SeaWorld Is Floundering, But Will Not Give Up Its Orcas

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SeaWorld announced on Tuesday it would be laying off 320 employees across 12 of its theme parks, marking the second time in two years the company has massively downsized its staff.

According to an SEC filing submitted by SeaWorld, this recent round of layoffs is part of a “restructuring” plan aimed at reducing costs by approximately $65 million. This year, SeaWorld shares plummeted by 14 percent to an all-time low. Attendance fell by half a million guests in the second half of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015.

“In the third quarter our attendance was flat with total revenue per capita declined by 2 percent due to unfavorable park attendance and decline in international attendance in Florida,” SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby told investors yesterday.

It would be foolish, however, to ignore the sea change in public opinion that occurred since the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, which chronicled years of animal abuse at the park and revealed the darkest aspects of cetacean captivity. For many viewers, the name “Shamu” became synonymous with cruelty against the intelligent marine mammals.

The film told the story of Tilikum, SeaWorld’s most famous “killer whale,” who was brought to the park in 1983 after being captured in the wild. After decades of confinement, Tilikum brutally killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, and was involved in the death of two other SeaWorld employees.

During previous slumps, SeaWorld has attempted to blame the holidays, declining tourists from Latin America, and even the weather. In Florida, it’s possible that a combination of factors—a noted drop in Brazilian tourists, the Pulse nightclub mass-shooting, and a string of local tragedies, such as a fatal alligator attack at Disney World—has driven visitors away. But elsewhere across the nation, SeaWorld parks are undeniably floundering. Of North America’s top 20 theme parks, SeaWorld San Diego ranked 14th, yet was the only venue to see attendance decline in 2015.

In March of this year, SeaWorld made the surprising announcement that it would no longer breed captive orcas. The park also pledged to end its theatrical orca performances and replace them with shows that exhibited the whales’ “natural behavior.” Many cetacean activists saw this as a clever PR ploy to appease critics while also ensuring its revenue stream would not be harmed.

After Blackfish became a hit, SeaWorld responded to the documentary by calling it “propaganda” that “manipulates viewers emotionally.” But the company couldn’t deny the blow the film made to its brand name.

Still, although SeaWorld appears to be adjusting its business model, one thing isn’t changing. Currently, 23 orcas live at SeaWorld parks in the United States. At least 45 orcas have died at SeaWorld since the park opened in 1954. Despite calls from activists to “open the tanks” and release the whales into sea pens (which introduces a host of new problems), SeaWorld has no intention to relinquish its biggest attractions.

So while today’s announcement is good news for those who want to see the company hurting, don’t forget that 23 whales will likely live out their lives between concrete and four glass walls.

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