Is SeaWorld Freeing the Whales at Last?

Be Careful What You Wish For

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.” 
― George S. Patton

August 20, 2014 4:43 PM CST This article has been modified from its original form to reflect more accurate data on the Southern Resident captures.

Many people agree that history has a tendency to repeat itself. Different people with different names, locations, and dates change. Human morality seems to remain the same. Perhaps we can predict the future by looking at Marineland of the Pacific and how their corporate parent company disposed of the marine park and its employees in 1987.

Photo Credit: Daily Breeze

Photo Credit: Daily Breeze

On January 20, 1987, as dusk fell, Marineland quietly drained the pool where Orky and Corky lived. Under floodlights Gaile Laule jumped into the tank for one last swim with the orca. According to Gaile in Nina Easton’s Los Angeles Times article “their agitation was palpable. A huge crane was moved into position and a stretcher was lowered into the tank. It was as if Orky knew what to do as the stretcher was placed beside him. Gaile tapped him on the head and he moved into position. Corky remained frantic as his partner of 18 years was loaded onto the stretcher. Corky attempted to throw herself into the stretcher to be with Orky. As Orky was lifted out of the pool, Laule reports that Corky screamed in desperation, a sound she had never heard before”.

Public Relationship Nightmare for SeaWorld’s Parent Harcourt

Easton goes on to explain in the LA Times article that sometime around midnight both whales were loaded into trucks and a convoy was en route to SeaWorld San Diego. SeaWorld had solved their breeding problem by adding Orky and Corky to their collection. Within 3 days Marineland was closed, all employees were let go. It was a simple, quiet operation. Enraged employees, community members and LA Schools engaged in a bitter fight with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich threatening to boycott textbooks; which Executive Vice President Paul Jovanovich describes as “the worst public relations disaster in the 68 year company history”.

SeaWorld’s Parent Cancels Park Renovations

Photo Credit: ModernDayRuins.com

Photo Credit: ModernDayRuins.com

In December of 1986 Harcourt, SeaWorld’s then current owner, purchased California’s oldest aquatic park—Marineland of the Pacific in Rancho Palos Verdes. On December 26, 1986 two Harcourt executives met with Marineland and told them that they had no plans to close the 33 year old marine park, even though they were barely breaking even and were planning a massive restoration. On January 19, 1987 Harcourt closed the killer whale stadium for renovations and told employees that the whales were being transferred the next day. All employees were bound by a gag order, or risk losing their jobs. Two weeks later Harcourt cancelled their restoration plans realizing that the improvements would far exceed their initial estimate of $750,000, a minimum of $25M would be needed to complete the renovations. The park would close on March 1, 1987 for good. Marineland was the largest employer in Rancho Palos Verdes a city 50 miles southwest of Los Angeles. In this New York Times article “Harcourt said it received bomb threats after announcing its change of heart” which prompted Harcourt to close the entrance gates three weeks before they announced they were closing for good.

Harcourt-Seaworld’s Evolving Narrative

As Nina Easton points out in the article, at first Harcourt said economics were behind the closings of Marineland. Harcourt switched their narrative again and in a press release they stated that SeaWorld needed breeding stock. Shortly after that Harcourt said that the Marineland killer whale pools were too small for Orky and Corky and their lives were in danger by remaining at Marineland. Timothy J. Desmond, Marineland Parks Assistant Curator pointed out that that Orky and Corky had lived longer than any SeaWorld orca whose life expectancy at the time was only 8.5 years.

Superfan turned Activist

Bryant Winchell, a retired oil executive and long-time Marineland volunteer and super fan turned activist started Citizens to Save Marineland, a non-for-profit focused on keeping Marineland open. Hundreds of citizens joined his cause. They held rallies, demonstrations, signed petitions and grew their support base. They were a formidable opponent to Harcourt according to this  article written by Tim Waters on February 8, 1987. Citizens of Marineland lobbied Harcourt to keep Marineland’s animal care center open, which cared for sick and injured sea mammals and animals.

Seaworld Parent Harcourt Fires Executives

Nina Easton says that while Winchell attacked Harcourt from the outside, Harcourt was carefully strategizing their internal moves and clearly on the offensive. Marineland General Manager John Corcoran was headed to Orlando to discuss employee benefits in light of the closure. While he was gone things were changing in Rancho Palos Verde. Marineland’s Marketing Director was told she had until 5 PM to pack her belongings and was walked to the parking along with ten other employees. Their cars were searched and they were asked to leave the premises. In Orlando, Corcoran was asked to clean out his California office.

Marineland Employees Fired and Phony Bomb Scares

Marineland remained open for one more week after Corcoran was fired. According Easton in the LA Times on February 11, 1987 the remaining employees were called to the dolphin stadium. They were met by a SeaWorld employee, flanked with two large body guards, and were fired. Marineland was closing that day at 5:00 PM due to bomb threats. The police stated they had no complaints or calls from Marineland reporting any bomb threats. The Mayor of Palos Rancho Verde contends Harcourt created “phony bomb scares” to give them a reason to close the park down.

Five Animals Died After Transfer Took Place

Dolphin being trucked to Marineland in 1957. Courtesy Los Angeles Examiner, Courtesy USC Collection

Porpoise being trucked to Marineland in 1957. Courtesy Los Angeles Examiner, Courtesy USC Collection

A week after the last Marineland employee left they started shipping dolphins out of the park. Marineland trainers warned SeaWorld trainers about their star male dolphin “Sundance” they told SeaWorld that the dolphin could not be with other male dolphins. “Sundance” was a sub-dominant male. A week after “Sundance” was transferred to SeaWorld he was found with a crushed skull because he was put into a tank with other male bottlenose dolphins. A total of five animals died as a result of the Marineland transfers. Bryant Winchell contacted SeaWorld and was assured that all animals survived, when in fact that was untrue. Harcourt eventually accepted responsbility for the death of “Sundance”.

SeaWorld’s Parent Harcourt Pulls the Plug on the Animal Care Center

As a result of public pressure and activism in March of 1987 the threat of a textbook boycott was knocking on the door of Harcourt’s Corporate offices. Simultaneously activists were putting pressure on Harcourt to provide additional funding for the Marineland’s animal care facilty. Peter Jovanovich stated to Mayor Mel Hughes that they would allocate $250,000 to make improvements to the facility. Jovanovich appeared on television discussing the renovations but Mayor Hughes said he never heard from him again. They closed the animal care facility. In May, Jovanovich ended the battle and sold the facility to James G. Monahan an Arizona developer who had sold Circus World to Harcourt. Mayor Hughes contends they only wanted the whales.

Did SeaWorld Write Its Own Obituary?

In the last week we have witnessed astounding news that Seaworld’s earnings are not what they appeared and we witnessed the stunning collapse of their stock value. Jim Atchison attributed their poor earnings to activists and the documentary Blackfish. Forty-eight hours after their stock collapsed the public received news that SeaWorld was planning a massive expansion to their orca exhibits in all three facilities, San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio. The expansion is expected to run $100M per park and be completed by 2018.  The first park to be renovated is supposed to be San Diego with other parks following in 2019 and 2020. The expansion plans expand current habitats on property either owned or leased by SeaWorld, yet SeaWorld is refusing to stop their breeding programs.

Massive losses and Attendance Down

In their August 2014 10-Q filing SeaWorld revealed $12.5M in losses and attendance was down. They stated adverse publicity could ” generally could harm our brands, reputation and results of operations”, SeaWorld went on to say that they “We are subject to complex federal and state regulations governing the treatment of animals, which can change, and to claims and lawsuits by activist groups before government regulators and in the courts”, they admit the animals they feature put their employees and guests at risk and their employees will continue to be at risk. They said they can’t predict the cost of future liability insurance.

SeaWorld is saddled in debt, yet they will donate $10M in matching funds to go towards conservation projects along with plans to expand the existing Killer Whale tanks. SeaWorld claims they will fund new programs to protect ocean health and funding to go towards Killer Whale conservation, which would include the Southern Resident Killer Whales, such as the funding SeaWorld gave to the Sea Doc Society to develop necropsy protocol. However. this doesn’t necessarily mean they will fund wild Killer Whale research. Some of the $10M may go towards their own captive Killer Whale research. Grant it, these are all great efforts for the good of our oceans and Killer Whales, but the question remains, where will SeaWorld get the funding for all of this considering their dismal financial picture?

SeaWorld Won’t Appeal OSHA — No Permits on Files

On August 19, 2014 the Orlando Sentinel reported that SeaWorld would not appeal the recent OSHA ruling. Trainers will stay out the water permanently, which SeaWorld openly admits “is part of their brand”. A search of the California Coastal Commission records finds permits for various SeaWorld projects yet does not yield any permits or applications for SeaWorld expanding their existing orca habitats in San Diego.

What’s Next for SeaWorld

So what is next for SeaWorld? Atchison, SeaWorld CEO, stated in an earnings call this month that they have signed an agreement with Village Roadshow Media an Australian Theme Park and attractions conglomerate, to expand to Russia, Pan-Asia and India. With already announced expansion plans planned for the Middle East with another partner. Layoffs have to start sometime soon. Meanwhile PETA is buying shares of SeaWorld Stock (SEAS). Perhaps Seaworld will declare bankruptcy, close their parks in the US or simply reinvent themselves overseas. Fade away from the US market entirely and incorporate internationally. They would then be in a position to move all of their marine mammals offshore to countries that have little to no regulations for import or export of marine mammals, endangered species or otherwise.

According to Joe Kleiman a journalist covering the attractions industry, SeaWorld belugas could be moved to Georgia Aquarium and the Shedd Aquarium to fulfill their desire to obtain more beluga whales for their collections. A ruling on the Georgia Aquarium’s request to import Russian caught belugas is imminent. This would allow SeaWorld, once overseas, to collect the 18 whales form Russia. Dolphins, more easily transported, can be trucked and and flown to locations throughout the world to support the growing demand for swim with dolphin programs, and dolphin shows abroad.

The Orca’s that SeaWorld owns can leave the country, our Animal welfare laws do not prohibit SeaWorld from moving them out of North America. Another advantage for SeaWorld doing business overseas, animal welfare laws simply do not exist in these countries, nor do activists or animal advocacy groups. SeaWorld would be free to operate their business without any social or governmental constraints. SeaWorld would be free to collect marine mammals without obtaining NOAA permits.

Some SeaWorld superfans are positioned well with enough fan base to speak out against any marine park closures if that should happen. They could fill the shoes of Bryant Winchell quite easily.

No Fairy Tale Ending

Activists have been chanting for years “Shut SeaWorld Down” , “Empty the Tanks”, and “Free the Whales”. Perhaps their voices have finally been heard and maybe SeaWorld will grant their wish—the whales will get a one-way ticket to Russia and China.

If SeaWorld should start shipping their killer whales overseas I wonder if they will keep mothers and babies together in one shipping container?

Authors Note: Thank you to Kelly Brenneman-Hayward @kellysbiz for your contributions to this piece. 

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