SeaWorld isn’t just another company in San Diego.

It’s one of the city’s largest employers, and one of its most significant sources of income in the form of tax hauls and rent payments.

But in the last year it’s  been forced into an emotionally fraught moral debate about its treatment of killer whales, the very creatures it’s long celebrated and personified in popular Shamu shows and exhibits.

For almost two months, I’ve been on a quest to uncover what SeaWorld and “Blackfish” – the critical documentary fueling concerns about SeaWorld’s business model and holding of orcas in captivity – mean for a city that’s so tethered to the company’s success here.

SeaWorld is ingrained in our community. Tens of thousands of county residents have worked there and about as many Southern California students go on field trips there each year. Meanwhile, boosters sell SeaWorld as a reason to visit San Diego. The company and its executives donate significant cash to local politicians. They also share their perspectives on powerful nonprofit boards, and help rehabilitate hundreds of injured or emaciated animals along our coastlines each year.

All of that adds up to some even larger moral quandaries: San Diegans no doubt benefit from SeaWorld’s financial success and some of its contributions here — but is it worth it? Should we support a company whose star attraction may be suffering in captivity?

These aren’t questions I can answer for you. Some readers say they’ll never return to SeaWorld; others remain proud pass holders. But what we’ve uncovered along this journey might help shape your perspective.

Here’s a look at what we learned about SeaWorld’s place in San Diego –  and how “Blackfish” could change it.

What “Blackfish” Claims About SeaWorld

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• The 2013 film argues the tanks SeaWorld houses its orcas in can make the animals become hyper-aggressive shorten their lives. The documentary also contends SeaWorld doesn’t do enough to protect its trainers, particularly following the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau.

A U.S. Appeals Court panel partly echoed the latter accusation in a Friday ruling that keeps SeaWorld trainers out of the water during Shamu shows.

• SeaWorld kept virtually silent immediately following the documentary’s release but has since waged an aggressive campaign to fight its claims.

SeaWorld the Economic Generator

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• SeaWorld San Diego has hosted more than 4 million annual visitors each of the past two years.  The theme park employs 2,500 to 4,500 people, depending on the season. It houses about 27,000 animals, including 10 killer whales.

• SeaWorld leases 190 acres of land and water in Mission Bay Park, which is owned by the city. Last year, it paid the city about $14 million in rent, a sum based on cuts of 19 different revenue sources. This means that the city has a direct stake in the company’s success.

• SeaWorld brings in more than just lease revenue. It’s one of the city’s 10th largest property taxpayer and the city collects significant sales tax hauls from spending there.

What SeaWorld Offers San Diego

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• Last year, SeaWorld rehabilitated almost 440 marine animals, many of them ailing sea lions. SeaWorld initially wouldn’t reveal the cost of those rescues but the park president said last week the company spent about $750,000 on local efforts in 2013, a sum that equals .05 percent of the corporation’s total 2013 revenue.

• Last year, more than 87,000 Southern California students and chaperones went on a low-cost SeaWorld field trip and thousands more invested in longer visits or educational camps. SeaWorld says the outings help achieve the park’s educational mission. But youngsters’ early exposure to SeaWorld is also a big marketing tool for the theme park.

How “Blackfish” Is Affecting SeaWorld

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

• The movie inspired a state Assembly bill that aims to end captive breeding programs and killer whale shows. It would move SeaWorld San Diego’s 10 killer whales to sea pens, though no one is sure how that would work.

A state Assembly committee put that state legislation on pause last week. The company testified that it would devastate the park and possibly expose the state to lawsuits. Oh, and SeaWorld’s lobbyist suggested that halting the killer whale shows would be the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for whales.”

• “Blackfish” debuted on CNN and Netflix late last year but SeaWorld executives said last month the movie had yet to affect attendance. Monthly lease payments – which are based on SeaWorld revenues –seemed to support that claim.

Then preliminary numbers released in early April showed attendance at all 11 SeaWorld-owned parks was down 13 percent in the first quarter of this year. SeaWorld executives had largely predicted this decrease due to a late Easter holiday and the shuttering of some of its facilities during the winter.

Still, “Blackfish” may have played some role in that drop. It’s just not clear how much.

SeaWorld’s Political Pushes

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

• SeaWorld is a major political force in San Diego. The company, its federal political action committee and its executives have donated thousands to local politicians in recent years. Company leaders also serve on influential San Diego nonprofit boards, including the Taxpayers Association, the Economic Development Corp. and the Chamber of Commerce, three groups that publicly backed the company in the midst of “Blackfish” bill debate.

• About 15 years ago, SeaWorld had a significant victory at the polls. Voters narrowly approved an exemption to the city’s coastal 30-foot height limit. This allowed SeaWorld to build attractions up to 160 feet tall.

The Big Moral Quandaries

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• “Blackfish” raised significant ethical quandaries about SeaWorld’s killer whales that have touched thousands in San Diego and beyond. The movie fueled such deep, continuous questioning that the corporation was forced to defend itself in an elaborate marketing campaign and most recently, an almost minute-by-minute review of alleged falsehoods in the film.

The public examination seems unlikely to die down anytime soon.

Some viewers come away from “Blackfish” questioning whether any wild animals should be held in captivity, particularly creatures as intelligent as orcas.

• Many folks who pan SeaWorld still support zoos. That’s thanks to a few crucial distinctions. Zoos – including San Diego’s world-famous one – are often nonprofits, while SeaWorld is a publicly traded corporation. And while zoos also show off animals in shows and displays, their approach usually differs. Zoos tend to show off the animals’ natural behavior while more elaborate shows are a hallmark of SeaWorld’s brand.  Killer whales catapult out of the water, splash visitors and even dance with their trainers

• SeaWorld itself helped foster this moral debate: The company has long personified its killer whales and taught us about their social sophistication.  But the more people come to associate orcas with complex thoughts and emotions, the more likely they are to think they deserve humane treatment.

• Current and former SeaWorld San Diego fans who’ve seen “Blackfish” explained why they’ve decided to stick with SeaWorld or stop going.

What’s Next

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• SeaWorld has long been synonymous with its mascot, Shamu. At one time, the park estimated about 90 percent of park visitors saw a Shamu show and that the orca drew in the majority of its visitors.

“Blackfish” has led many to question whether SeaWorld should move on without Shamu. A handful of former theme-park executives and consultants told me SeaWorld could survive, and even thrive over the long haul, without the killer whale if it can come up with something better. (That’s a big if – but another Southern California park has already done it.)

Such a shift could be more challenging in San Diego. SeaWorld’s agreements with the city require that at least 75 percent of its attractions contain a significant education or animal-conservation focus  and many San Diegans have long opposed the idea of a ride-heavy theme park on Mission Bay.

Then there’s the fact that SeaWorld isn’t interested in changing its model.

Lingering Questions

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• Will “Blackfish” start affecting SeaWorld attendance and thus, San Diego tourism? The film went viral late last year so any impacts are likely to emerge in 2014.

• Will the “Blackfish” bill return and if so, how might it change? Many Capitol observers considered its tabling last week a form of slow death but Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who sponsored the legislation, vowed to press on.

If the bill gets revisited, San Diego support – particularly from Speaker-elect Toni Atkins – will be crucial. If San Diego Democrats get behind the bill, SeaWorld may be forced to the negotiating table.

• What do SeaWorld’s conservation and research efforts, particularly associated with its nonprofit arm Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, contribute to our region and to scientific knowledge of killer whales? The company has repeatedly pointed to this work as a major benefit of captivity. Assembly members last week requested related details when (or if) the bill returns to the Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife.

• Could SeaWorld eventually relent and end its orca shows, or perhaps even get rid of its killer whales? Theme-park gurus tell me SeaWorld’s attendance trends in coming months could be a driving factor.

If numbers fall, the company may be motivated to shift.

• OK, now I’ve got a few questions for you. What have you learned about SeaWorld and “Blackfish” in the last several weeks? Is there something you’re still wondering about?

And finally, do SeaWorld’s local contributions outweigh the accusations about its treatment of killer whales? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous storySeaWorld’s Tentacles of Influence.

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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