stories of the treatment or capturing of these whales since the film debuted?

Gabriela_C35 karma

Absolutely. Many trainers have come forward and told me that everything in Blackfish is accurate, but that it barely scratches the surface.

acking130913 karma

Do you know who has been doing PR for Seaworld after Blackfish came out? Have they had to increase their public relations efforts?

Gabriela_C36 karma

Not sure. But very interesting question. Yes, they have quadrupled their PR efforts. Some of their ticket sales employees claim they had never seen such aggressive discounts on tickets for decades.

mtown4ever12 karma

Also, any chance you might do a follow up film in the future?

Gabriela_C23 karma

Thanks for asking! You never know. Many ideas are percolating. Please check back with me!

SailorWookiee12 karma


Gabriela_C33 karma

This is why we're advocating for sea sanctuaries, where an ocean cove can be enclosed with a net. It's seen as "killer whale retirement" and provides a way for people to continue to care for them while allowing the killer whales to experience the ocean for the first time. We imagine a place like SeaWorld could even charge an entrance fee because people would presumably flock to see killer whales actually being killer whales!

Fallom_TO10 karma

How do you feel about public aquariums in general that do not have sea mammals or higher order fish like sharks?

Gabriela_C36 karma

I didn't research zoos or aquariums while making Blackfish, and only really feel equipped to speak out against killer whales in captivity and "animals for entertainment". I've since come to understand that many aquariums and zoos are conserving an entire species, and many are ultimately dedicated to education. Some do it better than others, I'm told. I do have my own opinions about sentient, intelligent, free roaming animals in captivity, but Blackfish does not cover these issues.

Kukana8 karma

Congratulations on the success of the film! Have been waiting for YEARS for this kind of film! Love the conversations and dialogue its creating. QUESTION: what will you be doing tonight when CNN premieres the film - watching film or following twitter???

Gabriela_C16 karma

I will be here at CNN watching it all unfold! Thank you for the kudos!

deepcdaniell7 karma

What motivated you to create the film Blackfish? Also, have you ever been to a Seaworld show or similar, and did you decide you were against Orca shows?

Also, can my college environmental club screen Blackfish?

Gabriela_C16 karma

I am a documentary filmmaker but I'm also a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld. I didn't come from any animal activism. I didn't even know I was going to be making a controversial movie! Check CNN Blackfish screening times (tonight on CNN at 9pm) and follow up times if your club can gather for any of those? Thank you for the questions!

blue_pancakes7 karma

Hi Gabriela, do you think the movie will be in Brazilian theaters in the future (Possibly with a Q&A)? We only got some screenings on Rio de Janeiro Movie Festival. Queremos mais Blackfish por aqui :)

Gabriela_C6 karma

Yes they will! Check with dogwoof for how it will unfold. Abracos!

graceskywalker7 karma

Did you receive any threats or intimidation whilst you were making the documentary. Did you feel any pressure from any groups to include or exclude any particular information?

Gabriela_C21 karma

I was never threatened or intimidated. From my understanding though, SeaWorld is not accustomed to fielding dissent or even acknowledging it. An independent documentary was probably not something they were worried about.

chromasy6 karma

Have SeaWorld given you any comment on Blackfish considering its impact since the release?

Congratulations on such a great film.

Gabriela_C17 karma

They've issued some written statements against the film, claiming it's misleading, etc. Their challenges were easy to debunk.

deepcdaniell6 karma

I have loved cetaceans all my life. It is amazing to see them finally get recognition. Your film and the cove were enlightening, but what do you think the next issue facing cetaceans is? Dolphin shows? Commercial whaling?

Gabriela_C18 karma

I think they're all different levels of exploitation. I think we all have to work together to change the way we think about these sentient, intelligent creatures.

hintlime95 karma

Hello I just wanted to say I found your film fascinating and captivating and at times chilling. The people who I have discussed it with have definitely reconsidered making trips to SeaWorld and similar parks. I wonder if you have seen or anticipate effects outside just the plight of orcas and sea animals in captivity such as ethical questions surrounding zoos, animal experimentation, meat eating, etc.? Thanks for making such an amazing film!!

Gabriela_C16 karma

Thank you! The responses to the film lead us to believe that some people are indeed reconsidering our relationships with all animals. I didn't research zoos or aquariums, but we strongly hope we do away with "animals for entertainment" in our lifetime.

albones_3 karma

How confident do you feel that your efforts will make a change in the industry of captive entertainment? What are your hopes?

Gabriela_C18 karma

I think Blackfish helped articulate something people felt and suspected anyway. So my hopes are high that our refusal to attend animal entertainment shows will force SeaWorld to evolve its business model.

Kukana2 karma

The film is brilliant and plays out the plight of Tilikum & all captive killer whales so well, especially with Jeff Beal's amazing soundtrack! It is impossible,for any one with a heart & compassion to walk away from this movie and NOT be affected and really 'get it'. Did you expect this kind of reaction to the film and do you ever think... 'oh my, what have I done?' I applaud you for what you have done! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!

Gabriela_C4 karma

Thank you!

ShayRose2 karma

Hi Gabriela, first of all I just wanted to thank you for the time and effort you put into Blackfish. I truly believe it has put into motion a demand for proper treatment of Orcas and other large marine mammals. Also, thank you for sending me a Blackfish tee shirt! I was so excited to have "won" it when I didn't even realize there was a contest! I'm wearing it today!

My questions are:

  1. What was the most challenging part of making the documentary?

  2. Did you have a strong opinion for either side before you started your research (were you a big Sea World fan, a big animals rights fan, etc).

  3. Have you had the opportunity to see Orcas in the wild? I did for the first time this summer and it was magical to say the least.

  4. How has making Blackfish effected the way you view animal rights in general?

Gabriela_C12 karma

Thank you! The most challenging part about making the documentary was how profoundly sad some of the stories were. The tragic loss of Dawn Brancheau was my entry point into the issue, then I learned about what goes on in the parks. After seeing whales in captivity, I felt I was seeing a different animal entirely when I saw them in the wild. It was pretty inspiring!

fr33kofnature1 karma

Do you have a special place in your heart for orcas? Or do you speak up for other voiceless creatures who need someone to speak up for them?

Gabriela_C7 karma

I do, but I now view all animals differently. The information I learned profoundly changed me.