SeaWorld, a company that’s been floundering since the controversial documentary “Blackfish,” is making a sea change.
SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced Thursday that the company will halt killer whale breeding, end its theatrical orca shows and double down on conservation and rescue efforts. And it’s partnering with a longtime adversary, the Humane Society, to do it.
All signal a massive shift for one of San Diego’s top employers and taxpayers. The company that’s long been synonymous with Shamu will eventually be without its headline attraction.
“This decision today is so monumental for us,” Manby said in a call with reporters Thursday. “A lot of people don’t realize how difficult it is even internally it is for us to make this change.”
Indeed, the company contested the state Coastal Commission’s demand last year that it halt orca breeding in exchange for the regulator’s approval of a new orca enclosure at SeaWorld San Diego.
Now it’s changing course.
Here are some takeaways on what the movement means for one of San Diego’s most influential companies – and for San Diego.
SeaWorld’s new approach means it also needs new, dynamic attractions.
SeaWorld’s carved out a niche for itself as a marine-animal park with some rides and an animal you can’t see elsewhere: the killer whale. It’s long said the orca is a key reason people visit.
The park’s new strategy means SeaWorld San Diego should retain the orcas it has for at least a couple decades and will display them in a new way. Rather than hold theatrical shows, it’ll feature them in a more natural setting where visitors can watch them hunt and play, and learn about their plight in the wild.
Theme-park experts previously told me a shift like this would help acknowledge changing public notions about holding orcas in captivity. But they’ve also suggested SeaWorld needs to come up with an attraction that replaces the orcas, or risk future struggles.
“My feeling is that they would lose their key point of differentiation,” UCLA business professor Jason Snyder said in 2014. “They’re starting to become closer to an amusement park and a zoo, and one can get those experiences at other competitors, probably better.”
Manby acknowledged as much Thursday. Lessons about animal welfare and marine wildlife won’t resonate with families for an entire day, he said. “You have to balance it.”
Manby suggested adding more rides could help and late last year, said he planned to shift some money toward a yet-to-be-announced attraction in San Diego.
But SeaWorld’s current agreements with the city limit the possibilities.
The city’s SeaWorld lease and master plan 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.
SeaWorld’s following in zoos’ footsteps.
Decades ago, many zoos hosted theatrical shows similar to the ones SeaWorld’s emphasized. Shows featuring chimpanzees or elephants performing human-like hijinks were popular when SeaWorld was founded in 1964.
Zoos scaled back on the shows and more recently, many have also gotten rid of their large, lovable elephants amid concerns about their welfare and often relatively small enclosures.
In the face of intense “Blackfish” blowback, SeaWorld has stuck with the shows and its orcas – until now.
Manby said SeaWorld’s making the change because it’s realized public perceptions have changed. It’s also conducted studies to gauge visitor interest in more educational approaches.
“The guests just want to observe and learn and we don’t need all these ‘theatrical tricks,’” he said.
Manby said the company’s decision to shift away from orca shows could foreshadow changes to those featuring dolphins and other animals, too.
“We are definitely going to look at how this executes and we’re definitely going to learn from it,” Manby said.
I asked Jeffrey Hyson, a professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia who’s spent years researching the history of zoos worldwide, how this might bode for SeaWorld.
He said SeaWorld’s new framing of its mission and animal displays moves it in a more zoo-like direction.
The challenge SeaWorld has that zoos didn’t, Hyson said, is that SeaWorld visitors have a greater expectation that they’ll be entertained.
“It’s still SeaWorld and because it’s SeaWorld visitors go to it not to learn about wildlife,” he said. “They go to have fun – and they pay to have fun.”
SeaWorld’s working with its critics after years of fighting.
SeaWorld’s engaged in heated battles with its critics for years. Now it’s doing what many of them want.
Many were instantly supportive on Thursday.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who introduced the so-called Blackfish Bill in 2014, which aimed to end orca breeding, celebrated on Twitter:
— Richard Bloom (@RichardBloom) March 17, 2016
The Animal Welfare Institute, which has been a top critic, gave the company kudos.
And Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle even joined Manby in multiple press appearances. Manby, who took the helm at SeaWorld last April, said he decided the past battles were a distraction.
“It wasn’t worth fighting that,” Manby said. “We needed to move where society is going.”
That’s not to say all the fighting is over. PETA said on Twitter that it had won round one of its war against SeaWorld but called on the company to hold its 24 orcas in sea pens, enclosed ocean sanctuaries that would offer an experience more similar to what they’d enjoy in the wild.
#SeaWorld must open tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive to have some semblance of a life outside their prison tanks
— PETA (@peta) March 17, 2016
With Pacelle at his side Thursday, Manby said doing so could endanger the orcas.
San Diego has a big stake in whether this succeeds.
SeaWorld isn’t just a major taxpayer and employer in San Diego. The company’s lease with the city also guarantees the city gets more cash when business is good.
SeaWorld pays the city millions of dollars each year in rent for its plot on Mission Bay. As SeaWorld’s struggled, the city’s seen less money coming in.
Lease payments, which are based on a host of the park’s revenues, fell 16 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the city data.