Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

SeaWorld Reinvents Itself In Face Of Growing 'Blackfish' Scrutiny


SeaWorld will end its theatrical Shamu shows in San Diego in about two years. The orcas will remain on exhibit in what the company describes as a more natural setting. Revenue at SeaWorld is down. Attendance is falling. The company blames a number of factors - increased competition, the weather. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, it also concedes the documentary "Blackfish" has had an impact.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For decades, big killer whale shows have been the marquis attractions at SeaWorld parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We are one world united by one ocean.

ALLEN: The current show in San Diego, One Ocean, is a multimedia production featuring videos, music, an environmental message, along with orcas and their trainers.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Every whale has a unique personality, so we connect them in many different ways. But all of our whale share one thing in common. They love to splash. Are you ready to get splashed?

ALLEN: For years, the climax of the show was a trainer launched 30 feet into the air off the nose of a killer whale. SeaWorld personnel haven't been in the water, though, with orcas since 2010. That was the year trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca in Orlando. Brancheau's death and SeaWorld's treatment of its captive killer whales was the subject of "Blackfish," a 2013 documentary.

That film, shown repeatedly on CNN, had a profound impact on how the theme park is percieved by the public. SeaWorld has spent millions of dollars on ads and social media to restore its reputation, and the company says those efforts are working. But this week, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby made an announcement to a group of Wall Street analysts. Manby said by 2017, SeaWorld will end its big theatrical killer whale show and replace it with what he calls a new orca experience.

JOEL MANBY: It's going to be focused more on the natural setting, the natural environment and the natural behaviors of the whale. And it'll have a strong conservation message.

ALLEN: That's true only in San Diego, a park where attendance has dropped the most recently. Manby says SeaWorld's decision has nothing do with its critics.

MANBY: We didn't do anything in San Diego because of the activists. We did it 'cause we were hearing it from our guests. Our - you know, frankly, the activists aren't going to be pleased with anything that we do.

ALLEN: SeaWorld has encountered a number of challenges recently and not just with animal rights activists. Last month, California's coastal commission said the company could only go forward with the planned expansion of its killer whale habitat in San Diego if it agrees to stop breeding orcas. That's something the company refuses to do. It's put expansion plans on hold there were while it challenges the ruling. The move to end theatrical shows in San Diego hasn't appeased SeaWorld's critics. They want the company to stop breeding orcas and move them to sea pens or other large protected sanctuaries. Wayne Pacelle is president of the Humane Society of the United States.

WAYNE PACELLE: I wouldn't even call it a half-measure. It's a smaller increment than that, but it does signal that SeaWorld recognizes that business as usual is not in the cards for the company.

ALLEN: Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, has a bill he plans to introduce soon that would ban killer whale captive breeding. He thinks with this announcement, SeaWorld is taking a step toward phasing out its used of captive orcas.

ADAM SCHIFF: I think they're going to have to go much farther, though. I don't think the public is going to be satisfied with keeping these animals confined, even if they're not exhibited the way they have been in the past.

ALLEN: SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby says the theme park's new strategy is to, quote, "inspire people to protect animals and the wild wonders of the world." Unfortunately for SeaWorld, that inspiration to protect is always what's powering its critics. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.