Social media, green movements (ala Sea Shepherd), and the documentary ‘Blackfish’ have put a bad name out there for the once grand amusement park. I’m not saying they don’t deserve it: I cringe at the appalling conditions these performance animals have to endure. But the story is out. Kids know that it is a bad place, and that is really bad for business. If SeaWorld continues on its current course, it is doomed to failure. I would give them less than five years. They are bleeding money and no amount of corporate P.R. will save them. What SeaWorld needs is a fundamental shift to their core – and they need to move now.
We take for granted the images of SCUBA divers and the underwater realm nowadays. But in 1961 things were quite different. So it was a surprise when the newspaper, The San Diego Union ran an image of a diver surrounded by fish with the caption – A Playground for Citizens of Land and Sea (Friedersdorf 2014). This was before Jacques Cousteau became a household icon with his red cap. Lloyd Bridges was one of the few who brought the mystery of the deep to television homes with the series Sea Hunt.
Founder Milton Shedd and his partners ‘ideas were in line with the notion of entertainment from the sixties:
These visions and more adorned the pages of the proposal that landed them the competition to Disneyland. As a child I remember throwing a tantrum for going to Disneyland and not the nearby Sea World. I wanted to see Shamu and watch the dolphins arc out of the water to touch the red dangling ball that magically appeared overhead.
In that day and age entertainment often attempted to anthropomorphize the animal kingdom. Whether it was shows like Flipper or Lassie, we laughed at monkeys dressed up as human spies and pink frilly dresses and horses that talked to their owner. From a Socio-cultural perspective, Sea World was simply staying in step with the American notion that animals were on the Earth for our pleasure and amusement.
For SeaWorld, the vision hasn’t changed much – but society has.
Milton Shedd’s core idea still holds water:
Your investment in SeaWorld is a means by which you can participate in the public’s ever-growing fascination and curiosity about the marine environment.
The entire notion of entertainment in society has changed, but its fascination and curiosity about the marine environment has not. This wonder of the aquatic realm is alive and well. Indeed, our connected world has opened the minds of young and old alike to the discussions about:
Rather than have SeaWorld pay a passing homage to the conversation, they need to become leaders in movements toward conservation, education and awareness. They need to take a page from successful aquariums like those found in Georgia, Baltimore, and – yes – their own home town – San Diego.
I’ve seen the magician saw a lady in half, and pull a rabbit out of a hat. I don’t want to see it anymore. Though I extend this request to all Aquariums around the world, it is time to stop the hackneyed dolphin and whale shows. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a musical element with dance and fun. I love to see children in rapture over a great production, but not at the expense of wildlife. There are enough divers and synchronized swimmers, apnea divers, and SCUBA enthusiasts who would love to put on a show. I’m all for that. Add lights and surround sound – please! But when it comes to sea lions, dolphins, whales, penguins, or any other animal that have to perform tricks for fish – it is time to say no.
Living near Atlanta I frequent the Georgia Aquarium. In one section there is large room that is dimly lit. A huge transparent window exposes a vast aquarium with whale sharks, rays, tuna, skates, and many other forms of sea life. Do they do tricks? You bet! But they are all part of what they would do in the wild. They are not poked, prodded or otherwise cajoled into entertaining the throngs that pass through that wonderful room. They are just acting naturally. And that is all they need to do.
These days, I am entertained by the children who go up to the large window and, placing both hand on the acrylic, stare in wonderment. These children, who otherwise wiggle and jiggle like a bowl of jello, are transfixed by animals doing what they would do in the wild.
SeaWorld has the capacity, right now, to set up such places throughout the park. You can’t get this on T.V. or the internet. This is the best reality show around – and people will pay for it.
David Quammen, environmentalist and author, wrote in his book “Song of the Dodo” about a trip he took to see some of the largest carnivorous lizards on earth. He walked along a platform to a large spherical cage. Looking in the cage he expected to see the lizards. There were none. The guide invited him and the others to enter the cage. Reluctantly he obliged. The guide then threw some meat into the surrounding jungle. Within a minute the large beasts covered the outside of the cage. Though I disagree with the means by which the park attracts the lizards, I’m in favor of isolating the humans and letting the animals roam free.
For SeaWorld, this means flooding a larger portion of the park and providing tunnels and throughways for families to explore all that’s going on. After all – this is SeaWorld. Engineering such an environment is technically challenging. Many entertainment facilities try to hide the infrastructure it takes to create the fantasy world. But folks like Disney – who have learned to adapt, evolve and lead the amusement park entertainment industry – have found profit in “behind the scenes” tours.
I’ve had the opportunity to dive the EPCOT aquarium and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. I’ve been to the “fish hospital” at the Georgia Aquarium. For me, this is just as wonderful as the spectacle and fantasy of the commercial sections.
Don’t hide what you do. SeaWorld has to break the myth that there is a dark secret. This is one way to do that.
Why do I dive? Jacques Cousteau. Ask any other diver who influenced them to become SCUBA divers and more than half (especially if they are over thirty) will say Jacques Cousteau. Here was an individual who took his passion, turned it into a career, evangelized and educated the world, and elevated it until it became a movement.
Of course with any facility like SeaWorld there will be an educational component. There has to be. But it has to go beyond that. To polish the tarnished name of SeaWorld, the company has to become innovators and lead the charge toward restoring the health of the very environment that sustains them. Why not set up a section of the park where people can see coral farmers raising endangered antler coral that will be used to rebuild the ravaged sections of Key Largo? What research is necessary to help develop tuna farms so we can enjoy sushi on a Sunday afternoon?
I’ve paid money around the world to see turtle farms and hospitals nurse these ambassadors of the sea to health. For those that cannot be returned to wild, what better place than SeaWorld to show the public the dangers of plastic bags and mono-filament line on our ecosystem. And while we’re on that subject - how about a plastic free park? That not only sends a message, but makes the janitorial staff much happier!
I’d take it even farther – how about hosting a hyperbaric chamber or three? Given the reduction in such facilities due to corporate greed and insurance headaches, this would send a clear message to the diving community that you aren’t a clown in a fish outfit.
How about donating office space for PADI, DAN (Diver Alert Network) and Project Aware among others? By centralizing research, conservation and education geographically, you establish SeaWorld as the Mecca for research and development. With SeaWorld Facilities it would be possible to hose DEMA (the Dive Expo), scientific symposiums, and conventions. Add to this a full agenda of Kids Camps and SeaWorld would have a revolving door of professionals, scientists, children and their families participating in a full calendar of activities.
Ask any Dive shop how they manage and they’ll tell you the three components which keep them live:
2) Equipment Sales
It is this third leg – travel – that SeaWorld needs to adopt as part of its expansion and redesign. Interestingly, this modification requires much less investment for a huge return. I’m not inferring that SeaWorld should compete with the dive travel market. That is a losing proposition. Dive tribes are tight and strong and will continue to provide meaningful adventures all on their own.
What I suggest is that SeaWorld sponsor trips that involve the community paying to attend. The art comes by carefully crafting entertainment, research, and education where families can become part of the purpose of the adventure. This goes beyond the “entertain me” mentality of most cruise ships. If you really want to “get out there” you should also “do something.”
For instance, why not sponsor a sailboat cruise to Florida with scientists to assist in the release of a rehabilitated porpoise. How about a cruise to an island where kids can help with fish identification? It doesn’t take long for one to consider the possibilities. From hover boats on the Everglades to whale watching off Alaska there are opportunities to brand the corporate name to positive activities. Pretty soon, people will look for SeaWorld sponsored events.
Rosser Reeves was an advertising genius who came up with such slogans as “Mmm mmm good” for Campbell’s soup and “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” for M&Ms. He is also quoted as saying “a picture can destroy a thousand words.”
Blackfish was the movie that exposed SeaWorld for its horrible treatment of the animals that brings in its revenue. Beyond that SeaWorld continues to fail. The word is out. If it is to remain viable, it has to change. No alteration in corporate structure, or leaders will make any difference unless the core operation changes.
Corporate sponsors like Panama Jack Sun Tan Lotion have pulled from SeaWorld.
SeaWorld has a bad name and in the world of social media, this is a death knell. Entire sites are devoted to SeaWorld’s demise. Consider these facts from the website www.seaworldofhurt.com.
Orcas at SeaWorld spend most of their time floating listlessly at the surface of the water with little to no shade from the hot blistering sun. In the wild, orcas spend up to 95 percent of their time submerged and would find shade in the depths of the ocean, but at SeaWorld their tanks are far too shallow. Their deepest tank is 40 feet deep—not nearly deep enough to give them a reprieve from the harsh elements. Because of this, orcas have perpetual sunburns, which are shielded from the public eye with the help of black zinc oxide, which matches their skin. Although zinc oxide is also used as a sunblock, orcas almost always have sunburn before it is applied.
Five orcas currently at SeaWorld were kidnapped from their ocean homes, as were others who have since died. For example, Tilikum, a 32-year-old orca, was captured at the age of 2 by a marine “cowboy.” Tilikum wasn’t taken from his natural environment because he was injured—instead, he was torn away from his family against his will and confined to a small concrete tank for a hefty profit.
On January 11, 2012, the USDA issued an official warning to SeaWorld San Antonio for its “repeated failure to provide drain covers that are securely fastened in order to minimize the potential risk of animal entrapment”—a violation that resulted in the death of a sea lion.In March 2013, prompted by PETA’s complaint about a child who had been bitten by a dolphin at SeaWorld, the USDA conducted an investigation and cited the marine park for several violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including the use of expired surgical materials, some almost a decade old. The USDA also documented that a dolphin tank and the areas surrounding the orca performance tank were in disrepair and contained cracked and crumbling concrete and rusty beams that could pose a threat to the health and safety of both the animals and workers. The USDA pointed out that the unsafe conditions “might create a health risk if these pieces of concrete fall off into the pool and get ingested, or if they become abrasive” and that they “do not facilitate cleaning and disinfection.” (10 Things You Didn’t Know About SeaWorld n.d.)
The only way to save SeaWorld is change. Big change. Change to the core. Change that requires admitting who you were and who you will become. The best way to do that is to follow the steps outlined above and embrace those who you have most alienated. This means gaining approval from the likes of Paul Watson, Sylvia Earle, and the Cousteau dynasty. This means seeking out endorsements (after the changes are in place) of public scientific figures like Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Those movie stars who’ve laid claim as activists for the marine habitat like Leonardo diCaprio and George Clooney .
Okay – you may read and roll your eyes at the “pie in the sky” notion that SeaWorld could be resurrected into a positive role model. We’ve seen how corporations tend to carry their stink with them to the grave. But the original premise for the whole operation hinges on the public’s ever-growing fascination and curiosity about the marine environment which still holds true today. Though I am critical of SeaWorld there’s still a chance but the change won’t be easy. There is still a kid in me who has the vision for what it should be which is far from reality at the moment. It’s time to take the plunge.
Paul Rose is a writer, artist and avid SCUBA diver.
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