Hurt by public reaction to a widely viewed documentary critical of the treatment of whales in captivity and battered by Wall Street investors showing their own misgivings about the company, Orlando-based SeaWorld is making some moves at some of its 11 theme parks that it hopes will quiet its critics.
On Aug. 15, SeaWorld San Diego announced plans to double the size of the orca habitats, dedicate an additional $10 million for research, and hire a committee of scientists to oversee the program. It also decided to drop its OSHA appeal last month that stemmed from the drowning of a Florida trainer pulled under by a killer whale.
SeaWorld’s revenue has dropped 1% during the park’s peak season. Wall Street sent the company’s stock price down more than 30%. It closed Friday at $20.70 a share, down a fraction for the day and well off its 52-week high of $35.30 a share.
SeaWorld has been on the defensive ever since the 2013 release of “Blackfish,” which explores the killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by an orca named Tilikum. The film gained substantial media attention at Sundance in 2013. It performed modestly at the box office, but gained national attention when it was first aired by CNN and has since been bought by Netflix, where it has been widely viewed by a younger audience.
The film shows footage of killer whales acting aggressively toward trainers and patrons. The film maker speculates this could contribute to the whales’ emotional turmoil, removed from the ocean and kept in confined habitats.
SeaWorld’s actions include the “Blue World Project” which increases the orca pools from 5.6 million to 10 million gallons. The new tanks will be 50 feet deep, have a 1.5-acre surface area, and feature an artificially generated current so the whales can swim through moving water. The pool will feature a 40-foot glass wall dividing the visitors from the orcas. The space should be completed by 2018.
SeaWorld Parks in Orlando and San Antonio are expected to adopt that same new standards in the coming years, although company officials would not provide any information on the timetable.
“The plan is to revolutionize the way visitors experience killer whales and also provide innovative features for the whales themselves,”said Josie Villela, spokesperson for SeaWorld San Antonio.
SeaWorld President Jim Atchison said the larger pools will enhance the visitor experience, although he doubts they will appease critics.
“The new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales,” he said, while expressing doubts that the changes would placate animal rights activists, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
PETA, known for its intense media campaigns and attention-seeking public actions, recently hired actress Jessica Biel to submit a question on its behalf to Atchison at SeaWorld’s investor’s day. The group also had an advertisement in the San Diego Airport with actress Kathy Najimy with the tagline, “Welcome to San Diego! If you love animals as much as I do, please avoid SeaWorld.”
In Defense of Animals (IDA), an internationally recognized animal rights group. recently listed the San Antonio Zoo as the worst in the United States for elephants. Their response to the expansion of the whale habitats is less than enthusiastic.
Spokesperson Melissa Gonzalez said expansion of the tanks cannot replicate ocean conditions, where orcas dwell in families and pods.
“SeaWorld needs to update their business model,” Gonzalez said. “The public has responded to the movie ‘Blackfish,’ and does not want to support the inherent cruelty associated with the public display of orcas.
“SeaWorld should end the breeding of orcas,” she said. “It must also reallocate the millions of dollars budgeted to be wasted on expanding their concrete orca tanks and instead build coastal sea pens for them without delay.”
According to a recent article in Fortune Magazine, Tuna Amobi, an equity analyst at S&P Capital IQ, said the expansion of the habitats will not automatically sway the views of the public.
“This is not going to have an immediate positive impact. Most investors have a wait-and-see approach,” Amobi said. “As far as investors go, Amobi thinks they should at least be relieved SeaWorld is admitting that negative press is an issue rather than solely blaming other factors, such as weather and school calendars.”
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist who has studied orcas for more than 20 years, said the expansion would marginally improve things for orcas at SeaWorld.
“The current habitats are about the same size as a large hotel swimming pool for humans,” she said. “A natural sea pen would be the only suitable enclosure for the orcas. The water used in the habitats is artificial. Not only is this a problem for the whales, it’s an issue for fresh water resources.”
Rose said the enclosures are sized the way they are because if the whales were to be enclosed in a larger space, the trainers would not be able to control them.
“I’m interested in how the endless pool will be used, but I’m sure it will only be used when needed,” she said. “Not to compare the two animals, but a dog can be trained to use a treadmill–but will it willingly use the treadmill on its own?
Locally, SeaWorld San Antonio does not have a specific timetable for when its pool expansion will take place. The existing pool holds 4.5 million gallons of saltwater and has a depth of 40 feet.
Villela denies that the pool expansion stems from protests or public opinion in the wake of the film’s release.
“The way that we conduct our business is not a response to the vocal minority that believes that zoos and aquariums should not exist,” Villela said. “Therefore, the impact that they have on our business is negligible.”
Villela declined to provide any data on park attendance or ticket sales in San Antonio.
“It’s not our company policy to comment on attendance and revenue figures. We also do not speculate on future attendance,” she stated.
SeaWorld has long asserted that conservation is central to their mission.
“We don’t release park specific numbers, but can tell you that SeaWorld spends millions of dollars conserving wild animals and wild places, as well as supporting critical conservation work on every continent,” Villela said. “It’s important to note also that millions of people each year learn about animals in our SeaWorld parks, as well as the importance of conservation and wildlife preservation.
“We also partner with and support numerous organizations including the National Wildlife Federation, the World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy,” she added. “Our park actively raises money for the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. Since the Fund’s creation in 2003, it has donated more than $10 million to conservation efforts all over the world.”
New York City-based Rosen Firm announced this week that it has filed suit against SeaWorld for failing to disclose to investors that park earnings were declining. The lawsuit contends that SeaWorld knew its orca training practices were negatively affecting trainer safety, and that its policies ultimately led to adverse publicity and negative public opinion toward its family oriented parks, thus hurting shareholders.