SeaWorld kicked off its 50th anniversary Friday and seemed determined to show it’s thriving despite a critical documentary and a state Assembly bill that could imperil its longtime business model.

The park’s animals and a handful of human guests played prominently in the Friday ceremony, which commenced 18 months of promotional efforts as well as the unveiling of a new exhibit and entryway into the park.

The festivities inside the park were all about SeaWorld’s positive contributions but the specter of “Blackfish” wasn’t far away. Just a couple hours after SeaWorld supporters cheered the idea of another 50 years in San Diego, protesters gathered outside the park, urging the company to stop holding killer whales in captivity.

Here are some takeaways from SeaWorld’s big party.

SeaWorld execs are on the defensive – and want you to know how much they help animals in the wild.

If there was a consistent theme throughout Friday’s ceremony, it was SeaWorld’s somewhat defensive push to remind everyone how it helps marine mammals who don’t live at the theme park.

The 2013 film “Blackfish” criticized SeaWorld’s care of its killer whales and argued keeping the animals in captivity doesn’t benefit the species.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Footage of wild animal rescues dominated videos shown to the dozens of pass holders who gathered for the Friday event, and every speaker affiliated with the company emphasized SeaWorld’s research and rescue work. All seemed to be at least partly responsive to the recent focus on the potential harm of captivity and accusations that SeaWorld doesn’t make a significant investment in research or conservation.

Bill Shedd, whose father helped found the nonprofit Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, played up the conservation and research work of the SeaWorld-affiliated nonprofit.

“You see, SeaWorld has been giving back quietly behind the scenes for the ocean community, to the city of San Diego, into the ocean world, even before it existed,” Shedd said. “Now, 50 years ago, that was just not done.”

Later, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens animal ambassador Julie Scardina said the animals who live at SeaWorld have helped the park understand and research those that live in the wild.

“Animals in the wild count on us as much as the animals that we care for do,” she said.

SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison reiterated the point, saying scientists who visit SeaWorld are sometimes inspired to do field work.

“They are the ones that leave at a moment’s notice to help with a mass pilot whale stranding. They are the ones who stay up all night bottle-feeding a rescued orphaned seal pup,” Atchison said. “They are the ones who stay away from their families for days on end to rescue a manatee out of a drain pipe.”

Shedd got more pointed with me after the ceremony.

“The guys that are out there from (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) or wherever that are shouting about the ocean and the need to help – those aren’t the guys that are out there getting dirty, getting wet, putting the effort out to look after the animals,” Shedd said. “They’ve got a megaphone but they’ve got no ability or talent or real interest to actually help an animal or understand what the real need is of an ocean animal.”

SeaWorld isn’t about to abandon Shamu.

With the so-called Blackfish bill looming, killer whale images and videos were all over Friday’s promotional ceremony.

The killer whale was the most prominent animal featured on a massive 50th anniversary sign backdrop for the Friday ceremony. A look back at SeaWorld’s history shown on large, high-definition screens was bookended by footage of a trio of the park’s orcas jumping out of the water in unison. Orkid, a killer whale who lives at the San Diego park, made a video appearance.

When the ceremony ended, a worker dressed in a Shamu costume waved and hugged children as they walked through the park’s newly revamped entry way.

Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins appears to be on the SeaWorld bandwagon.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Since a Democratic Santa Monica assemblyman introduced the Blackfish bill, politicos have wondered whether the state Assembly’s soon-to-be highest-ranking official would support it.

Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, whose district includes SeaWorld, said earlier this month she would “carefully consider all the issues and opinions surrounding this legislation.”

But she was one of the most prominent officials to speak at the Friday bash – and though she didn’t address the bill, her presence was telling.

She described SeaWorld as “an incredible community asset” and presented company executives with a resolution honoring the park and declaring March SeaWorld San Diego Anniversary Month.

Atkins detailed SeaWorld’s local contributions and ended her brief remarks with: “Happy birthday, SeaWorld. Fifty years looks great on you.”

She declined an interview with VOSD shortly after her speech.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – That Time SeaWorld Tried to Slash Its Rent by 70 Percent – and the next in our series  SeaWorld’s Education Programs Benefit Students – and SeaWorld.

    This article relates to: News, Quest, Quest: SeaWorld, SeaWorld

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about nonprofits and local progress in addressing causes like homelessness and Balboa Park’s needs. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    28 comments
    Torgeir Berg
    Torgeir Berg subscriber

    This series comes off as an ad-campaign for Seaworld and their financial contribution to San Diego. It also completely fails to address the theme I found most disturbing in the documentary, namely the way Seaworld lawyers and management tried to cover up and spin these accidents. Journalism it ain't.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Another example of how SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. could readily and successfully evolve its business model away from captive performing wild species: "ADI has applauded director Darren Aronofsky for using computer generated imagery (CGI) in upcoming movie ‘Noah’, ensuring that no animals were exploited or abused. Our investigations have exposed the suffering of performing animals behind-the-scenes during training and we are delighted that ‘Noah’ is not a party to this cruel industry. So you can enjoy the movie safe in the knowledge that no animals were harmed." http://bit.ly/1hsd1rDr.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    So why doesn't SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. take advantage of the same opportunity?  Nobody's asking SWE to stop serving animal products in its parks. 

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    @Jim Jones @Martha Sullivan  Riiiigggghhhhhtttt, Jim.  Let's not make any progress because we can't be purists.  Wouldn't THAT be the extremism you and your allies decry?  

    Allen Carter
    Allen Carter subscriber

    Bill Shedd's disparaging comments regarding "the guys out there" not being qualified to an opinion are absurd, Considering Mr. Shedd's own background with Sea World and the sport fishing industry, it would appear that his involvement with sea animals has always included a financial interest.


    Nothing wrong with making a buck but there are other things besides financial opportunities that must be considered when we use our oceans and its wildlife.Ethical treatment of animals is one of these.


    The argument that we should ignore the bad things because of the good done by Sea World is not acceptable. Sea World needs to do the right thing and discontinue this mistreatment of orcas.


    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    "Many of these activists", like me, are simply people who seek to continue our society's evolution toward more humane and ethical treatment of animals, as part of a worldwide movement.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    @Jim Jones @Martha Sullivan Don't want a fair fight, hm, Jim?  Let's DO compare the financial resources of the corporate entertainment industry with those of the organizations advocating for humane and ethical treatment of animals AND people. 

    Bob Hudson
    Bob Hudson subscriber

    "SeaWorld could provide an amazingly rich and vibrant experience of the oceans to its customers via digital technology"


    Yes, I agree, people would flock there if the whole park was turned into a big Adobe Flash movie venue. They could take down all the tanks and attractions, put in lots of parking spots with pole-mounted speakers on them and have all the spots face toward a large central screen on which the digital movies would be projected. I don't think they even need to produce any new movies, they can just show continuous runs of the Free Willy series, with maybe a Jacques Cousteau special or two.


    Yep, much better than exposing people to actual live animals.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    You truly are out of touch with what is possible with today's technology. It can provide a MUCH more realistic marine mammal experience for SeaWorld visitors than the sterile, unnatural circus animal acts of the 20th Century. Have you ever even been on a simulator ride, for example?

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    @Jim Jones @Martha Sullivan  Really?  The success of a mega-corporation with revenue of $1.4 Billion last year is dependent on less than 25 captive orcas?  THAT is one weak business model.  What if some virus/pathogen/infectious illness killed off or debilitated the 10 orcas kept in San Diego?  Or the 7 in Orlando?  Or the 6 in San Antonio? 

    Eduardo Stephano
    Eduardo Stephano subscriber

    @Jim Jones @Martha Sullivan  


    "And Seaworld realizes it won't stop with the orcas, next it will be the dolphins, the sea lions, the turtles, the starfish, then when they are out of business and everyone poorer for it, it will be the zoos turn, then the pets, then the meat counter at the supermarket."


    I think Sea World's execs are too smart to fall for this slippery slope nonsense.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    You can't stop the march of history.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. will suffer the same fate as other businesses who don't adapt to changing societal mores and technological innovation. This movement is MUCH bigger than PETA, as witnessed by the growth of cruelty-free cosmetics, personal care and household products, as well as the replacement of live animals with technology in drug testing and biomedical research, not to mention the banning of the centuries-old tradition of bullfighting in Catalonia, Spain (Barcelona) two years ago, extended recently to a ban on any representation of this cruelty to animals in advertising or media.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Another example of how SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. could readily and successfully evolve its business model away from captive performing wild species: "ADI has applauded director Darren Aronofsky for using computer generated imagery (CGI) in upcoming movie ‘Noah’, ensuring that no animals were exploited or abused. Our investigations have exposed the suffering of performing animals behind-the-scenes during training and we are delighted that ‘Noah’ is not a party to this cruel industry. So you can enjoy the movie safe in the knowledge that no animals were harmed." http://bit.ly/1hsd1rDr.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    We are innocent.  Yet, we've been sentenced to 50-years-to-life.  We demand to be set free or we'll kill again!  We gayruntee it.

    Signed,

    Tilikum, et al

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Nobody questions any of the good work SeaWorld has done to help rescue, rehabilitate and hopefully return injured and sick marine wildlife to the wild. THIS is what it SHOULD DO, it's a no-brainer. What IS questioned is SeaWorld's stubborn refusal to recognize the growing movement for more humane and ethical treatment of animals by corporations worldwide -- such as cruelty-free cosmetics, toiletries and household products and not using animals for biomedical research where advancing technology provides other means. With digital technology, SeaWorld doesn't need to keep highly intelligent, socially sophisticated orcas captive in cement tanks, performing tricks for food and being bred artificially.

    SeaWorld could provide an amazingly rich and vibrant experience of the oceans to its customers via digital technology -- ala simulation rides with sights, sounds and movement -- MUCH more real and thrilling than the perversion of nature its circus shows represent. Shamu is already a design graphic in SeaWorld ads, park imagery and merchandise. Make Shamu a kick-ass animated figure! Animation is also on the cutting-edge of entertainment, look at the success of The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, not to mention how much kids LOVE animation.

    My Assemblymember, Speaker-elect Toni Atkins, honored a San Diego institution on its 50-year anniversary. She said NOTHING about the NEXT 50 years.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Ms. Sullivan: With respect to, "Nobody questions any of the good work SeaWorld has done to help rescue, rehabilitate and hopefully return injured and sick marine wildlife to the wild." My sense is that not a lot of people know about it. 

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    It's what all the SeaWorld spokespeople and boosters talk about. Their biggest PR coup was their rescue, rehab and release of JJ the juvenile gray whale over a decade ago. Thankfully, JJ outgrew the tanks and gray whales aren't amenable to training.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Just a note to give SeaWorld some credit. Over the 22 years I worked as a San Diego lifeguard, we often came upon sick, injured, and orphaned marine mammals. Some were emaciated. Some were young and had no mothers. Some were tangled in fishing line. And so on. There was only one place to call in San Diego: SeaWorld. I believe that is still the case. Their marine mammal rescue unit responded quickly and effectively. To my knowledge, the vast majority of these marine mammals were nursed back to health and released back into the ocean. SeaWorld was then accredited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to do this work. There was no cost to San Diego taxpayers and the marine mammals certainly benefited. Whatever your opinion of captive orcas may be, SeaWorld has done some very good things for marine mammals over the years. And in the absence of SeaWorld, I imagine many of those marine mammals would have died.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    "Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins appears to be on the SeaWorld bandwagon."

    Appears the Santa Monica kooks bill  doesn't look as promising now.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    My Assemblymember, Speaker-elect Toni Atkins, honored a San Diego institution on its 50-year anniversary. She said NOTHING about the NEXT 50 years.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Yes, we shall see. As Speaker-elect Atkins' colleague, Assy. Lorena Gonzalez reminded us recently, SeaWorld continues to be anti-union, describing unionization and collective bargaining as a threat in its prospectus for its IPO last year. Another way that the SD Zoological Society is very different from SeaWorld -- it touts its unionization in its annual report, and has several pages about the employee pension fund.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=503155443123978&set=p.503155443123978&type=1&theater.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    No, it's about SeaWorld showing itself to be all about profit, not about ethical and humane treatment of its labor force -- animal or human.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Most activists, like me, are simply people who seek to continue our society's evolution toward more humane and ethical treatment of animals AND people, as part of a worldwide movement.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    @Jim Jones @Martha Sullivan You really seem to have a problem with there being some semblance of a fair fight between mega-corporations with billions at their disposal, and public interest organizations such as organized labor, which is the ONLY organized opposition of any substantial weight.