SeaWorld has never quite been the same since enduring an onslaught of backlash brought about by Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish, which hit US theatres back in 2013. In an article published in The Guardian last August, the filmmaker notes that ‘over the past couple of years, SeaWorld’s visitor numbers have fallen, its stock has plummeted, lawsuits have confronted their business practices, legislation has challenged what goes on at Shamu Stadium, and reported profits were down 84% on the previous year.’
Also last month, SeaWorld made headlines when news broke that a SeaWorld employee had infiltrated PETA with the intent to incite violent and illegal activity among PETA volunteers and other anti-SeaWorld activists. The employee, Paul McComb, adopted the alias Thomas Jones and had been posing as an anti-SeaWorld activist as early as 2012, before Blackfish even premiered. Though it was PETA who eventually uncovered McComb’s true identity following his suspicious ‘arrest’ during an anti-SeaWorld protest at the 2014 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, McComb’s infiltration efforts reached beyond PETA, even attending whale-education events like Superpod 3, covertly recording lectures and releasing them online, endangering the chances of these lectures being published in respected journals.
McComb’s employment with SeaWorld was verified by his LinkedIn account. A press release from SeaWorld shortly after the PETA news broke stated that the company has ‘placed the employee in question on paid administrative leave pending the findings of the investigation.’ The release did not name the employee. The release also distanced itself from the employee’s actions, stating that ‘these allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated. […] We will take all appropriate actions based on the results of the investigation to ensure that the integrity and values of the SeaWorld organization are upheld.’
McComb is only one of four people PETA suspects may have undercover ties to SeaWorld. In an interview with Democracy Now!, journalist Will Potter said that he believes ‘this infiltration and attempts at provocation show the lengths to which these companies are willing to go, rather than change their business practices and respond to consumer pressure.’ Potter, who has written on similar tactics by the FBI, believes that ‘we’re really just seeing the tip of the iceberg with this. […] What’s truly disturbing is we don’t know the extent to which this is happening. At least with the FBI, there’s some ostensible oversight or accountability. With these corporations, there’s nothing like that.’
In the same interview, Potter commented on what has been called ‘the Blackfish effect’: ‘It’s really unprecedented how quickly the tides have turned against [SeaWorld]. In just a couple of years, there’s been a groundswell of public opposition and just a cultural change in how we regard these animals and using animals for entertainment.’ Cowperthwaite, meanwhile, doesn’t solely credit her film for this recent shift in public opinion: ‘I can only say that it was inevitable, and that I hope it’s only the beginning. Today’s kids are increasingly becoming part of the “I can’t believe we used to do that” generation. They know that killer whales are not suitable for captivity.’
The aforementioned alleged infiltration hasn’t been the only example of a company resorting to desperate lows. As the Blackfish effect has given former SeaWorld trainers the courage to speak out against their former employer’s practices, the company has made questionable decisions in an effort to, as they put it, ‘save their brand.’ During the same week that former SeaWorld orca trainer John Hargrove published his tell-all memoir Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, SeaWorld ‘sent to reporters an almost 5-year-old video of Hargrove drinking and repeatedly using a racial epithet during a recorded cellphone conversation.’ Hargrove, who took responsibility for his appalling actions in the video, said: ‘[SeaWorld is] going to pull out everything they can, drag up any dirt they can on me to make me look like this awful person. What’s so amazing, they’re not addressing the issues at hand. This is about killer whales in captivity.’
Despite the company’s history of staunchness, SeaWorld made a surprising public announcement last week: the marine park will no longer accept wild-caught whales from other marine facilities. Despite the park’s claiming that the change in policy ‘reflects an evolution in SeaWorld’s position,’ many critics see another reason for the unprecedented shift: public pressure. Noted marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose broke it down in the following:
SeaWorld is not known for publicly admitting that anything about it was historically in need of evolution. They usually don’t talk about any changes that they implement because, in their mindset, any changes they implement implies that what they were doing before was wrong. […] They’re not actually saying that capturing these animals from the wild is wrong, they’re just saying they’re not going to do it anymore. They’re hoping people will read into it like they’re doing the right thing.
Rose, a self-proclaimed realist, is right to be weary about the company’s change in policy. Still, there are some, like Gabriela Cowperthwaite herself, who believe that if SeaWorld wanted to do the right thing, it has the resources to do so. ‘Many of us still hold out hope that SeaWorld, in one final Hail Mary pass, will do something drastically progressive – like stopping their breeding programme. […] After this, SeaWorld could almost singlehandedly pioneer a sea santuary where it could retire the remaining whales. […] And this could be a profit-making endeavour for SeaWorld, with admission fees, a visitor centre, an underwater viewing area, etc. It’s hard to imagine people not showing up in droves to see these magnificent animals actually doing what they were meant to do.’
Author Boria Sax wrote, ‘Any major change in our relationships with animals, individual or collective, reverberates profoundly in our character as human beings, in ways that go far beyond immediately pragmatic concerns.’ How far can the Blackfish effect reverberate? Perhaps only time, and SeaWorld, will tell.