After Alexis Martinez was killed by Keto, both SeaWorld/Loro Parque and the Canary Islands OSHA equivalent launched investigations into the incident. These reports are the most detailed and revealing accounts of exactly what happened between Keto and Alexis Martinez (and you can read my reporting and analysis of what they mean in my story about Alexis’ death).
Here is the SeaWorld/Loro Parque corporate incident report:
As painful and tragic as this pandemic is, it is so helpful to see the many ways in which human presence (or absence of human presence) affects wildlife. It should help us better acknowledge our outsize impact on the planet, and motivate us to do whatever we can to consider the needs and interests of other species as we make choices in our own lives. .
As the public becomes more aware of the ethical issue involved with keeping dolphins and killer whales captive, and public sentiment about captivity changes, the question of whether captive dolphins and killer whales can successfully be released back into the wild is increasingly relevant.
While there have been many releases of captive dolphins, there have been relatively few releases of long-term show dolphins, and even fewer that were fully documented. In recent years, however, two bottlenose dolphins (named Tom and Misha) were successfully released back into the Aegean, and three bottlenose dolphins (Jedol, Chunsam, and Sampal) were successfully released off Jeju Island, South Korea. All had spent years in marine parks, yet managed to learn what they needed to learn to survive again in the ocean.
Both releases were carefully documented, during and after release, and show what can be achieved, even with dolphins that have suffered greatly in captivity. My story about these dolphins, and the question of captive release, was just published at National Geographic.
Here’s the start:
In early January 2011 Jeff Foster, a 55-year-old marine mammal expert from Seattle, arrived on the stony shore of a pristine bay near the small village of Karaca, situated in a corner of the Gulf of Gökova on Turkey’s southwest coast. Just offshore was a collection of floating pens used to farm fish. In one of them, which had been modified and measured about a hundred feet across and 50 feet deep, two male bottlenose dolphins swam in slow circles.
Tom and Misha, as they were called, were in lamentable condition. As far as anyone could tell, they’d been captured in the Aegean sometime in 2006, and almost nothing was known about their lives in the wild. After starting their captive lives at a dolphin park in the seaside town of Kaş, they’d been trucked a short distance inland in June 2010 to a crudely constructed concrete pool in the mountain town of Hisarönü so that tourists could pay $50 for the chance to grab their dorsal fins and get a ten-minute tow. Hisarönü consists mainly of cheap hotels and bars with suggestive names like Oh Yes! and thumping late-night music. It would be hard to imagine a more incongruous or disorienting location for two ocean-born dolphins. An inadequate filtration system quickly left the bottom of their pool carpeted with dead fish and dolphin feces.
Within weeks, an outraged grassroots and social media campaign organized by dolphin-loving locals had forced the place to close. In early September, amid fears that the dolphins would soon die, the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation, which is dedicated to the protection of animals in the wild, stepped in and took possession of Tom and Misha. The two dolphins were bundled into a refrigerated meat truck lined with old mattresses and transported to the pen off Karaca. Foster was hired to help Born Free attempt something truly ambitious: restore Tom and Misha to peak physical condition, teach them what they would need to know to live as wild dolphins again, and release them back into the Aegean. “It is extremely high risk with a creature that is not predictable and easy,” says Will Travers, Born Free’s president. “But we realized that there were very few options for them, and they were likely to die unless somebody did something.”
You can read the whole thing here. And there is a great photo gallery here. Hope you find it interesting.
Starring our pal Dr. Ingrid Visser. Some amazing and inspired footage once you get through the classroom stuff at the beginning (disclosure: I fast-forwarded; sorry, Ingrid!).
Here’s GoPro’s summary:
The sixth and final of the HERO4: The Adventure of Life in 4K series.
Dr. Ingrid Visser dedicates her life and her research to help the most intelligent predator on earth – Orca. She swims with wild orca and advocates for modern solutions to release orcas from captivity.
Shot on location in New Zealand, this short film documents Ingrid’s life mission to preserve wild orca through education & leading rescue missions to save orca from shallow waters & fishing line entanglements.
Includes never-before-seen footage of a GoPro mounted to the dorsal fin of a wild orca plus various archival footage and pictures from the Orca Research Trust.
There have been several reports from around the world about disabled killer whales surviving through the help of their family members. This summer we have encountered this female that obviously had some problems with her back. She was swimming slowly behind the group, and one male always stayed near her. Despite her disability, she did not look skinny, suggesting that she might get food from her family members.
A strong argument in the Orlando Sentinel, from Scott Maxwell, that SeaWorld in fact can’t be saved, unless it comes to grips with the fact that its killer whale shows can no longer be its primary attraction.
SeaWorld’s problem is that its biggest asset and biggest liability are the same thing — whales.
It needs to evolve and expand.
See, one of the main reasons that Disney and Universal continue to thrive is that they continue to evolve.
Ten years ago, Universal was all about superheroes and roller coasters. Today, it is Harry Potter and high-tech simulators.
Disney has grown and adapted as well. It started with fairy tales and an iconic castle. But Disney then reached out to older adults with Epcot, movie lovers with MGM Studios and animal lovers with Animal Kingdom.
Today — four decades after Disney’s first Orlando park opened — Disney is preparing to cash in on the worldwide phenomenon of a movie that didn’t even exist until last year: “Frozen.”
Meanwhile, SeaWorld’s main theme and attraction is the same as it was when the park opened 41 years ago: killer whales.
And the park is doubling down on that. It’s biggest spending plans involve hundreds of millions of dollars to expand and improve the whale habitats.
Other than that, the park has second-tier additions on the horizons — like a revamped Clyde and Seamore sea lion show, which the company described last week as “a hilarious tale, filled with amazing animal behaviors and splashy audience fun.”
Think about that. Universal has a new Harry Potter attraction that’s garnering worldwide attention. SeaWorld has a paid blogger, a bigger whale pool and a revamped sea lion show.
If Disney needs more than Mickey, SeaWorld has to understand that it needs more than Shamu.
Last week, Karl Taro Greenfeld managed an unusual feat: he was allowed inside SeaWorld’s corporate offices to interview SeaWorld’s leadership and report a Businessweek story called “Saving SeaWorld,” about SeaWorld’s efforts to survive and bounce back from the surprisingly powerful and accelerating #BlackfishEffect (seriously, I think it is fair to say that no one involved with the production fully anticipated the impact that resulted).
Since this is the first real access SeaWorld has given a big-time news organization since Blackfish started cratering SeaWorld’s image, its corporate relationships, and its stock price, it is worth taking a close look at what Greenfeld reported.
First up, Greenfeld gets SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison to comment on SeaWorld’s PR strategy:
“There is no recipe to follow. There’s very little intuitive about it,” says Atchison. “Do I wish we would have taken a more aggressive action earlier? On an emotional level I do, because I was offended by it personally. … One of the things we had to measure early on was, how do we engage in it? We don’t want to aid the marketing of the film by engaging too openly, too aggressively, too early. We didn’t want to turn it into the film SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see. And the film didn’t really gain any kind of notable momentum until CNN started airing it. Repeatedly.”
I have to admit that I am sympathetic to SeaWorld on this point. SeaWorld had a long history of keeping its head down when bad things happen at its parks, and the bad news always blew away over time and allowed SeaWorld to get back to business. It is completely understandable that SeaWorld did not want to make a big deal out of Blackfish before Blackfish was, indeed, a big deal. Why help the public take notice of a film that will harm your business?
And Atchison is correct, I think, that the CNN airings are what blew Blackfish up into a public phenomenon (an important lesson to all film-makers who want their work to have impact). Following Sundance, and through the film’s theatrical run, there was just not that much public awareness about Blackfish. I have never been in the loop on the theatrical numbers, but I don’t think Blackfish was packing the movie houses. It wasn’t until Blackfish hit cable television, on CNN in late October (along with a pretty good CNN-designed social media plan) that lots and lots of people saw Blackfish and started telling others about it.
SeaWorld already doubled down on its killer whale captivity model by pledging to invest tens of millions of dollars in bigger tanks. And now it is doubling down on the idea that better PR can defuse growing doubts about using killer whales for entertainment:
SeaWorld is working aggressively on improving its image as it continues to fend off criticism over its whales in captivity.
The company is disputing animal-rights activists online, soliciting fan support and trying to call more attention to its work with animals — such as rescuing underweight orphan manatees.
SeaWorld is making these efforts amid declining attendance and lingering controversy intensified by last year’s anti-captivity “Blackfish” documentary. The company said in an earnings report last week that negative publicity contributed to an overall third-quarter attendance decline.
“I think we’ve just realized we have to do a better job of telling our story, sharing the good work we do,” company spokeswoman Aimee Jeansonne Becka said, reiterating the thoughts expressed by Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison earlier this year.
“You’re going to see a PR offensive coming here,” Wells Fargo analyst Tim Conder told CNBC last week. “You’re going to see SeaWorld being more open about who they are, educating people [about] who they are, with other organizations.”
Best of luck. Sometimes the apparent problem is an actual problem, and not just a failure to “tell your story.” SeaWorld, in fact, has done a brilliant job over the past 50 years of telling exactly the story it wants to tell. That’s why many viewers found the story told in Blackfish–which was VERY different–so shocking.
Changing the story to emphasize conservation (especially if it is backed up by real investments in conservation, which would be a nice) might help at the margins. But promoting conservation still does not address the fundamental reality that increasing numbers of people find killer whale circus shows anachronistic and cruel. The only way to address that problem is to change the business model and start transitioning away from the product that fewer and fewer people want to buy.
Despite the brutal beating SeaWorld is taking in the markets, and the steady decline in paying customers, it doesn’t look like SeaWorld is quite there yet.
To follow the stunning drone footage of killer whales off Norway, let’s turn to the National Geographic photo blog Proof, which in September published some incredible photos of Norwegian killer whales feeding on herring. Not only are the photos, by Paul Nicklen, beautiful. But they also show yet another highly intelligent, cooperative killer whale hunting behavior:
The orcas are working together, performing a highly coordinated exercise in the herding of fish–huge schools of herring, larger than any other I have ever seen, compacted together into a tight ball. The immense ball of fish: a mere 5 feet under the ocean’s surface, buckles and sways, trying to escape, but the orcas swim around the ball making it tighter and tighter. In this sophisticated team effort every orca plays a role and every member of the pod gets their turn to feed. Young calves flank their mother’s side and mimic every move as they hone their herring-herding skills. We can hear the constant high-pitch sound of their echolocation calls all around us.
So effective, in fact, that some humpbacks show up to take advantage of the feast that is created.