By retiring orcas to coastal sanctuaries, SeaWorld might save itself

“In response to criticism of its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld said it will build them a larger habitat. When asked for comment, killer whales said, ‘Hey, you know what’s a larger habitat? The ocean!’” – Conan O‘Brien
“In response to criticism of its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld said it will build them a larger habitat. When asked for comment, killer whales said, ‘Hey, you know what’s a larger habitat? The ocean!’” – Conan O‘Brien
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Turn on any late-night talk show and it’s clear: SeaWorld has become a punch line.

Conan O’Brien scored raucous cheers from his audience when he joked, “In response to criticism of its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld said it will build them a larger habitat. When asked for comment, killer whales said, ‘Hey, you know what’s a larger habitat? The ocean!’”

The company just announced that its profits would fall a further $10 million this year because of yet another drop in attendance during its parks’ busiest season. This is the latest in a long string of disappointments for investors—and overall embarrassments for the company.

Last month, the California Coastal Commission, which regulates access to the state’s coastlands, agreed to approve SeaWorld’s plan to build new orca tanks, but only on the condition that it refrain from importing or breeding any new orcas to fill them. SeaWorld, in what seems to be an admission that that’s exactly what it wanted to do, is vowing to fight the ban. Then there was the PR nightmare that erupted when PETA revealed that a SeaWorld “protester” operating under the pseudonym Thomas Jones, who attempted to persuade PETA supporters to commit violent acts, was really a SeaWorld employee by the name of Paul T. McComb. McComb was not the only individual sent by SeaWorld to infiltrate the group.

The Guardian reported in Aug. 2015 that SeaWorld’s earnings were down 84%. Fortune has called the company a “sinkhole,” and Standard & Poor’s downgraded its credit rating to junk status. Former business partners Taco Bell, JetBlue,, Panama Jack, Hyundai Motor America, United Airlines, Virgin America, and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins have all jumped ship. Multiple lawsuits allege that the corporation attempted to deceive people about its abuse of orcas.

SeaWorld has responded to the drop in reputation and profits by cutting ticket prices and launching a $10 million damage-control campaign. The ads, which are everywhere, try to paint SeaWorld as the patron saint of the ocean and all its inhabitants, running rescue missions like a sort of animal Coast Guard. But it doesn’t take much digging to learn that beneath all the fluff, SeaWorld has contributed less than 1% of its profits to conservation efforts over the past decade—basically, just enough to be able to make some feel-good claims.

Then there are the irrefutable facts about the orcas’ suffering to consider. SeaWorld forces trainers to withhold food from orcas who don’t perform on command—sometimes up to two-thirds of their daily rations. The stress of captivity causes the whales to gnaw on anything they can, including the gates and sides of their tanks, wearing their teeth down and causing them to break. To keep them from dying of oral infections, staff will drill holes into the pulp cavities of the orcas’ worn-out teeth—usually without sedation—and then flush them out every day. And despite SeaWorld’s claims to the contrary, former-head-trainer-turned-activist John Hargrove has said that he personally knows of 19 orca calves who were torn away from their distraught mothers and shipped off to other parks.

While no wild orca has ever killed a human in recorded history, captive orcas have. Tilikum, perhaps SeaWorld’s most famous orca, has killed three. And there have been many more captive-orca attacks on humans to date. SeaWorld’s own incident logs contain more than 100 reports of orca aggression, but trainers were discouraged from reporting attacks that don’t result in serious injury.

Attacks by frustrated captive orcas have become prevalent enough that the updated list of International Classification of Disease (ICD) medical codes used by doctors and hospitals includes listings for “bitten by orca” and “struck by orca.” When attacks on humans by a small group of captive animals become frequent enough that the medical community has to change its documentation system, isn’t that a clear indicator that something is terribly wrong?

The company’s marketing blitzes and damage-control efforts aren’t working. Public opinion has shifted, and people are no longer comfortable seeing highly intelligent, family-oriented marine mammals imprisoned in bathtubs and reduced to circus sideshow acts. With plummeting revenue, sinking stock value, and public lambasting from everyone from Mӧtley Crüe to One Direction, SeaWorld executives can’t just keep plugging their ears and whistling Dixie.

In one concession, corporate honchos recently announced that circus-style orca shows will end at their San Diego, California, location. While that decision was inevitable, it’s little consolation for the orcas in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, and won’t change anything about the daily misery of whales living in tanks. The decision is akin to Ringling Bros.’ ending its elephant acts, yet continuing to keep the animals in chains.

Here’s a better idea for repairing SeaWorld’s reputation and saving its business: Retire the orcas to coastal sanctuaries, where they can finally engage in some of their natural orca behavior. They could swim at full speed instead of in tiny circles. They could use their sonar without having it reverberate off tank walls. Mothers could stay with their babies. SeaWorld could replace the orcas with stunning cutting-edge virtual reality educational experiences like those created by Magic Leap, which actually appeal to inquisitive, socially conscious millennials and the kids of today.

SeaWorld’s last best hope is to do right by the orcas. Retire them to ocean sanctuaries and pray that the public is in a forgiving mood. Then again, SeaWorld has never been very good at doing what’s right and now says that it may ship the orcas off to the Middle East and set up shop there instead.

So the question becomes, will exporting its moribund business model complete the perfect storm that will finally sink SeaWorld?