SeaWorld Can't Afford to Get Rid of Orcas

Animal lovers are celebrating, but the decision doesn’t mean the amusement park is backing away from the business model that made it rich.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Nov 10 2015, 7:30pm

Image: Jeff Kraus/Flickr

Two years from now, Shamu will be putting on a less intensive show at SeaWorld's San Diego location. This is good news for animal lovers, but it doesn't mean the amusement park is backing away from the business model that made it rich. In fact, the changes are more likely a sign that SeaWorld is doubling down on its killer whale performers.

During a shareholder presentation Monday, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced the company was eliminating the current, "theatrical" orca show at its San Diego location. In 2017, SeaWorld San Diego will replace the killer whale show with a new performance that will "be focused more on the natural setting, natural environment, and also the natural behaviors of the whale," Manby said. "It will have a strong conservation message."

Although the whales will still be kept in captivity and forced to perform, many animal rights activists saw this as a small victory, a sign that SeaWorld was feeling a hit in profits due to greater public awareness of their alleged treatment of captive cetaceans, largely driven by the documentary Blackfish.

"This is the first time that I'm aware of that SeaWorld has ever done anything that is even indirectly an acknowledgement that what they were doing was the wrong thing," said Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist and advocate for orca welfare at the Animal Welfare Institute. "This is one of the biggest manifestations of the Blackfish effect."

The term "Blackfish effect" has been used colloquially for the last two years to describe the apparent backlash SeaWorld faced after the documentary debuted in 2013. The film told the story of the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by Tilikum, a captive killer whale, in 2010. Blackfish criticized SeaWorld's history and treatment of captive marine mammals, causing a rather widespread public outcry. Movie scenes set at SeaWorld were cut. Bands cancelled shows at the amusement park. And, most poignantly, SeaWorld was hit where it hurts: its bottom line.

SeaWorld revenues, attendance, and stock prices have been on the decline since the film's release. In Monday's presentation, SeaWorld told investors it had generated $1.368 billion in revenue to date for 2015. In 2014, revenue totaled $1.378 billion, down from $1.460 billion in 2013, according to SeaWorld's annual report last year. Attendance also dropped from 24.4 million guests in 2012 to 22.4 million so far this year, and its stock hasn't been able to recover from a nosedive it took in mid-2014.

A wild orca breaching in the ocean. Image: Ingrid Taylar/Flickr

It's impossible to know for sure how much of this is can be attributed to Blackfish, but even SeaWorld admits that public outcry and pressure from legislators contributed to the slump. In its most recent quarterly report, SeaWorld lists a number of factors that can have a negative effect on the business, but "incidents or adverse publicity concerning our theme parks," "changes in federal and state regulations governing the treatment of animals," and "featuring animals at our theme parks," are near the top. And the change in the orca shows is a sign, too. The decision wasn't made in a vacuum, Manby said.

"The main point is we are listening to our guests," Manby said before revealing the changes. "We're evolving as a company."

This evolution isn't anywhere near what activists want, which is to see the park retire its marine mammals and end its captive breeding program entirely. But rather than a step towards that goal, it's likely this decision has more to do with the fact that orcas remain one of the biggest money-makers for SeaWorld.

Though the company will not release a breakdown of how much of its business is driven by the killer whales, there are signs that the whales are still a major profit-driver for the parks. Orcas are prominently featured in SeaWorld's branding, and are an attraction the company seems very unwilling to do away with.

"Just from a stark, economic point of view, as long as the cost of keeping the whales is below the cost of losing the whales, then they'll keep the whales," said Martin Lewison, a business professor at Farmingdale State College who specializes in theme parks and amusement parks. In other words: even with the apparent backlash of Blackfish, there are still a lot of people paying admission to SeaWorld just to see the whales. Enough that it's most likely still more profitable for SeaWorld to keep the animals than to retire them.

Lewison said it's also noteworthy that SeaWorld isn't changing its orca shows in any location other than San Diego, where it has arguably been under more pressure both from activists and legislators.

"There are lots of very successful theme parks that don't have killer whales," Lewison said. "But the whole raison d'être of SeaWorld is that you have an ocean life theme, and it's been a very successful proven formula. I don't envy top management's position at all. They're really between a rock and a hard place."

Activists would like to see a SeaWorld without Shamu, one that focuses on rides and education rather than spectacle. But if SeaWorld's actions are any indication, the killer whales are still one of the biggest revenue generators for the company. Until the public pressure is cranked enough that it's more profitable to retire than animals than keep them—or laws force the company's hand—SeaWorld isn't likely to adopt major changes.

Clarification: the lede to this story originally made reference to trainers performing in the water with whales. This was banned in 2014. The lede has been changed for clarity.