The 2013 documentary Blackfish exposes the distress of killer whales kept in captivity and contrasts their lives with those of the wild orcas we see here in the Pacific Northwest. Joining us this week to talk about his involvement in the film is Dr Jeff Ventre, one of the former SeaWorld trainers featured Blackfish.
We discuss the origins of Jeff’s involvement that can be traced back almost 15 years prior to the release of Blackfish, to 1995 while he was a senior trainer at SeaWorld, when he visited the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. There he began his friendships with Astrid van Ginneken, Dave Ellifrit and Ken Balcomb learning about the lives of wild killer whales versus captive orcas.
After trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by captive orca Tilikum in 2010, Jeff was interviewed by CNN and others, further drawing him into opportunities to expose the dangers of orca captivity.
In our conversation, Jeff mentions the Outside Magazine feature article “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmermann. Filmmaker Gabriela Coperthwaite read the article, which drew her into the story, and inspired her 2013 documentary. This also inspired “Superpod” gatherings of activists, authors, filmmakers and others on San Juan Island starting in 2011, where many of the interviews in the film were conducted.
Jeff speaks about the release of the film and how they thought getting into the Sundance Film Festival would be the pinnacle, not knowing the film was about to be purchased by CNN and Magnolia. Jeff discusses what it was like to participate in the global release of the film and how it became a rallying cry for the animal justice movement and a model for other documentaries.
Jeff also speaks with us about his most memorable experiences seeing iconic Southern Resident killer whales J1, “Ruffles,” and J2, “Granny.” These experiences radically altered his perspective and forever changed him. He took these experiences with him all the way forward to his participation in the film Blackfish.
In the second half of this episode, captains, professional guides and podcast co-hosts Jeff and Sara discuss the latest whale sightings around the San Juan Islands from running tours with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching. We describe the scene with T65A3 and T49A2, recently referred to as “The Butcher Boys,” hunting in Active Pass amid ferry traffic. We also talk about a very rare visit from Bigg’s killer whale T72, a first-time sighting for us. He has a distinctive curl at the top of his dorsal fin and spends most of his time in northern BC and Southeast Alaska. He came down to our area accompanied by the T34s and T37s, familiar whales in this region, who also spend time up in Southeast Alaska. We also discuss recent sightings of Southern Resident killer whales and a new calf in K pod.