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Long before a state Assembly bill aimed to keep killer whales out of SeaWorld San Diego, observers and insiders were emphasizing just how much Shamu meant to the park’s bottom line.

Their statements reveal the extent to which SeaWorld is tethered to the orcas that perform at packed shows, adorn the merchandise that dominates its gift shops and star in its marketing efforts.

The bill aims to halt SeaWorld San Diego’s s killer whale shows and captive breeding programs.  If it passes, the measure could force SeaWorld to take more of an aquarium approach with its current killer whales and over the long haul, potentially eliminate the orcas it’s long given top billing.

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Here are some key comments that underscore Shamu’s importance to the company’s business model.

• In 1997, ex-SeaWorld Research Director John Hall appeared in the PBS documentary “Whale of a Business” and said SeaWorld had pinpointed just how valuable killer whales were to the company’s bottom line.

“SeaWorld estimated that 70 percent of every dollar that came through the gate was due to the presence of killer whales. If you wanted a strong cash flow to continue, you needed a steady supply of killer whales, especially if you’re expanding and building new parks. You need whales to fill them up.”

Brad Andrews, SeaWorld’s chief zoological officer, denied that characterization at the time.

SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz said the statistic Hall offered in 1997 isn’t accurate today.

• Former UC San Diego professor Susan G. Davis, who wrote a 1997 book about SeaWorld’s business model, also appeared in the Frontline documentary and compared Shamu to another popular mascot.

“The killer whales especially are the central spectacle in this amusement project. They are its Mickey Mouse.”

• Attorney Eugene Scalia, who is representing SeaWorld  in the company’s appeal of a 2012 decision that barred trainers from contact with killer whales during shows, stressed just how crucial orcas are to the marine parks in a July 2013 court filing:

“SeaWorld has always made killer whales the centerpiece of its mission. It has pioneered the use of close-proximity interactions between whales and trainers, and its trainers have regularly and safely conducted such interactions. These whale-trainer interactions have advanced zoologists’ knowledge of killer whales, improved veterinary practice, enthralled audiences, and inspired scores of people to support conservation and animal education, and in many cases, to devote their careers to SeaWorld’s mission. …

The undisputed evidence is also that close contact (with killer whales) is an integral part of the experience that SeaWorld offers the public. And an important part of what has drawn visitors to SeaWorld for decades. Curator of Animal Training Kelly Clark testified without contradiction that it is the close contact between humans and killer whales that has for years “inspired” visitors to SeaWorld, forever “changing” some of them.”

• Scalia made those points more provocatively when he appeared before a three-judge panel in November, comparing a ban on human-orca contact during SeaWorld shows to a ban on tackling in football games.

 “It’s 20/20 hindsight engaged by the government … to tell a company it cannot continue to offer its product. It’s like if the government came in and told the NFL that close contact was banned.”

• The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, a state agency that investigated a 2006 accident involving a SeaWorld San Diego killer whale trainer, also acknowledged killer whales and the shows featuring them were crucial to SeaWorld in its initial review of the incident.

“Shamu the killer whale has always been at the forefront of their marketing and advertising and is probably the main reason why people visit the park. The Shamu show, in all of its different forms, has been and continues to be the premier, most desired show at the park.”

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – So-Called Blackfish Bill Could Devastate SeaWorld – and the next in our series  SeaWorld Lease Gives Taxpayers a Stake in Shamu’s Success.

    This article relates to: Business, Economy, News, Quest, Quest: SeaWorld, SeaWorld, Share

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Lisa, you reported yourself at the beginning of this series that Disney's 2 parks in Anaheim and Universal Studios' in Hollywood draw more visitors than any of SeaWorld's parks. None of them are predicated on performing captive wild species. Successful businesses adapt to changing social norms. THIS is the true threat to SeaWorld -- the inability to adapt.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    @Jim Jones @Martha SullivanRIIIIGGHHHTTTT ...  the REAL Sea World is a much bigger draw than FauxSeaWorld.  SeaWorld Entertainment needs to focus on the amusement park and ditch the aBusement of intelligent, socially sophisticated marine animals. 

    Rabid Koala
    Rabid Koala subscriber

    That is sort of, you know, their business plan, having orcas and all that stuff. It has been going on for a long time, and even though it is not my idea of entertainment I hope they will do it in the future.

    Or turn the place into a great coaster park, a la Cedar Point. The trouble is that the coastal height limit will eliminate the possibility of fun rides, so keep the performing whales.

    shrkb8 subscriber

    @Rabid Koala  So you buy into the whole cruelty to animals thing?  SeaWorld owns several parks with zero orcas.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    If the Market place determines the "branding" of their product is inappropriate then they will adjust their brand.

    These things do not occur overnight as many here seem to believe

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    What's the difference between a killer whale and an attorney?


    I don't know, but it would probably be a good joke

    Monica Johnson
    Monica Johnson subscribermember

    This is an old argument. It does not ring true. In the past ten years I have taken visitors and grandchildren to Sea World. We went to see the Penguins, Bird Show, etc. Getting splashed by an Orca or watching tricks by trainers was not high on our list. People can be sold on other attractions at the park using them as draws. This could be to their advantage with this negative press. Take the high ground. It has been part of zoo's changes, why not Sea World's?

    The very name "killer whale" tells us why these animals should not be "trained". They are evolved to be part of their environment, not ours.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @Monica Johnson  That is a preposterous statement.  Dolphins are also killers.  They eat other fish don't they?  Orcas eat more than just fish since they also eat seals, and have been known to also hunt sharks.  Other kinds of whales demonstrate intelligent hunting tactics.  The term killer whale isn't an official scientific name, and the reality is that it isn't even fair to call them that unless you start putting the word "killer" before every other animal or fish that eat flesh to survive.

    Sara_K subscribermember

    It is abundantly clear by this blithe discussion of marine mammal exploitation: SeaWorld’s “mission” is not education, nor research, nor animal rescue (much of which is done by the federally-funded nonprofit arm): it is profits over animal (and human trainers’) welfare.

    Not mentioned in the article: what is the revenue generation of their rollercoasters - the ones that are damaging to sensitive pinnipeds? Why do they fight so hard against environmentalists to have newer, bigger ones installed if performing orcas are the real financial draw?

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Sara_K  Sara, you’ve got me stumped on this “piniped” business.  Just what is the interaction between  Sea World roller coasters and “sensitive pinipeds”?  

    Question 2:  Where are the “sensitive” pinipeds?  The ones I’ve encountered, including those who took over several wharfs in San Francisco, swiped numerous fish I’ve hooked because it’s easier than catching their own breakfast, or the ones fouling the waters at the Children’s pool or the cliffs at La Jolla Cove have two things in common:  They are always hungry and quite aggressive when challenged.

    Western Outdoor News, a weekly hunting and fishing publication to which I subscribe, last month published a summary of a study by marine biologists that alleged seals and sea lions are now consuming far more fish annually on the west coast that the combined catch of the commercial and sport fishing fleets.  Since the pinipeds are increasing in number each year an estimated 3-4%, how long do you think it will be before “catch of the day” disappears from your restaurant menu?

    If the roller coasters are actually slowing the advance of the pinipeds, let's hear it for the coasters!

    Sara_K subscribermember

    @Bill Bradshaw Google "sensitivity of pinnipeds to noise and vibration," then consider the close proximity of those highly sensitive (to various frequencies) animals held *in captivity* near a rollercoaster-style source of human entertainment.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Sara_K  OK, Sara, I guess we’ve established that the fragile pinipeds aren’t actually in the splashdown area, they’re nearby.  Holy cow, have you ever heard a sport fishing boat start it’s engines trying to get away from the sea lions?  Doesn’t work very often; their hunger overcomes their “sensitivity”.  I think you need a reality check.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @Sara_K  Thanks Sara.  I was on the fence about who to support in all of this controversy.  I was initially intrigued and willing to listen to both sides.  Now that I have heard you and others state your side of the case, I have made my decision that I think "your side" consists of unreasonable, whiny people.  Thanks for helping me decide.

    shrkb8 subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw  Western Outdoor magazine's conclusion is laughable.  There were many, many, many more seals and sea lions prior to European exploration and eventual exploitation of the west coast.  Seal fur trade decimated their their population.  And somehow the fish population was booming.  Look at early 1900's pictures of tuna fishing off of Catalina.  Huge tuna were abundant right off Los Angeles' coast.  Now a single large tuna can bring in tens of thousands of dollars because they are becoming so rare and demand is so high.  The reason is simple, we (not seals) catch them faster than they can reproduce and mature.

    To pin the decimation of fish stock on the recovering population of pinnipeds is pure denial of the real fact that we as a species are overfishing  and over polluting our seas.  You could wipe out all the pinnipeds and we will continue to suffer the decline of our fish stock.