SeaWorld Ramps Up the (Killer) Whale Wars

The company's aggressive new advertising campaign fights allegations of mistreatment of captive orcas.
Mar 24, 2015·
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Can a new chief executive and an aggressive marketing campaign lift SeaWorld’s sinking reputation and revenues? Company officials believe so, but critics and some industry analysts are not so sure.

On Monday, SeaWorld announced a new public relations offensive to combat criticism from animal activists and allegations of mistreatment of killer whales made in the documentary Blackfish. The move came the day before the publication of Beneath the Surface, a tell-all book by former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove that details what he calls abuse of orcas at the company’s water parks.

SeaWorld’s latest push to redeem its brand and reverse a decline in attendance at its parks includes a print and television advertising campaign and a new page on its SeaWorld Cares website—also launched to counteract the Blackfish backlash—called "Ask SeaWorld."

Company officials did not respond to an interview request, but senior corporate affairs officer Jill Kermes told The Orlando Sentinel that the campaign is aimed at people who maintain an open mind about marine mammal captivity.

The campaign “takes more of the claims that have been leveled against us head on,” Kermes said, calling the "Ask SeaWorld" page “a one-stop shop for people who have questions about what we are and what we do.”

The page includes written answers to frequently posed questions from the public and videos featuring SeaWorld’s chief veterinarian, Chris Dold.

The question of orca longevity in captivity versus the wild is featured prominently.

“SeaWorld has several killer whales in their 30s and one that is close to 50—right in line with what is seen in the wild,” the page claims, citing a July 2014 Associated Press article saying that orcas born at SeaWorld “had an average life expectancy of 46 years.”

However, once wild-caught orcas were factored in, survival rates were “lower than estimates of those in the wild”—just 27 years, “with a high estimate of 49 years and a low estimate of 19,” the AP reported.

“It’s unethical for SeaWorld to present this information as if it’s ‘independent science,’ ” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, noting that a 1995 study concluded that annual mortality rates among non-calf captive orcas was more than 2.5 times higher than among wild whales.

SeaWorld also denies that orca calves are prematurely separated from their mothers, which has been disputed by several former trainers, including Hargrove.

The page, meanwhile, condemns People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for “twisting statistics and falsely attacking us."

“Lashing out at PETA is laughable because it’s not going to work,” said Lisa Lange, the group’s senior vice president. “The public understands that SeaWorld animals are suffering and no amount of whitewash is going to change that.”

Lange advised SeaWorld’s incoming CEO, Joel Manby, to borrow a page from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which recently announced plans to retire its elephants in 2018.

“Manby should take note, because he will fail in his job if he doesn’t quickly change direction and start investing in releasing animals to seaside sanctuaries,” Lange said.

Will the new offensive succeed?

“I hope so, but the problem is that they’re selling a damaged product,” said entertainment industry analyst Jim Hill, editor of Jim Hill Media.

“To be honest, SeaWorld had no choice,” Hill said. “They have to hit back hard because a killer whale is on their logo, and if they can’t have killer whales, they can’t really have a park.”