This week, a group of San Diego high schoolers filmed a video called “Dear Sea World” where they thanked the tourist attraction for all the memories and stuffed animals, before taking it to task for cheapening those memories by its now well-documented poor treatment of killer whales, as captured in the critically acclaimed Gabriela Cowperthwaite documentary “Blackfish.” For more about the backlash, see this David Kirby article at TakePart.com.
But the film’s impact is being felt beyond a group of camera-savvy youngsters on the West Coast. Sea World went public in April, just three months after “Blackfish” debuted at Sundance and memories of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death in a killer whale attack were still fresh in the public’s minds. After the company’s stock debuted at $27 a share, it has since dipped by 25 percent, according to recent reports, leading some to believe that the eye-opening documentary may be to blame for that. Sea World says poor weather is behind the dip, and has written off the film as mere animal rights propaganda.
“Blackfish” or not, the theme park is facing a lot of “headwinds,” according to MarketWatch columnist Al Lewis. It is heavily leveraged. It is selling expensive tickets (adult single-day tickets are $82, while youth tickets are $74) in a down economy, and it is still facing legal and regulatory problems in the wake of Brancheau’s death. Throw the film into the mix and, as Lewis told The Wall Street Journal, you have a lot of people out there who think “it’s not so cool keeping these whales in a fish tank for their whole life.” Still, Lewis admits that America is a country that could see “Blackfish and be outraged by the treatment of killer whales and still visit Sea World.
I finally saw the movie this week and thought it was well-done overall. But I did have a small issue with how the filmmaker used some of the sources at her disposal. Although she interviewed whale experts, whale behavioral experts and a variety of workers from OSHA, the bulk of the interviews she used were with former Sea World trainers, who admitted you didn’t really have to be a whale expert to get the job. Although I understand the need to turn to people who have first-hand experience with these whales, and first-hand knowledge of the way they were kept and treated at the park, I would have liked more explanation in the film about why they were former Sea World trainers. Were they fired, or did they leave because they realized the ethical problems in capturing these large, sensitive, and highly intelligent creatures? That sort of context was never made clear, and having it in the film would have enhanced what was already a good story.
It will be interesting to see how Sea World continues to deal with the fallout the film and with its own struggles to weather a bad economy as a newly public company. If you’ve seen “Blackfish,” what did you think about it? Please let me know in comments below.