The Documentary Blackfish Is Still Creating Waves at SeaWorld

Musical acts are canceling SeaWorld shows, citing the unsettling documentary's influence

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Magnolia Pictures

The rock band Heart joins a expanding group of musical artists who’ve cancelled scheduled performances at SeaWorld — they’ve all cited by the documentary Blackfish, which depicts the dark side of orcas living in captivity at the marine park, for leading them to this decision.

Sisters Nancy Wilson and Ann Wilson of Heart were scheduled to play at SeaWorld Orlando next year, but tweeted on their official account on Dec. 7:

This cancellation follows on the heels of Willie Nelson’s decision to cancel a similar gig in early December, and the Barenaked Ladies’s cancellation in late November. The Canadian rock group took to Facebook to write that, “This is a complicated issue, and we don’t claim to understand all of it, but we don’t feel comfortable proceeding with the gig at this time.”

Then, on Dec. 9, long-time animal rights advocate Joan Jett sent SeaWorld a cease-and-desist letter asking the park to stop playing her 1982 track “I Love Rock’n’Roll”, writing, “I’m among the millions who saw Blackfish and am sickened that my music was blasted without my permission at sound-sensitive marine mammals.”

The documentary centers on the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by an orca named Tilikum, as well as the practice of keeping such whales in captivity. As Mary Pols notes in her review of the film for TIME, “it’s a troubling and crushingly sad tale.” Even the trailer is upsetting:

For its part, SeaWorld — who did not participate in the film — has formally denounced the doc, telling TIME that Blackfish is “inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues.”

Blackfish has been causing waves for the theme park for months now. The doc premiered at Sundance in January 2013, where it immediately caught critics’ attention. After a wider U.S. release on July 19 and a CNN broadcast in October, it caught the internet’s attention. Fans and activists have been campaigning against SeaWorld with a host of online petitions cropping up on and similar sites. Many of the campaigns are aimed at performers scheduled to play at the theme park. In addition to these three musical acts, advocates have petitioned Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon, among others, to cancel upcoming performances. (Representatives for Cheap Trick declined to comment on the petition, while reps for REO Speedwagon did not reply.)

Responding to the cancellations, SeaWorld spokesperson Nick Gollattscheck emailed TIME a statement, reading, “While we’re disappointed a small group of misinformed individuals was able to deny fans what would have been great concerts at SeaWorld by Heart, Barenaked Ladies and Willie Nelson, we respect the bands’ decisions. The bands and artists have a standing invitation to visit any of our parks to see firsthand or to speak to any of our animal experts to learn for themselves how we care for animals and how little truth there is to the allegations made by animal extremist groups opposed to the zoological display of marine mammals. ”

While the film has created a controversy for SeaWorld, it’s still unclear how that has translated in terms of park ticket sales. Though the Los Angeles Times reported in August that attendance at SeaWorld had dropped by six percent in the first half of 2013, the park stated that the drop was attributable to bad weather in Florida and Virginia. Then again, that drop took place prior to CNN airing Blackfish, which likely garnered a whole new crop of viewers.

Now, as the number of cancellations increase — not to mention the number of headlines — it’s hard to imagine the controversy fizzling out quietly. Blackfish‘s director Gabriela Cowperthwaite tells me that she found it “heartening” to learn of the online petitions and the response from musical acts. “The film is a truthful document,” she says. And Seaworld? “It’s an industry based on fairy tales.”