I met Tom Jones exactly one year ago this week, when he sat down on the plastic cushion beside me. We'd climbed aboard a big boat off the coast of the San Juan Islands, a picturesque archipelago off the state of Washington, a stone's throw from Canada. The area is famous for the large groups of orca whales that swims up and down its coasts for the better part of the year, drawing hordes of locals in speedboats and tourists in small yachts in their wake. San Juan is also known as the site where employees hired by SeaWorld came in the 1960s and 70s to capture young orca whales, the great-great-offspring of which are still floating in the company's three parks today.
It was my first time seeing a whale in the wild, though I'd been reporting on orcas for nearly a year. As I marveled at a massive female breaching almost entirely out of the water, I pointed it out to Jones, who said it was his first time, too. We spent the rest of the trip leaning over the railing and peppering our guide with questions about orca behavior and whales in the Pacific Northwest. I was the only journalist on board—but I wasn't the one asking the most questions. Unbeknownst to me, my seatmate was asking on behalf of the company that now owned many of the whales that once swam in those waters.
In my notes from the trip, I wrote: "T Jones, activist, no organization, San Diego. Enthusiastic."
Tom Jones, it now appears, is not his real name. Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that a 28-year-old man named Paul McComb has allegedly been masquerading as Jones online for years, ingratiating himself with animal activists who aligned themselves with the anti-SeaWorld movement. Until the news broke this week, McComb had reportedly worked at several positions at SeaWorld since 2008, including working as a human resources representative for the company. A Facebook photo posted by Brittany McComb, reportedly his wife, was the giveaway.
Bloomberg called Brittany McComb, who confirmed that she was married to Paul McComb, the man in her Facebook photo. When Bloomberg called Paul McComb, he "declined to say if he was a SeaWorld employee and hung up when asked if he used the name Thomas Jones." While Jones' Facebook page has been deactivated, his Twitter is still alive and well.
As activists are quick to point out—and as I can attest—if we're to judge by photos, Paul McComb and Tom Jones are clearly one and the same.
When I met McComb back in July 2014, I was on assignment at an annual gathering affectionately known as "Superpod," that draws whale scientists, ex-SeaWorld trainers, and supporters of the documentary Blackfish. He was there at the lectures, holding banners calling for SeaWorld to free its whales. He joked with me about being a new recruit to the movement. In my notes from the trip, I wrote: "T Jones, activist, no organization, San Diego. Enthusiastic." He seemed to be deeply involved in the anti-captivity movement, a crusade that relies almost entirely on grassroots advocacy and social media activism. As a result, no one questioned him.
How did McComb get there, into the inner fold of activists working to tear down the company that signed his paycheck?
His first tweet, in which he takes an unequivocal stance against SeaWorld dates back to August 2012, five months before Blackfish premiered at the January 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
I spoke to several activists whom McComb had approached online. In more than a few messages, he asked activists where they were getting their information: "Your source must be in the know, is the [sic] a park source or one at the national marine fisheries?" He wanted to attend protests and rallies. In 2014, he even went so far as to join a group of PETA activists who were arrested for disrupting the Rose Bowl parade, which included a SeaWorld float. A photo taken inside the police van shows him beaming and wearing a shirt that reads, "SeaWorld Hurts Orcas."
McComb didn't stop there. He began provoking, asking on Facebook if anyone was "interested in more direct action" against SeaWorld. "What is the big surprise for the upcoming protest. Are we going up the gates or something," he wrote. "Grab your pitch forks and torches. Time to take down SeaWorld."
Just a few days after I climbed aboard a seaplane and then aboard an airplane to be whisked away to the east coast, McComb messaged me on Facebook. He was polite, if a bit awkward—but seemed eager to offer his help as a potential source. He asked about my stories, and about whether he could come visit my office in New York. I sent a curt message in reply, telling him (truthfully) that the timing wouldn't really work out. There was silence for a while; a few months later, he asked about whether I was planning to cover a new book criticizing SeaWorld released by a jaded former orca trainer. Sensing prying eyes, I didn't respond. Until this week, that was the last time I thought about Tom Jones.
While I forgot about him, animal activists who worked with him were noticing something funny. To PETA, McComb allegedly used both a fake address and an address that was registered to a post-office box that belongs to Ric Marcelino, SeaWorld's head of security. The Pasadena police have no record of McComb (or Jones) ever being arrested at the Rose Bowl—though they have record of the other PETA protestors. It wasn't long before they connected the dots.
The "SeaWorld mole" is only the latest in a string of embarrassments that have amounted to a public relations meltdown for the company
One ex-SeaWorld trainer noticed in an old photo that McComb appeared to have been discreetly videotaping a presentation at last year's gathering in San Juan, holding a GoPro under his sweatshirt. He found a video posted online that is taken from the same vantage point. Now, activists are even alleging that McComb's friend, a man named Michael Estes whom he often brought along to demonstrations, was also involved. One activist called the whole affair "multi-person espionage."
In the wake of McComb's outing, SeaWorld has tried its best to distance itself. The company's new CEO, Joel Manby addressed the incident in a statement, saying that the allegations "will not be tolerated" and that the company was opening an investigation. He also said that McComb was placed on paid administrative leave for now.
But the "SeaWorld mole" is only the latest in a string of embarrassments that have amounted to a public relations meltdown for the company. Post-Blackfish, a slew of companies, including Southwest Airlines, Virgin America and, ironically, the Miami Dolphins, have cut business ties, while musicians are refusing to perform at the park. Its shares are down by 30 percent of their value in April 2013, when SeaWorld brought live penguins onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate going public. What was once a family-friendly theme park has become an easy target for comedy: SeaWorld is one of Conan O'Brien's favorite punching bags, and one of The Onion's many SeaWorld headlines reads: "SeaWorld Unveils New 20 Whales Stuffed In Pool Show."
McComb has yet to comment on the whole affair, and wouldn't return my messages. Animal activists have been flooding his pages with messages and unfriending him in droves, calling him a "SeaWorld mole." If SeaWorld wants to save face, it's likely his "paid leave" could be permanent.
But McComb, activists say, is still welcome to come back to the annual gathering in San Juan next week and tell his side of the story—in fact, he's still registered for the conference, though they doubt he'll show up. One ex-orca whale trainer pointed out to me that McComb, despite his allegiance to the park, was actually able to do what many SeaWorld employees are not: McComb saw an orca whale swimming in the wild, not in a tank at SeaWorld.