The director of Blackfish, the documentary about SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) that has dented traffic at the company’s theme parks, isn’t impressed by the company’s plans to almost double the size of its killer whale habitats. “I do appreciate the fact that SeaWorld is willing to admit that something is wrong, for the first time,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite said on Friday. “But the problem is, instead of changing their business model, they’re doubling down.”
On a conference call with reporters, SeaWorld Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison described the sizable investment at three parks as a way to improve the whales’ environments and guests’ experience. SeaWorld will open the first 10 million-gallon orca whale environment in 2018 at its San Diego park, followed by similar upgrades in Orlando and San Antonio. Atchison said SeaWorld has been planning the larger orca whale enclosures “for quite some time,” predating the film. “The timing of it really coincides with our need to put a shovel in the ground and get going with it,” he said. “We don’t expect this type of measure would appease the animal rights extremists, per se, but that’s not who we’re trying to appease. That’s not our market.”
He was correct. The announcement was also criticized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: “A bigger prison is still a prison,” the group said in an e-mailed statement. And Cowperthwaite noted SeaWorld’s plans to expand internationally, with new parks in India, Russia, and the Middle East. The company has signed a letter of agreement with Village Roadshow (VRL:AU), an Australian film studio and theme park operator, to expand its brand outside the U.S.
“So that means they need to start breeding more whales,” Cowperthwaite said. “So it seems pretty clear that the new pool size is designed to accommodate more captive whales and more forcible breeding.” Atchison did not respond directly when a reporter posed that question; he said the project’s goal was not about accommodating more animals and added that SeaWorld’s current pools could also hold more whales.
For almost a year, SeaWorld maintained that its business had not been damaged by Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary, which details the 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer by a whale named Tilikum. The film questioned the company’s practices in capturing and housing orcas and prompted a bill in California that would shut down SeaWorld’s killer whale shows.
On Wednesday, however, SeaWorld released disappointing financial results, acknowledging the film’s impact, and its shares lost a third of their value. The stock has declined 37 percent this year, to about $18, putting it below its spring 2013 public offering price of $27. Both investors and corporate partners are running the other way: Last month, Southwest Airlines (LUV) said it will end its 26-year marketing partnership with SeaWorld, although it didn’t tie that decision to the controversy generated by the film.
The company also said on Friday it will spend $10 million on killer whale research and conservation projects. SeaWorld has also been funding a “truth campaign” and other national marketing efforts “to build and protect our brands, as well as to counter the recent media attention.”
In the 13 months since her film’s release, Cowperthwaite said she’s been speaking to high school and college students about the whale issue and trying to advance support for “ocean hives,” a large sea pen that’s partitioned from the open ocean where the captive whales would live.