Seaworld: From Free Willy to Blackfish

Aquariums are incredible. They let you see a world above ground that most people would never be able to see otherwise.

SeaWorld is one of the largest aquariums organizations in the world. They have facilities in Orlando, Tampa, San Diego, San Antonio, Williamsburg and Philadelphia. SeaWorld reported having more than 22 million visitors in 2014.

So how has SeaWorld gone from being a “Must See” to a “You support SeaWorld?” company?

Free Willy

Free Willy Poster. Image Courtesy of imdb.com.
Free Willy Poster. Image Courtesy of imdb.com.

This original film was release in 1993. The incredible story of a young boy and his unbelievable connection with a killer whale led to the film grossing almost $78 million in theaters and another $36 million from rentals.

The boy is a foster child who, after breaking into the local aquarium, is required to spend time doing community service at the aquarium. Willy, the killer whale, learns from the boy and is eventually saved from being killed by escaping into the wild.

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The film ended with a number that viewers could call to donate to the Save the Whales Foundation. This number was able to raise $20 million in donations.

SeaWorld saw a large increase in visitors, both adult and children, who wanted to see the large black and white whales in person.

Jason James Richter, who played the main character Jesse, has had quiet a bit of fun posting images and reminders of the film, which later had three more sequels.

Free Keiko

The whale-actor for Willy was an orca named Keiko. The popularity of “Free Willy” led to questions from audiences about what happened to the real whale in the film. It was discovered that the whale was living in a tank, reported to be only twelve-feet deep, that was too warm and chlorinated, causing him to suffer from skin conditions. Keiko had been taken from the waters near Iceland at the very end of the 70’s, when he was just a calf.

Keiko. Image Courtesy of usatoday.com
Keiko. Image Courtesy of usatoday.com

A large number of children from around the world sent money, as well as one particular billionaire, Craig McCaw, in order to “Free Keiko.” A large rehabilitiation center was built in Oregon and Keiko was moved to a much larger facility to recover from his medical condition.

After fully recovering in 1998, Keiko was airlifted to Iceland. There he was taught, by humans, the necessary skills to survive in the wild.

In 2002, Keiko was finally freed. But this did not last long. He went to Norway, in what was thought to be an attempt to find human companionship, as the wild orca pods did not accept or recognize him. For a short time, he would give rides on his back to visitors and allow people to approach him. He was led away from the popular spot, in an attempt to protect him from possible harm.

He died in 2003, from what has been reported as a case of pneumonia.

A decade after Keiko’s death, some groups still strongly believe in the ability to reintroduce orcas, and other animals at SeaWorld, back into the wild. It has also been called into question whether the Free Keiko did enough to prepare the whale for his return to Iceland.

Blackfish

Blackfish Poster. Image Courtesy of imdb.com.
Blackfish Poster. Image Courtesy of imdb.com.

This documentary premiered in 2013 at Sundance.

The Blackfish movie website provides the following synopsis.

“Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry.

This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals.

A mesmerising psychological thriller with a killer whale at its centre, Blackfish is the first film since Grizzly Man to show how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits. Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the mulit-billion dollar sea-park industry.”

The documentary received much support from many celebrities and members of the public.

It grossed over $2 million dollars.

“Blackfish Effect”

Kasatka and her calf in 2013. Image Courtesy of npr.org.
Kasatka and her calf in 2013. Image Courtesy of npr.org.

The result of the documentary’s popularity has been a significant decrease in admissions to SeaWorld park across the country, but the San Diego park has had the largest decrease in sales. The Guardian reported an 84% drop in profits from 2014 to 2015.

Tim Zimmermann wrote an article for National Geographic, on the Blackfish Effect, in 2014. He explained: “The Blackfish effect started with dozens of celebrities tweeting about how Blackfish changed their view of SeaWorld. It includes high school students making videos and raising awareness. And it inspired PETA campaigns against the inclusion of SeaWorld floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the New Year’s Day Rose Parade.

Most notable, the Blackfish effect took off on social media, especially through the use of Change.org petitions. Late last year, a Blackfish-supporter and animal advocate launched a Change.org petition asking the Barenaked Ladies to reconsider a planned February 2014 SeaWorld gig in light of the revelations in Blackfish. The petition quickly hit 10,000 signatures and, after considering the issue, the band canceled, saying, “This is a complicated issue, and we don’t claim to understand all of it, but we don’t feel comfortable proceeding with the gig at this time.””

Fewer attendees at SeaWorld performances. Image Courtesy of dailymail.co.uk.
Fewer attendees at SeaWorld performances. Image Courtesy of dailymail.co.uk.

SeaWorld’s Response

In early 2015, Jim Atchison stepped down as President and CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Joel Manby joined SeaWorld as the new CEO. Manby has publicly begun a campaign to “aggressively communicate” its policies, employee safety, animal care, rescue efforts, and research programs.

SeaWorld has attempted to reverse the Blackfish effect through social media and webpages. Seaworldcares.com has a category focused solely on the killer whales at SeaWorld. It states: “We care for 29 killer whales, the largest killer whale population in a zoological facility worldwide. They are our family.

We are a global leader in the care and understanding of this species and are accredited by the world’s foremost professional zoological organizations. We apply best practices in behavioral training, environmental enrichment, preventive health, veterinary medicine and facilities design and management. As with all animals at SeaWorld, the whales live in safe, sophisticated habitats, receive world-class medical care and are continually engaged socially, mentally and physically.

These animals are healthy and well adapted to their surroundings, a fact that is evident to our zoological experts through their constant interaction and observation 24 hours per day.”

#SeaWorld has been to share facts and pictures about the animals it cares for. Here are a few of the Twitter posts from SeaWorld.

SeaWorld has recently announced new plans to discontinue current orca shows, focusing instead on educational programs about conservation.

It will be curious to find out if this large aquarium will be able to recover from the current public relation challenges that aquariums face.

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