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Three people. That's what SeaWorld's annual attendance is shaping up to be. Photo: Shutterstock

Three people. That’s what SeaWorld’s annual attendance is shaping up to be. Photo: Shutterstock


The Inertia

SeaWorld is in a world of trouble. They recently released their second quarter earnings, and I’ll be damned if the public hasn’t spoken. Their numbers are in the shitter.

Since 2014, their net income has dropped a staggering 84%, from just nearly $40 million to just under $6 million, while revenue dropped from around $405 million to $391 million.  And you know why? It’s because the number of people who want to see beautiful, giant animals locked up is dwindling. Let’s call it the Blackfish Syndrome.

Their earnings report blamed it all on “record levels of rainfall in Texas, the timing of Easter, and continued brand challenges in California.” In this case, “brand challenges” is probably referring to SeaWorld’s hesitance to free Willy and a large number of people in California are presently losing their shit about it.

But while it’s nice to pretend that SeaWorld could simply throw their orcas back in the ocean and have them all swim away, join a pod, and become happy, healthy members of orca society, it probably wouldn’t actually work out that well. So what can we do about it? Before you go any further, don’t expect an answer to that question. I have no idea. And no one else seems to, either. Boycott SeaWorld because we love the whales… but releasing the whales into the wild would probably not be very good.

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Many of their orcas were born in captivity, then separated from their mothers (although SeaWorld denies this, a former trainer said he knew of nearly 20 cases). In the wild, young orcas spend years at their mother’s side, learning to hunt. They spend their whole lives in the same pod. And since a whale born in captivity and then taken from their mother has neither a mother or a pod, it never learns to properly hunt. It doesn’t have the same social skills as a wild whale. There is even some concerns that the whale “languages” might be different. That one, though, is pure speculation. But dropping a whale born in captivity into the ocean would be akin to taking a 12-year-old kid from the city and dropping him off in the middle of the jungle with only his wits and mommy’s bank card, then expecting him to hook up with a native tribe and become a kick ass hunter before he died of starvation/animal attack/dehydration/exposure/injury.

The real start of SeaWorld’s decline started around the release of the film Blackfish, which you have heard of unless you live in a cave. If you do, here’s a quick rundown: Movie comes out. Movie makes SeaWorld look like shit. Everyone starts hating SeaWorld.

From there, a few things happened. California introduced a bill called the Orca Welfare and Safety act, which would ban keeping orcas in captivity. Although it never actually took effect, it added fuel to the fire. People began taking notice, and SeaWorld promptly shit their pants. According to the Dodo, after the bill was introduced, SeaWorld’s stock nose-dived seven percent. Then, just a few months later, their third quarter earnings came in, and they were down by 33%. Five months after that, their share price dropped below $16 for the first time. And you know why that last part happened? Because investors were so pissed that SeaWorld didn’t come right out and say that Blackfish pretty much screwed them that they sued. Things are looking pretty bleak when your own investors file a class-action lawsuit against you.

Now, one year later, not a whole lot has changed. People are still mad. SeaWorld is still struggling. Joel Manby, the CEO, chalks it all up to people being misinformed. “We recognize that fully resolving our brand challenges in California will require sustained focus and commitment to correct misinformation,” he said.

There’s an issue with that statement, though, and a pretty big one. “Misinformation” infers, of course, that there’s something wrong with the information the public is getting–and it appears that someone at SeaWorld is outright lying to the public. Here are a few examples:

They claimed that “the data we do have show that killer whales at SeaWorld are living as long as their counterparts in the wild.” This, of course, is backed up with a whole bunch of facts that basically say it’s unfair to compare the lifespan of a whale in captivity to the lifespan of a wild whale, even though their whales apparently live just as long. They say that the average lifespan of an orca is somewhere around 30 years for a female and 19 for a male. The NOAA, however, begs to differ. And it’s not like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a vested interest in lying about it, either. They say the average lifespan is 50 years for females and 30 for males, which, as any five-year-old will agree, is more.

Then SeaWorld released this super feel-good advertisement saying that their whales are “thriving.” Which, of course, is total bullshit.

I’m not a marine biologist, but it seems pretty obvious that if you take a giant whale and put it in a tiny tank, it’s not going to “thrive.” Beyond that, there are court documents floating around all over the place that prove SeaWorld has been administering whales with all sorts of weird shit like Valium.

In one particularly terrible incident, a 9-day-old calf named Nalani was attacked by two males. One of the attacking whales was Taku, her father, and the other was Taku’s half-brother Ikaika. Ikaika hd to be tranquilized when SeaWorld staff saw him trying to mate with Nalani. And here’s something strange: Both Taku and Ikaika were sons of Tilikum, the whale Blackfish focussed on. After all this happened, Nalani’s mother, Taku, and Ikiaika were all put on something called Diazepam, an addictive drug used to treat anxiety disorders. You’ve probably heard it called Valium. Whales in the wild don’t need Valium.

“I can respond with confidence that all of these medications are given as a result of problems associated with captivity,” Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist from the Animal Welfare Institute told the Dodo. “Wild orcas don’t get any medications at all and they seem to do just fine.”

In short, SeaWorld has got a major problem. More and more people are sitting up, taking notice, and demanding some kind of action. SeaWorld isn’t going anywhere–for a while, at least–and they can’t just up and release their whales into the wild, even if they wanted to. But with dwindling attendance, massive financial problems, and a bunch of whales stuck in pools with no survival training, no one is quite sure what the answer is… and that’s a scary thought.

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