Hurricane Irma Vs. Florida Keys Dolphins

This image of Hurricane Irma’s projected track from the National Hurricane Center puts a bullseye on the Florida Keys. It may change course, but it is making me wonder what the various dolphin facilities in the Keys that keep dolphins in lagoons will do to protect their dolphins (Dolphin Research Center and Dolphin Connection, Theater Of The Sea, and Dolphins Plus).

The Florida Keys are now under an evacuation order. Leaving the dolphins in their net pens has risks (if the pens get torn up they can tangle up the dolphins and drown them). So does letting them out into open water, which is the preferred protocol, and the dolphins usually show up again looking to be fed. During Hurricane Andrew, DRC opened the gates. One dolphin, Anessa, chose never to return.

Of course, Miami Seaquarium, and Lolita, are also at risk. During Andrew a wall of water washed through the facility.

Especially dangerous times for captive marine mammals in Irma’s path of destruction.

 

 

SeaWorld’s Hubris

This Washington Post story does an excellent job of running through the timeline of SeaWorld’s public and private actions in response to Blackfish. And, yes, they shamelessly (and maybe illegally, it turns out) tied themselves in knots to reject or downplay any Blackfish effect, even while insiders sold shares:

In reality, the company was waging a serious campaign — and leveraging considerable money — against the “’Blackfish’ effect.”

The complaint accused the company of feeding employees lines to use regarding the film and instructing them to “dissuade family and friends” from watching. SeaWorld executives also hired a public relations firm to handle the criticism, and one executive reached out to ultimately 50 major film reviewers to discredit “Blackfish.”

In 2014, the company provided the funding for a website that also aimed to discredit the movie, and SeaWorld would also eventually task employees with infiltrating PETA and other animal rights groups.

But following the IPO, the company maintained the film was no cause for alarm and had not sparked backlash against the brand. On Aug. 29, 2013, a company executive told the Los Angeles Times “’Blackfish’ has had no attendance impact.” The same executive told Bloomberg SeaWorld “can attribute no attendance impact at all to the movie.”

To me, this sort of baldfaced denial is a powerful reminder of just how arrogant SeaWorld was (both its corporate culture and its leadership) following decades of profits and unthinking adulation. The old guard running the place really didn’t believe anything could touch them. And now they may be called to account.

As Goes Ringling Bros., So Goes SeaWorld?

Ringling goes under even though it was prepared to retire its elephants. Tweaking the model wasn’t enough. Take note, SeaWorld. Maybe ANY animal-based entertainment will struggle as audiences turn away from animals in cages and tanks:

“The circus was all about animals all along,” said Duncan Dickson, an associate professor at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “Now, can SeaWorld morph from an animal-based park into a thrill ride-based park? It’s to be seen. I think they need to be very cautious as they move along.”

SeaWorld has been building rides such as Mako, the tallest, fastest roller coaster in Orlando. The company is also focusing more on promoting conservation and rescue in its theme parks. The company said that this year it is investing in a diverse lineup of attractions, including rides inspired by animal rescues, virtual reality experiences, and new shows and events “that bring families together for meaningful vacations.”

Roller coasters are fine. But as long as there are orcas swimming around in pools for the next few decades, SeaWorld won’t be able to re-brand. The pressure to retire animals elsewhere will surely grow….

Russian Captive Dolphins Lead Lives Just As Miserable As Other Captive Dolphins

A Russian dolphin trainer, Sergei Kozhemyakin from Moscow, unburdens himself after a lifetime of working with captive dolphins. Not much of what he says is very surprising, but the important thing is that he is adding to a growing wealth of insider testimony regarding the realities for dolphins of life in an entertainment pool.

Morgan In Captivity

I was going through computer files the other day, and I came across an archive of stuff I have on Morgan at Loro Parque. I have always felt a sadness for Morgan, picked up off the Dutch coast in 2010 and now at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. (I wrote about Loro Parque in 2011, because that is where trainer Alexis Martinez was killed by a SeaWorld killer whale just a few months before Dawn Brancheau was killed in Florida).

You can read all about Morgan, and how she came to be at Loro Parque, here. The story has a lot of twists and turns, but the bottom line is that Morgan is a recently wild killer while who now finds herself owned by SeaWorld, and with her valuable wild DNA likely to become part of SeaWorld’s captive breeding mill.

Anyhow, I started clicking on some of the videos of Morgan (they are from 2013) and for some reason this video perfectly captured for me the banality and tedium of a once wild life that is now experienced in a confined pool, and devoted to entertaining holiday crowds. Teaching Morgan how to wave her tail just seems so pathetic and lame. And her energy level and affect seems to indicate she feels the same way. Good times.

The Dolphin Trainer Who Loved Dolphins Too Much

Last year, I connected with a dolphin trainer called Ashley Guidry, from Gulf World in Florida. Over the more than 10 years she worked with Gulf World’s dolphins she had come to find her love of the animals irreconcilable with the business of using them for profit-making entertainment.

I have always been interested in how trainers’ attitudes change over time, as they learn all the subtleties of the marine park business, and also develop deep bonds with intelligent, captive beings. Many trainers say “I love my animals” as a way of suggesting that the animals are doing fine in captivity; that their “love” means that everything is fine (because it would prevent them from condoning or tolerating practices that harm the animals).

However, I have long thought that what many trainers mean when they say “I love the animals” is really “I love working with the animals” or “I love having a deep relationship with the animals.” In other words, that being a trainer is about themselves and their desires, and not really about the animals and the animals’ welfare.

But Ashley Guidry provided an example of what truly loving the animals means: by walking away from a business that treats them like commodities, and telling the story. That takes guts and self-sacrifice. And real courage.

The story I wrote about Guidry and how her thinking about the dolphin show business changed has now been published at Longreads.com. Here is the original introduction I wrote for the story (cut from the published story for brevity’s sake–even on the web you can’t go on forever!). I am posting it here because it sets up Guidry’s story in the way that I framed it in my own mind:

This a story about empathy, about it’s power to connect us to animals, but also to suddenly change the way we think about animals and our relationships with them. It’s also the story of a stubborn, sassy, blonde named Ashley Guidry, and how her love and compassion for a dolphin calf turned her life, her career, and her view of herself completely upside down. Because it was empathy–and her undeniable compulsion to try and consider the world from the point of view of a little guy named Chopper–that unexpectedly dumped her into a morass of introspection, self-doubt, and painful self-discovery. In the end, Chopper changed her life for the very simple reason that she couldn’t change his.

Read the full story of Ashley Guidry’s change of heart here.

SeaWorld Had Problems Beyond Blackfish

Theme Park Insider publishes an excellent breakdown and analysis of SeaWorld’s attendance numbers since 2009. Here are the numbers for SEAS four largest parks:

SeaWorld Orlando
2009: 5.8 million
2010: 5.1 million
2011: 5.2 million
2012: 5.3 million
2013: 5.0 million

SeaWorld San Diego
2009: 4.2 million
2010: 3.8 million
2011: 4.2 million
2012: 4.4 million
2013: 4.3 million

Busch Gardens Tampa
2009: 4.1 million
2010: 4.2 million
2011: 4.2 million
2012: 4.3 million
2013: 4.0 million

Busch Gardens Williamsburg
2009: 2.9 million
2010: 2.8 million
2011: 2.7 million
2012: 2.8 million
2013: 2.7 million

You can see that the SeaWorld parks suffered their biggest attendance declines 2009-2010, before Blackfish. My guess is that the numbers reflect a combination of families feeling the pinch of the Great Recession plus the negative publicity that followed Dawn Brancheau’s death in February 2010. And attendance never really recovered, and then declined again in 2013 when Blackfish starts to hit the public consciousness (and attendance was off another 4.7 percent for the first nine months of 2014).

So why did SeaWorld’s numbers never make a recovery from 2010? Bad management, and a failure to come up with attractions that could compete with what other parks were rolling out, according to Theme Park Insider:

While other theme park companies have moved aggressively to develop new attractions and intellectual property in the wake of the Great Recession, the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks have stumbled through one challenge after another. The debuts of the two Manta roller coasters, in Orlando in 2009 and San Diego in 2012, provide the few bright spots during this period. Otherwise, the parks have suffered through construction delays on multiple new attractions, including missed projected open dates for major new drop towers in Williamsburg and Tampa.

Looking back through our Theme Park Insider reader ratings, I can’t find a single example of a new show debuting during this time period at any of these four parks that scored a higher reader rating than the show it replaced. In 2013, SeaWorld Orlando made what it called the largest capital investment in its history in opening Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. An effort to compete with the engaging and immersive environment of Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter land, SeaWorld chose to go with depicting what might be the most inhospitable environment on Earth: Antarctica. Sure, people love penguins, but SeaWorld’s technically innovative Antarctica ride left visitors spending too much time spinning around in low-light caverns with there were no penguins in sight, rather than spending time with cute new penguin character SeaWorld had created for the attraction. At the end of the ride, SeaWorld crafted a new, open display environment for its penguins, but doing show required keeping the guest areas in the exhibit so cold that few visitors could stand spending more than a moment or two looking at the pavilion’s most compelling attraction — the live penguins themselves.

Not good.

That said, I think the #BlackfishEffect has become a bigger part of the story in 2013-2014. Throw in the investor lawsuits, and ongoing grassroots opposition to killer whale entertainment, and it becomes clear that whoever comes in to replace Jim Atchison as CEO has a very complex puzzle to solve.

WashPost Wonkblog Charts The Blackfish Effect

Sure, sure. Correlation is not causation. But it’s still worth looking at and considering the correlation, so thanks Wonkblog.

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 3.52.31 PM

Here’s Wonkblog’s setup:

Jim Atchison, the chief executive of SeaWorld Entertainment, which operates SeaWorld theme parks, resigned Friday morning. Atchison’s departure comes on the heels of what has been a terrible year for the company. In the first nine months of 2014, SeaWorld’s revenue fell by more than seven percent, and its attendance dropped by nearly five percent.

The changing of the guard is likely the result of something that occurred in July 2013: namely, the release of the documentary “Blackfish.”

“Blackfish” was met with both critical praise and public uproar. The documentary depicted cruel treatment of the orca (or killer) whales that SeaWorld holds in captivity and features among its biggest attractions. It was seen widely. And the response has been paralyzing (even despite an effort to discredit the documentary).

Personally, I think that there is more going on with SeaWorld’s drop in attendance and share price crash than Blackfish (though I do think Blackfish and the investor lawsuits at least partly account for it). Consider, also, that SeaWorld has basically been offering the same show for 50 years, and today it is even less thrilling since trainers are no longer leaping off orcas. Throw in a general public sensibility that increasingly questions the exploitation of animals for entertainment (at circuses and zoos, as well as at marine parks), and you can see why Shamu might not have the same drawing power as Harry Potter World.

So, does Atchison’s departure signal that SeaWorld might be ready to make big changes? I did an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered today, to discuss Atchison’s ouster. I said I suspected the most likely change is that SeaWorld will over time start to move its killer whale entertainment business abroad to more willing audiences in Russia, Asia and the Middle East. But one thing I should have mentioned to Greg Allen, the reporter, is that the only certain signal that SeaWorld plans to reinvent itself and evolve away from killer whale entertainment as the core of its business and brand would be a cessation of killer whale breeding. No breeding means that eventually there will be no captive killer whales. Anything else is just spin aimed at somehow perpetuating the Shamu Show, whether here in the US or abroad.

Another Account Of Penn Cove

Peter Ward, a paleontologist, writes an account of his life in science. Part of his journey included working for Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin during the Penn Cove captures. Here is what he has to say about the experience:

In 1970 and 1971, I was part of the infamous Penn Cove (Washington) whale hunts. At that time the Puget Sound region, or its salmon-fishing community, despised the orca, which routinely ate half the salmon returning each year to spawn. Trapping was applauded. We encircled pods of 30 to 40 whales with seine nets thrown from fishing boats, and culled and captured with ropes the babies for aquaria. My job was to be in the water with the whales and separate mothers from their young. (I once found my leg down the throat of an enraged mother, who spit me out). Rumor had it the going price for an orca was $50,000. I was paid $50 a day.

But another part of my job was to dive down into the seine nets at night, should the whales try to break out. During those nights I learned more about fear than I ever wanted to know—down 40 feet in low visibility, with a dive light in one hand and a knife in the other to confront the poorly seen but certainly felt struggles of a gigantic, multi-ton behemoth fighting for its life in a heavy net, its massive tail thrashing through the blackness. We mostly succeeded in cutting the whales loose from the nets. But not always. That brought about shame, followed by rage, at myself, and at the greedy, voracious men who then, as now, make money from the incarceration of these intelligent creatures.

Following an expose of the hunts by Seattle TV news reporter Don McGaffin in 1971, some of my fellow divers and I testified to state authorities that our employers had been covering up evidence of whales killed in the hunts. Our proof helped launch a state and then federal law to prevent capturing whales in U.S. territorial waters and giving them a life sentence in solitary confinement. It remains the most important work of my life: helping stop the obscene captures.

It’s always interesting to get a new perspective on Penn Cove. But Ward’s real purpose in his article is to pay homage to the nautilus, the extraordinary and (up until humans come into the picture) resilient mollusc he has spent a lifetime studying:

In 2011 and 2012 I returned to my old study sites in the Pacific, and collected DNA samples that helped confirm that Nautilus pompilius is many separate species. But I also discovered that unlike in the deep past, perhaps only a few thousand individuals make up each species. A few thousand individuals swimming long distances to be caught in a baited trap, from which they are hauled to the surface, killed, and sold for $1 a shell. For buttons and cheap tourist jewelry.

It’s a savage irony. Although the nautilus ruled the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, Earth’s changing conditions dwindled the number of species, about 3 million years ago, to less than a handful—or even a single species. Then came the advent of the Ice Ages and a radical drop in global sea level and temperatures, which, combined, created cool, highly oxygenated oceanic conditions similar to those when hundreds of nautiloid species existed. The nautilus was making a huge comeback in diversity, to the point where it may have been poised to once again be a presence in every ocean, rather than its current confinement to the western tropical Pacific.

But as recently as 50 years ago, the comeback hit a roadblock: us. In the Philippines and  Indonesia, the distant nautilus species are being harvested to extinction. Between 2007 and 2010, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife discovered that more than half a million nautilus shells or artifacts were imported into the United States alone. Fleets of nautilus boats now scour the coastlines of the South China Sea.

The life of the nautilus is providing its last lesson about chance events. But this time it’s about bad luck. It’s bad luck that nautiluses use their olfactory system rather than vision to find prey, because this trait makes them ludicrously easy to catch. Worse luck comes from a trait over which they never had control: they produce a shell with a visual power that humans covet.

Killer whales. The nautilus. The destructive power of human desire crosses all species.

Does SeaWorld Do Much For Wild Orcas?

“I’ve certainly never seen a SeaWorld researcher.”

 

Not really, writes Tasneem Raja in Mother Jones:

Yet independent orca researchers say these arguments don’t hold water. “If SeaWorld didn’t exist, would our understanding of wild killer whales be significantly reduced? I think the answer to that is no, it would not,” says a veteran marine-mammal researcher who works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s a bit like having Walt Disney tell us about mouse biology,” says Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research and a pioneering orca researcher.

Despite their 24/7 access to killer whales, SeaWorld-affiliated researchers have published relatively few orca studies. Of the four dozen orca-related papers coauthored by SeaWorld-backed researchers over the past 40 years, half were published before 1990, and just seven since 2010. What’s more, at least one-third of these papers did not focus on captive whales, but wild populations ranging from Alaska to New Zealand.

Many of the papers cited on SeaWorld’s website were coauthored by researchers from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, a San Diego nonprofit founded in 1963. SeaWorld provides around 10 percent of its roughly $5 million budget. In 2012 and 2013, Hubbs-SeaWorld published 26 papers on topics ranging from abalone genetics to polar bears’ hearing; none focused on orcas. SeaWorld also touts its SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund as evidence of its investment in killer-whale science and conservation. However, between 2004 and 2012 the fund spent no more than $550,000 on research focused on killer whales, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing.

At some point SeaWorld will realize that spin will no longer cut it. If they want credit for promoting conservation and a better understanding of threats to wild orca populations they will have to make real investments and do real research.