Will SeaWorld’s Financial Woes Force It to Free the Whales?

The company’s stock plunges as it admits animal rights protests are driving away customers.

(Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The business of owning and training captive killer whales in the United States just became a lot less profitable.

SeaWorld rocked the financial world and thrilled animal rights activists on Wednesday when its stock price dropped by 35 percent to a record low after the company announced that attendance at its water parks this year has fallen 4.3 percent.

The company blamed its woes in part on protests against its orca shows and legislation introduced in California that would ban using killer whales for entertainment in that state. “The company believes attendance in the quarter was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California,” SeaWorld said in a statement.

The idea that SeaWorld would regard Shamu as a financial liability would have been almost unthinkable a short time ago, despite the fallout from the documentary Blackfish, which scrutinized the company’s treatment of captive killer whales. In the wake of the film, a string of musical acts canceled performances at SeaWorld parks, and Southwest Airlines recently terminated its 25-year marketing partnership with the company.

Critics took heart from the fiscal collapse, which led many observers to wonder just how long the company can hold on to its iconic whales and still make money.

“I’ve been watching the stock price fall all day—it’s been shocking,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute and a prominent captivity opponent. “SeaWorld should take this as a chance to do the right thing and change its business model. Otherwise the market will force it to change—and the company and the animals will suffer for it.”

Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld orca trainer featured in Blackfish and my book Death at SeaWorld, said he expected the company to rebound from the stock crash. “That said, the trend line for SeaWorld’s U.S. operations does not look good,” he noted.

The question now: What will SeaWorld do with its unpaid performers if its stock price continues to underperform?

Activists hope it will be forced to retire its killer whales to relatively tranquil sea pens, where they could live out their lives to the natural rhythms of the ocean without having to put on shows for tourists in exchange for dead smelt.

If the California bill, which has been tabled for at least a year, were to become law, those activists just might get their wish.

But SeaWorld likely has an alternative plan. The company has made no secret of its intention to build parks in China and the Middle East, where animal-welfare regulations are more lax and public opprobrium toward orca captivity is muted, at best.

“That’s where the corporation plans to take its circus,” Ventre said.

It would be a win-win for SeaWorld. The company could develop new, non-whale revenue in the U.S. and begin rehabilitating its sullied reputation here while also generating millions in profits by shipping its orcas overseas.

It’s too soon to tell what SeaWorld will do. But if its stock continues to tank, shareholders may press the company to free the whales.

“Four and a half years ago, SeaWorld had the opportunity to lead the captivity industry in a change for the better,” said Samantha Berg, another former SeaWorld trainer, referring to the killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by an orca at the company’s Orlando water park.

“They chose to fight for their old business model instead of moving with the times,” Berg said. “They could have been on the right side of history. Maybe the financial pressure will finally force them to do the right thing. I hope so.” 

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