While the killer whale show has long been SeaWorld’s most popular attraction, the theme park has suffered a massive 13 percent dip in park attendance this year. Orca trainers have also been side-lined in a new ruling by the Federal Appeals Court, which upholds an earlier decision that states it is too dangerous for trainers to be in the water with the whales. The dip in SeaWorld attendance comes off the heels of the documentary Blackfish, a documentary account of Tilikum the whale, which painted a less-than admirable picture of Sea World’s behind the scene treatment of whales and trainers. SeaWorld has responded by launching an aggressive PR campaign to manage the bad press, insisting SeaWorld has not tried to hide circumstances surrounding the past death of a trainer or the past circumstances of its captive whales. Despite the bad press, SeaWorld is reportedly attributing the dip in attendance to Easter.
While SeaWorld may blame Easter for its dip in sales, animals rights activist link downward attendance to the recent release of the documentary Blackfish. The documentary set out to expose SeaWorld’s treatment of both trainers and animals, and generated discussion about several of SeaWorld’s practices, including allowing trainers into the tank with the orcas, a regulation that led to the death of one of SeaWorld’s trainers. Similarly to Blackfish, Sea World of Hurt also implicates SeaWorld in unethical behavior through the photo series Thirty Years and Three Deaths, which tells the harrowing story of the Tilikum the whale. Tilkum was captured near Iceland 30 years ago when he was only 2-years-old. Following his capture, he was confined to a cement holding tank for almost a year before he was transferred to a marine park. The photo series reveals Tilikum’s heart-breaking induction into captivity.
SeaWorld has responded to bad press through a public awareness campaign involving outreach through advertising and social media. The Company’s website contains a Killer Whale Care page, which outlines Sea World’s policy on captive whales. According to SeaWorld, they have been breeding whales in captivity for 35 years, and their company claims to benefit whales through their study of them. SeaWorld also boasts a mortality rate for its whales that is on par with the mortality rate of those in the wild, saying it invests millions on whale-care.
Perhaps Easter is to blame for the dip in SeaWorld sales, but the ongoing debate about captive whales is sparking international outrage, and raising questions as to whether or not whales, intelligent creatures with complex social structures, should not be captured or disturbed. Forbes reported the change in attitude towards SeaWorld as “an abrupt change in fortune” despite President of Sea World John Reilly asserting that activist argument “is based on emotion and propaganda film.” Reilly went on to say that SeaWorld believes strongly in the inspiration benefit of audiences seeing whales in the park. During SeaWorld shows, spectators can watch captive orcas balance humans on their noses, rotate in unison to music, and imitate human behavior by waving their flippers and tails.
By Sandra Pugliese