Business

SeaWorld's Post Blackfish Syndrome

by Callie Enlow

September 12, 2014
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

It’s been a slow, slippery slide into ignominy for SeaWorld, but the past two years have plunged the company into a Mariana-sized trench of bad publicity—whether the animal theme park can resurface remains to be seen.

While SeaWorld and other marine parks have been accused of inhumane and unsafe practices for years (particularly damning are death rates of their animals in captivity), 2013 marked the beginning of a steep decline in the public concsiouness.

First came last year’s controversial yet widely watched documentary Blackfish, an investigation into the horrific killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by beloved orca whale star Tilikum that crescendoed into an indictment of SeaWorld’s business practices. The film left many viewers with the impression that orcas do not belong in captivity at all, no matter that those whales are the crowning attraction at SeaWorld’s parks in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio. Animal welfare advocates, in turn, amped up their protests of the park (many of which predated the film).

Then the company’s stock plummeted over the summer, down more than 30 percent for the year and missing its share projections by about 28 percent. The company also announced it expected a drop in revenue by six or seven percent for the year. This continued a negative attendance trend already felt in 2013

Orcas performing at SeaWorld in 1996. Photo via Roger Wollstadt

Initially, SeaWorld blamed the decline on anything but negative publicity. In March, SeaWorld’s CEO Jim Atchison insisted that the slow-down in visitors was simply due to bad weather, the way Easter fell both years, competition from other parks and other internal factors.

Yet more recently, Atchison has acknowledged that “media attention” has hurt the company, though the official line still ties this to now-tabled legislation in California that would ban orca shows rather than the documentary that inspired the bill.

That’s too little, too late for some SeaWorld investors. The company only went public in April, 2013, months after Blackfish premiered and its claims about animal maltreatment went public, though the documentary really gathered steam later in the year. Now a class-action lawsuit, led by investor Lou Baker, appears to be brewing, never a good sign for a public corporation's financial health. The complaint is that SeaWorld failed to apprise new investors of the potential impact from the documentary and the park practices the film targeted. Secondarily, Baker resents SeaWorld’s attempt to sidestep Blackfish in explaining sliding profits and attendance in 2013 and 2014. Baker also points a finger at SeaWorld’s biggest investor, Blackstone, which bought the park in 2009 and owned all of its equity until its IPO. As of mid-August, Blackstone had cut its shares to 22 percent. The complaint alleges that Blackstone must have known both of SeaWorld’s image problem and of attempts to mislead other investors.

Orca near the San Juan Islands. Photo via Carlicharters.com

But while SeaWorld suffers, the plight of orcas—an endangered species—may be improving. Blackfish is now being used in classrooms to discuss the ethics of animals in captivity. In addition to the California bill, one in New York was introduced this year as well (albeit controversially). The Orca Conservancy benefit concert, headlined by Heart and Joan Jett, sold out this year. SeaWorld itself has announced plans to radically expand and improve its orca habitats, projected to go into effect in 2018—if the company, and its orca entertainment, can last that long. 

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SeaWorld's Post Blackfish Syndrome