The movie garnered Oscar buzz starting last year, but it's been left out of the running for Best Documentary—a major "snub," according to Forbes film contributor Scott Mendelson. (Related: "How Far Will the Blackfish Effect Go?")
Yet for all the ink spilled on the money killer whales generate and whether we should keep them in captivity, we hear less about what their lives are like from the people whose job is to care for them.
Bridgette Pirtle worked as an animal trainer at SeaWorld San Antonio in Texas from 2001 to 2011, and consulted on the film Blackfish. She has since expressed her disappointment with the movie, although she believes that using the animals for entertainment should end.
Pirtle, who now teaches at a dance academy in Texas, shared her experiences working with SeaWorld whales with National Geographic.
How did you get started as an animal trainer at SeaWorld?
They start you as an apprentice trainer. You do a lot of bucket scrubbing and setting up stuff for the real trainers.
The key thing when you're working with animals is the relationship—building up that care and trust.
[SeaWorld] required us to do relationship sessions at least once a week with the whales. Every single day I was over the wall getting to connect with these animals: Understanding the eye contact, the touch, reading the behavior [that] would define whether I would be a good trainer or not.
It left a lasting impression. I think it made me a very strong trainer. I still to this day value the time that I spent with the animals and the relationship that they reciprocated with me.
It doesn't [happen] very often in life to say you had a 6,000-pound [2,721-kilogram] animal take care of you when you threw your arm out of your socket.
What!? Please explain.
The job's extremely physically demanding. If you're hurt, you just suck it up and go. Plus, you love your job so much you don't want to miss out.
We had this element of the show where a trainer would come in on a trapeze. The apprentice trainers were supposed to do it.
[Doing this repeatedly] caused some damage to my shoulder, and my arm would pop out of its socket. For two years I would pop my shoulder back into place and keep going because I didn't want to miss out on any opportunities.
During a Christmas show, I did a hydro hop, which is where a killer whale pushes a trainer into the air.
I came out of the water and my arm shifted wrong. It's 20 feet [six meters] down to the water. When I hit, my arm shifted and I couldn't pop it back in.
[Keet, the killer whale] knew. Normally, when they pick you up, you put one foot on each of their pectoral flippers—it's like their shoulders—and their rostrum is near your face.
He held his left pec forward so that nothing was putting pressure on my right shoulder and right arm so that he could take me to the side of the pool.
How do you know if you've formed a bond with a killer whale?
There are a few things that you look for. The animals let you know whether they find you interesting or reinforcing. It's called discrimination.
With Takara [a female killer whale at San Antonio], the one trainer that I knew, no matter what, she would want to be with was John Hargrove. Hands down.
And you could see with some of the other trainers that worked Takara frequently, she responded to them differently. They would ask her to do something that she had a hundred percent success rate with John, and she would do something different with them—just to see what they would do.
We said that bad trainers relied on the bucket of food. If you didn't have confidence, you would go to this bucket of food as a crutch.
The whales knew that. If they saw you had nothing to offer them except for food, they didn't want it.
What does an average day for a killer whale trainer look like?
If you're a more experienced trainer, one comes in early in the morning, but most would come in around nine.
Breakfast would have already been given [to the whales]. One senior trainer with helpers would get breakfast out.
The rest of the morning would be spent getting urine from the females [to monitor hormone levels], having tooth irrigation [a kind of tooth-brushing] done for the animals that needed it, then we'd have weigh sessions.
Then trainers would go and discuss the day's shows.
Between shows, you'd be doing something fun with the whales. Maintaining old behaviors, teaching new behaviors, having playtime in front of the [pool's] glass.
It's nonstop until you go home. You crash, [but] you can't wait to come back and do it again.
What's the most common misconception about trainers?
I think one of the most common ones that I came across is that you're just the jock of the career world.
Most people think that trainers are just about being cowboys, and that's not it at all. I'd say that at least 90 percent of the trainers I worked with—most of them are still there now—most of them got into it for their love of the animals.
To understand the behavior of a killer whale, to know that each session is different, it takes a lot of depth and understanding of operant conditioning [reinforcing desired behaviors with rewards].
Was it a thrill to do the shows? Of course. But I loved teaching the animals. I loved figuring out how to communicate with the animals, and I loved what they gave back to me.
How often do killer whales perform?
I remember the day I got asked that question. We didn't have any shows that day because all the animals were like, "Eh, I'm not doing this."
You look at them each day, and if they're not into it and they don't want to be part of the show, that's fine. Sometimes you'd see if another animal wanted to be in it. If not, I'd just go out there and talk for 25 minutes. (See "Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer.")
What happens to the whales when they retire from the stage?
I've never heard talk about retiring a whale. In my ten years working there, I never saw a whale that refused to do shows [anymore]. Shows are a kind of enrichment for them. You've got the audience, you've got the energy, which the animals responded to.
SeaWorld still has an active killer whale breeding program. How many whales do they have?
There are 54 killer whales in captivity. I think 28 of them are SeaWorld animals. (See "Schoolchildren and Musicians Boycott SeaWorld in 'Blackfish' Flap.")
The breeding program should end, and animals for entertainment should end.
What are they going to do with all these whales?
That was a battle I fought in my last year at SeaWorld. It was disappointing to me to see more money spent on parts of the park that didn't benefit the animals. They'd spend millions of dollars renovating a children's play area or revamping the sound system.
But there wasn't enough pool space [in San Antonio].
When you look at the Animal Welfare Act, the parks meet it, but the act is outdated. Killer whales aren't even acknowledged as being dangerous.
I think 12 feet [3.7 meters] is the minimum depth requirement [for the pools]. Tilikum [the whale featured in Blackfish that killed Dawn Brancheau] is 22 feet [6.7 meters] long. Kai was pushing 20 feet [6.1 meters].
They need more space.
Do you think their accommodations affect their behavior?
It can. If you have two animals in a 20-foot [6.1-meter] by 12-foot [3.7-meter] pool, if something social happens and an animal displaces the other, where are they going to go? These animals are extremely socially sensitive.
More space gives them a place to go if something goes wrong socially. (Watch a video of killer whales in the wild.)
If you had to do it all over again, would you do the same things?
Absolutely. I don't regret one moment of working with these animals, for caring for those animals.
I fought against the corporation from within, and now I'm fighting with the corporation a little bit from the outside. But we want the best for these animals.
What I learned, what I experienced, it's made me a better person. What the animals gave to me, it's made me unique. I wouldn't change that for the world.
I have no regrets because that's what [the whales] deserve. They're still going to need people to [care] for them until we come to a point where we stop using the animals as a form of entertainment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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