‘Blackfish’ Backlash: SeaWorld Chief Resigns

Years of controversy over the company’s treatment of killer whales and other marine mammals takes a toll on profits and attendance.

Sea World President and CEO Jim Atchison, at right. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Dec 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

SeaWorld’s annus horribilis is ending on a particularly sour note.

The company on Thursday announced the departure of chief executive officer Jim Atchison, who has presided over a steady decline in the company’s stock value and reputation.

Atchison will leave his job in mid-January with a $2.4 million payout, but he will stay on as vice chairman of the board and consultant to SeaWorld’s international expansion and conservation programs.

SeaWorld said in a statement that it would cut other jobs to reduce operating costs by $50 million by the end of 2015.

In October, SeaWorld announced a 28 percent drop in third-quarter earnings and a 5.6 percent decline in attendance over the same period last year. Meanwhile, its stock value continues to tank, falling from a high of about $35 per share shortly after the company went public in April 2013 to less than $16 today.

SeaWorld’s misfortunes began in earnest in February 2010, when the orca Tilikum dragged trainer Dawn Brancheau into his pool and bludgeoned her to death.

That tragedy set off a chain reaction of high-profile woes, including negative media scrutiny, a testy congressional hearing on trainer safety, a protracted legal battle with the United States Occupational Health and Safety Administration (which SeaWorld ultimately lost) and the 2012 release of my book, Death at SeaWorld.

Then came Blackfish, the documentary by Gabriella Cowperthwaite that excoriated the company for its treatment of captive orcas and exposure of trainers to safety hazards.

After a successful theatrical run in the summer of 2013, the film aired several times on CNN, sparking an international outcry that persists today. The documentary led to the cancellation of several prominent musical acts at the company’s Orlando Park and, last March, the introduction of a California Assembly bill that would effectively ban orca captivity in that state.

“Clearly, 2014 has been a challenging year, but I am confident we are taking the necessary steps to address our near term challenges and position the company to deliver value over the long term,” Atchison said in a statement last month.

SeaWorld critics said SeaWorld has only itself to blame for its problems—and Atchison’s departure.

“SeaWorld doesn’t have a PR problem,” said Samantha Berg, a former orca trainer who was featured in Blackfish. “They have a business-model problem. The real tragedy is that SeaWorld’s financial instability, which is a direct result of them not addressing the root cause of their problems, potentially jeopardizes the future health, safety and well-being of their whales and their employees.”

Another former trainer profiled in Blackfish, Jeffrey Ventre, said in an email, “A big problem is with the ‘happy Shamu culture’ perpetuated by the animal training curators and managers who blame trainers when whales go off behavior, selectively bury serious incidents, and don’t share all relevant safety information with the training staff.”

So what does the future hold for SeaWorld if attendance continues to fall?

Many anti-captivity activists want the company to retire its whales to enclosed ocean sanctuaries, where they can live out their lives in a relatively natural milieu.

A more likely scenario, however, is that the company will expand its operations overseas to Russia, China, and the Middle East, where opposition to captivity is not nearly as strong.

“This could still go either way—a new CEO could improve the animal welfare situation at SeaWorld or make it worse, and we need to be prepared for either,” Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said in an email.

But overseas expansion may not be the balm that SeaWorld seeks, according to Courtney Vail of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

“Even as the company pursues interests abroad, global opinions against the capture, confinement, and maintenance of whales and dolphins in captivity continue to grow,” Vail said in an email. “SeaWorld’s corporate clout and reputation may not be as strong as they expect it to be.”