Sina Schmocker asks for a minute to think before responding. “I have really enjoyed seeing the whales and the other animals,” she said. “But I am really shocked by how little space they have.
“I knew it would be quite small, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this small,” Schmocker said of the 5.8m gallons (the equivalent of just under nine Olympic swimming pools) of tanks behind her that are home to the 11 orca whales ofSeaWorldSan Diego.
“I told my boyfriend I really wanted to come here and see them because we couldn’t see whales up close like this at home,” said Schmocker, 30, who is on vacation in California from her home in Bern, Switzerland. “But now I feel bad because I have given them $178 (£118) more towards keeping animals like this [day tickets to SeaWorld are $89 each]. And they make them perform tricks. I don’t think that should be allowed in 2015.”
Schmocker isn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable about SeaWorld’s treatment of orca whales, dolphins, sea lions and other animals at its parks in San Diego; San Antonio, Texas; and Orlando, Florida. Growing public concern over the welfare of the whales has plunged SeaWorld, a corporate giant worth more than $1.65bn, into crisis.
Customers are deserting its attractions – particularly at this park in San Diego, where attendance fell 17% last year to 3.8 million, according to city authorities – and the company warned profits will evaporate. SeaWorld refused to specify by exactly how much attendance was currently falling at theSan Diegopark, but said that without the drop-off in California and Texas, overall attendance for the company, which also operates the Busch Gardens chain, would have been up on the previous year. The overall number came in 0.4% down, when analysts had expected 1.5% growth.
SeaWorld’s chief executive, Joel Manby, on Thursday warned investors that “continued SeaWorld brand challenges” willknock a further $10m off its profits this year.
The crisis was sparked by an independent film that cost just $76,000 (£49,000) to produce and only originally played in five movie theatres.Blackfish, which focuses on the death of a Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer who was dragged into the water and drowned by an aggressive bull whale named Tilikium, helped turn what was a fringe animal rights issue into a national and international debate. Celebrities includingHarry Styles, Matt Damon and Jackass’s Steve-O have waded in, pushing the anti-SeaWorld message to the company’s target youth market across the world.
The backlash has hit the company, and its investors, where it hurts. SeaWorld’s shares have halved since the film came out in July 2013, and fell 11% on Wall Street on Thursday following Manby’s profits warning, before ending the day 6% down.
Manby, who took the helm in the spring following the ousting of previous boss Jim Atchison, will face angry and impatient shareholders on Monday when he holdsSeaWorld’s first investor day as a public company and has promised to unveil a new strategy that he hopes will allow the company to move beyond Blackfish.
SeaWorld has dismissed Blackfish as “propaganda” and “emotionally manipulative” and spent $15m on a TV and social media campaign to counter negative sentiment and promote thework it does to protect and care for whales and other animals.
“All of the falsehoods and misleading techniques in Blackfish are employed in the service of the film’s obvious bias, one that is best revealed near the end of Blackfish by a neuroscientist with no known expertise in killer whales. She claims that all killer whales in captivity are ‘emotionally destroyed’ and ‘ticking time bombs’,” SeaWorld said. “These are not the words of science, and indeed, there is not a shred of scientific support for them. Rather, they are the words of animal rights activists whose agenda the film’s many falsehoods were designed to advance. They reveal Blackfish not as an objective documentary, but as propaganda.”
While in public SeaWorld has concentrated on telling customers the“69 reasons you shouldn’t believe Blackfish”, it was revealed this summer to have sent an employeeundercover to infiltratePeta, the main animal rights activist group campaigning for the release of the whales from the tanks and into coastal sanctuaries.
Manby admitted this week that the company, whose attractions include making whales perform tricks in front of hundreds packed into Shamu stadium andcharging guests an extra $215 for 20 minutes playing with dolphins, has so far failed to “evolve the SeaWorld brand to match the changing expectations of our guests”.
SeaWorld had hoped for a good public relations bounce from itsplan to nearly double the size of its San Diego whale tank complex to 9.6m gallons. The biggest of the new tanks would be 255ft long, compared to 125ft currently. The average adult male orca is 28ft long, meaning the pool is 4.5 body lengths long.
But the plan backfired last month when theCalifornia Coastal Commission ruled that the company could only expand the tanks if it put an end to breeding orcas at the park. SeaWorld – which had said the $100m Blue World Project expansion of the tanks, which date back to the 1960s, was essential for the health of the animals – has vowed to fight the ban through the courts.
Analysts warn that the stalled project is yet another PR crisis and has left the company in an “extremely precarious position”.
“The whole point of Blue World was to make the lives of the orca whales better and in doing so help to reverse the hugely negative PR that SeaWorld has gotten in the last two years following the Blackfish documentary,” James Hardiman, an analyst at Wedbush an LA-based investment bank, said.
“If they opt to move forward with Blue World Project, it would essentially signal the beginning of the end of the orca program (although the end of the end could still be decades out [as whales can live for 60 years]) and the return on the investment would be dramatically reduced. If they opt to halt Blue World, a program that they have said would improve the lives of their whales, their public relations issues would clearly intensify.”
Scientists argue about the relative benefits of the whale research and rescue SeaWorld conducts versus any harm caused by keeping the animals captive, but they are all in agreement that bigger tanks would unquestionably be better for the creatures, which travel up to 100 miles a day in the wild. They also can dive to more than 300ft in the ocean. The deepest of SeaWorld’s proposed tanks is 50ft.
Naomi Rose, a leading orca expert at the Animal Welfare Institute, said that while a bigger tank would be an improvement, it is time for consumers and regulators to realise that whales and theme parks don’t mix.
“A commercial theme park cannot put the welfare of its cetaceans as its top priority,” she said. “Profit, often by law, is its first priority and that will always lead to at least some decisions that maximise profits while minimising harm to the animals, rather than maximising animal welfare while minimising harm to investors. This is a recipe for poor animal welfare overall.”
SeaWorld saidits whales are much better cared for than in the wild with access to round-the-clock vets, consistent food supply and cleaner water than in the ocean. “According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, SeaWorld is ‘meeting or exceeding the highest standard of animal care and welfare of any zoological organization in the world’,”the company said.
Rose said the campaign to end the captivity of whales – which she has been involved in since 1993, when the last cetacean was captured for display in the US (all new orcas since, including an 11-month-old in San Diego, have been born in captivity) – was falling on mostly deaf ears until the release of Blackfish.
“It’s called the Blackfish Effect for good reason and I assure you it’s a real phenomenon,” she said. “As a 22-year veteran of this campaign, I assure you, the change in the public mindset since the end of 2013 [when Blackfish was aired by CNN] has been seismic. Opposition to captive orca display is now the mainstream view, not the fringe.”
Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, admits to being “blown away” by the impact the film has had. “I just think the movie struck a nerve. I think it has galled people to learn that a beloved cultural icon, an institution we think is dedicated to teaching our children, is the opposite of what it pretends to be,” she said. “The whales aren’t happy and the trainers aren’t safe. It’s as simple as that.”
SeaWorld is currently fighting back against four citations from the California division of occupational safety and health over alleged inadequate procedures to protect employees who swam with or rode on killer whales in a pool used for providing medical attention, and for employees who were present with killer whales on poolside ‘slide outs’, where whales can briefly emerge from the water. SeaWorld denies the claims and said that far from presenting a danger to employees, contact between trainers and orcas “is essential to their safety”. The company has been banned, by the US Labor Department, from allowing trainers to have close contact with orcas unless they are protected by a physical barrier. SeaWorld says that ruling doesn’t apply to health or medical care.
In its advertisments, SeaWorld vets say the whales are “healthy” and “thriving” and “I wouldn’t work here if they weren’t ... because we love them.”
Cowperthwaite said it was clear that the “$2bn a year industry will not go away without a fight to the death” and she urged consumers to make their voices heard by the company and regulators.
Helping to lead that fight is John Hargrove, a former senior SeaWorld orca trainer who was friends with Brancheau and featured prominently in Blackfish.
Hargrove, who started as an apprentice trainer in Shamu stadium as a 20-year-old in 1993, said it had been so hard to get the real story of SeaWorld out to the public because the people closest to the whales – their trainers – are fearful of speaking out for fear of losing their dream jobs.
“I had a life with these whales. I loved these whales,” he said. “I knew what we were doing was ethically wrong, but like a lot of trainers, it was our childhood dream. How could I walk away from that?”
Hargrove says that as he rose up the ranks, he felt increasingly uncomfortable with his role teaching whales tricks – and, at that time, riding whales (which was banned by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration following Brancheau’s death) – but when asked by children if the whales were happy he would “lie for the company”.
“I would be having fights with management, telling them: ‘What we are doing to these whales is wrong,’ but if anyone asked, I would say all the lines I was rehearsed to say: ‘Of course they are happy. They have better healthcare and dental than I do. Ha, ha, ha.’”