SeaWorld kicked off its 50th anniversary Friday and seemed determined to show it’s thriving despite a critical documentary and a state Assembly bill that could imperil its longtime business model.

The park’s animals and a handful of human guests played prominently in the Friday ceremony, which commenced 18 months of promotional efforts as well as the unveiling of a new exhibit and entryway into the park.

The festivities inside the park were all about SeaWorld’s positive contributions but the specter of “Blackfish” wasn’t far away. Just a couple hours after SeaWorld supporters cheered the idea of another 50 years in San Diego, protesters gathered outside the park, urging the company to stop holding killer whales in captivity.

Here are some takeaways from SeaWorld’s big party.

SeaWorld execs are on the defensive – and want you to know how much they help animals in the wild.

If there was a consistent theme throughout Friday’s ceremony, it was SeaWorld’s somewhat defensive push to remind everyone how it helps marine mammals who don’t live at the theme park.

The 2013 film “Blackfish” criticized SeaWorld’s care of its killer whales and argued keeping the animals in captivity doesn’t benefit the species.

Footage of wild animal rescues dominated videos shown to the dozens of pass holders who gathered for the Friday event, and every speaker affiliated with the company emphasized SeaWorld’s research and rescue work. All seemed to be at least partly responsive to the recent focus on the potential harm of captivity and accusations that SeaWorld doesn’t make a significant investment in research or conservation.

Bill Shedd, whose father helped found the nonprofit Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, played up the conservation and research work of the SeaWorld-affiliated nonprofit.

“You see, SeaWorld has been giving back quietly behind the scenes for the ocean community, to the city of San Diego, into the ocean world, even before it existed,” Shedd said. “Now, 50 years ago, that was just not done.”

Later, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens animal ambassador Julie Scardina said the animals who live at SeaWorld have helped the park understand and research those that live in the wild.

“Animals in the wild count on us as much as the animals that we care for do,” she said.

SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison reiterated the point, saying scientists who visit SeaWorld are sometimes inspired to do field work.

“They are the ones that leave at a moment’s notice to help with a mass pilot whale stranding. They are the ones who stay up all night bottle-feeding a rescued orphaned seal pup,” Atchison said. “They are the ones who stay away from their families for days on end to rescue a manatee out of a drain pipe.”

Shedd got more pointed with me after the ceremony.

“The guys that are out there from (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) or wherever that are shouting about the ocean and the need to help – those aren’t the guys that are out there getting dirty, getting wet, putting the effort out to look after the animals,” Shedd said. “They’ve got a megaphone but they’ve got no ability or talent or real interest to actually help an animal or understand what the real need is of an ocean animal.”

SeaWorld isn’t about to abandon Shamu.

With the so-called Blackfish bill looming, killer whale images and videos were all over Friday’s promotional ceremony.

The killer whale was the most prominent animal featured on a massive 50th anniversary sign backdrop for the Friday ceremony. A look back at SeaWorld’s history shown on large, high-definition screens was bookended by footage of a trio of the park’s orcas jumping out of the water in unison. Orkid, a killer whale who lives at the San Diego park, made a video appearance.

When the ceremony ended, a worker dressed in a Shamu costume waved and hugged children as they walked through the park’s newly revamped entry way.

Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins appears to be on the SeaWorld bandwagon.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Since a Democratic Santa Monica assemblyman introduced the Blackfish bill, politicos have wondered whether the state Assembly’s soon-to-be highest-ranking official would support it.

Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, whose district includes SeaWorld, said earlier this month she would “carefully consider all the issues and opinions surrounding this legislation.”

But she was one of the most prominent officials to speak at the Friday bash – and though she didn’t address the bill, her presence was telling.

She described SeaWorld as “an incredible community asset” and presented company executives with a resolution honoring the park and declaring March SeaWorld San Diego Anniversary Month.

Atkins detailed SeaWorld’s local contributions and ended her brief remarks with: “Happy birthday, SeaWorld. Fifty years looks great on you.”

She declined an interview with VOSD shortly after her speech.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – That Time SeaWorld Tried to Slash Its Rent by 70 Percent – and the next in our series  SeaWorld’s Education Programs Benefit Students – and SeaWorld.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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