SeaWorld's Very Rotten Year

Thanks to the release of the anti-captivity documentary 'Blackfish,' 2013 was a year to forget for SeaWorld.

On Dec. 28, volunteers decorate SeaWorld's "Sea of Surprises" float, a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the original park in San Diego, at Fiesta Parade Floats in Irwindale, Calif. The float will be entered in the 125th Rose Parade, which will take place on Jan. 1. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Reuters)

Dec 30, 2013· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

This year may go down in history as the beginning of the end of keeping killer whales in captivity in the United States. Theme parks like SeaWorld only have themselves to blame.

While the marine mammal theme park limps toward the end of the year, its executives must be reeling from the blowback as investors, celebrities, journalists, and even students distance themselves from the park and its famed killer whale shows.

The year started ominously for SeaWorld. In January, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary Blackfish debuted at Sundance, becoming an international sensation and a pivotal rallying cry for those appalled by the practice of keeping large, social, intelligent creatures in what amounts to an Olympic-size pool.

But Blackfish was the beginning of SeaWorld’s woes, not the end. As the film made its way through a summertime theatrical release, followed by high-profile screenings on CNN in October, awareness of what really goes on at the park began to grow.

In recent weeks, eight musical acts, including Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies, pulled out of a February 2014 concert series at the Orlando park; high school students in San Diego, SeaWorld’s backyard, produced a scathing anti-captivity video many highly critical news stories appeared in print, online, and on television; and the Blackstone Group, which held much of SeaWorld's stock, sold 19.5 million shares and its majority ownership, amid worrisome downgrading by analysts of the company’s value. Despite record profits from increased admission fees and other revenue streams, 1 million fewer people visited SeaWorld parks in the first nine months of this year compared with last year.

SeaWorld attempted a high-profile pushback, with full-page ads in eight major U.S. newspapers. Its self-defense talking points, easily refuted by Blackfish and my book Death at SeaWorld, were an attempt to convince a skeptical public that orcas performing tricks for tourists is a noble, scientific undertaking.

Among the falsehoods and truth-stretching points made in the ad, SeaWorld insisted it does not separate orca calves from their mothers (it does so routinely), that it no longer captures live whales from the ocean (true, but six SeaWorld killer whales were taken from their families in the sea, and SeaWorld is deeply involved in trying to import wild-caught beluga whales from Russia), that it spent some $70 million on improvements to orca habitats (much of which went to installing fast-rising pool bottoms to rescue trainers caught in the throes of a rampaging whale), and that the Shamu shows benefit killer whales in the wild (there is little evidence to back up this claim, even as orca populations in the U.S. Pacific Northwest decline precipitously).

Anyone who has witnessed the majesty of orcas in the ocean will understand how unethical and outdated the Shamu shows really are. Killer whale families stay together for life, and in many populations, the males never leave their mother's side. They possess culture, compassion, and means of communication. They swim up to 100 miles per day, and the males’ towering dorsal fins almost never collapse, as opposed to those of 100 percent of adult males in captivity.

Now, because of Blackfish, CNN, and thousands of activists, word is out that these animals are too smart, too social, too much like us, to allow them to be treated this way. There is a growing movement to gradually retire some of these animals to sea pens, where they can live without performing for tourists. Eventually, I predict, our grandchildren will only see orcas in the ocean.

Meanwhile, I expect attendance levels to drop further as the Blackfish effect grows, including an anticipated Oscar nomination for best documentary. (It is already on the short list.)

Next year is SeaWorld’s 50th anniversary, but it's not likely that 2014 will be more felicitous than 2013. Most people, myself included, are not anti–SeaWorld but anti-captivity for orcas. As long as SeaWorld confines them to a life of servitude, public sentiment will continue to build against the park.

As the website One Green Planet put it, “Sorry SeaWorld, but the American public has spoken: They don’t like you anymore, and have no plans in the future to reinstate their support.”

Company executives and investors should brace themselves for more brand-damaging rhetoric in the new year.