SeaWorld isn’t just another company in San Diego.

It’s one of the city’s largest employers, and one of its most significant sources of income in the form of tax hauls and rent payments.

But in the last year it’s  been forced into an emotionally fraught moral debate about its treatment of killer whales, the very creatures it’s long celebrated and personified in popular Shamu shows and exhibits.

For almost two months, I’ve been on a quest to uncover what SeaWorld and “Blackfish” – the critical documentary fueling concerns about SeaWorld’s business model and holding of orcas in captivity – mean for a city that’s so tethered to the company’s success here.

SeaWorld is ingrained in our community. Tens of thousands of county residents have worked there and about as many Southern California students go on field trips there each year. Meanwhile, boosters sell SeaWorld as a reason to visit San Diego. The company and its executives donate significant cash to local politicians. They also share their perspectives on powerful nonprofit boards, and help rehabilitate hundreds of injured or emaciated animals along our coastlines each year.

All of that adds up to some even larger moral quandaries: San Diegans no doubt benefit from SeaWorld’s financial success and some of its contributions here — but is it worth it? Should we support a company whose star attraction may be suffering in captivity?

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

These aren’t questions I can answer for you. Some readers say they’ll never return to SeaWorld; others remain proud pass holders. But what we’ve uncovered along this journey might help shape your perspective.

Here’s a look at what we learned about SeaWorld’s place in San Diego –  and how “Blackfish” could change it.

What “Blackfish” Claims About SeaWorld

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• The 2013 film argues the tanks SeaWorld houses its orcas in can make the animals become hyper-aggressive shorten their lives. The documentary also contends SeaWorld doesn’t do enough to protect its trainers, particularly following the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau.

A U.S. Appeals Court panel partly echoed the latter accusation in a Friday ruling that keeps SeaWorld trainers out of the water during Shamu shows.

• SeaWorld kept virtually silent immediately following the documentary’s release but has since waged an aggressive campaign to fight its claims.

SeaWorld the Economic Generator

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• SeaWorld San Diego has hosted more than 4 million annual visitors each of the past two years.  The theme park employs 2,500 to 4,500 people, depending on the season. It houses about 27,000 animals, including 10 killer whales.

• SeaWorld leases 190 acres of land and water in Mission Bay Park, which is owned by the city. Last year, it paid the city about $14 million in rent, a sum based on cuts of 19 different revenue sources. This means that the city has a direct stake in the company’s success.

• SeaWorld brings in more than just lease revenue. It’s one of the city’s 10th largest property taxpayer and the city collects significant sales tax hauls from spending there.

What SeaWorld Offers San Diego

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• Last year, SeaWorld rehabilitated almost 440 marine animals, many of them ailing sea lions. SeaWorld initially wouldn’t reveal the cost of those rescues but the park president said last week the company spent about $750,000 on local efforts in 2013, a sum that equals .05 percent of the corporation’s total 2013 revenue.

• Last year, more than 87,000 Southern California students and chaperones went on a low-cost SeaWorld field trip and thousands more invested in longer visits or educational camps. SeaWorld says the outings help achieve the park’s educational mission. But youngsters’ early exposure to SeaWorld is also a big marketing tool for the theme park.

How “Blackfish” Is Affecting SeaWorld

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Protesters outside of SeaWorld's 50th anniversary celebration in March of 2014

• The movie inspired a state Assembly bill that aims to end captive breeding programs and killer whale shows. It would move SeaWorld San Diego’s 10 killer whales to sea pens, though no one is sure how that would work.

A state Assembly committee put that state legislation on pause last week. The company testified that it would devastate the park and possibly expose the state to lawsuits. Oh, and SeaWorld’s lobbyist suggested that halting the killer whale shows would be the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for whales.”

• “Blackfish” debuted on CNN and Netflix late last year but SeaWorld executives said last month the movie had yet to affect attendance. Monthly lease payments – which are based on SeaWorld revenues –seemed to support that claim.

Then preliminary numbers released in early April showed attendance at all 11 SeaWorld-owned parks was down 13 percent in the first quarter of this year. SeaWorld executives had largely predicted this decrease due to a late Easter holiday and the shuttering of some of its facilities during the winter.

Still, “Blackfish” may have played some role in that drop. It’s just not clear how much.

SeaWorld’s Political Pushes

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

• SeaWorld is a major political force in San Diego. The company, its federal political action committee and its executives have donated thousands to local politicians in recent years. Company leaders also serve on influential San Diego nonprofit boards, including the Taxpayers Association, the Economic Development Corp. and the Chamber of Commerce, three groups that publicly backed the company in the midst of “Blackfish” bill debate.

• About 15 years ago, SeaWorld had a significant victory at the polls. Voters narrowly approved an exemption to the city’s coastal 30-foot height limit. This allowed SeaWorld to build attractions up to 160 feet tall.

The Big Moral Quandaries

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson
The SeaWorld "One Ocean" Shamu Show.

• “Blackfish” raised significant ethical quandaries about SeaWorld’s killer whales that have touched thousands in San Diego and beyond. The movie fueled such deep, continuous questioning that the corporation was forced to defend itself in an elaborate marketing campaign and most recently, an almost minute-by-minute review of alleged falsehoods in the film.

The public examination seems unlikely to die down anytime soon.

Some viewers come away from “Blackfish” questioning whether any wild animals should be held in captivity, particularly creatures as intelligent as orcas.

• Many folks who pan SeaWorld still support zoos. That’s thanks to a few crucial distinctions. Zoos – including San Diego’s world-famous one – are often nonprofits, while SeaWorld is a publicly traded corporation. And while zoos also show off animals in shows and displays, their approach usually differs. Zoos tend to show off the animals’ natural behavior while more elaborate shows are a hallmark of SeaWorld’s brand.  Killer whales catapult out of the water, splash visitors and even dance with their trainers

• SeaWorld itself helped foster this moral debate: The company has long personified its killer whales and taught us about their social sophistication.  But the more people come to associate orcas with complex thoughts and emotions, the more likely they are to think they deserve humane treatment.

• Current and former SeaWorld San Diego fans who’ve seen “Blackfish” explained why they’ve decided to stick with SeaWorld or stop going.

What’s Next

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• SeaWorld has long been synonymous with its mascot, Shamu. At one time, the park estimated about 90 percent of park visitors saw a Shamu show and that the orca drew in the majority of its visitors.

“Blackfish” has led many to question whether SeaWorld should move on without Shamu. A handful of former theme-park executives and consultants told me SeaWorld could survive, and even thrive over the long haul, without the killer whale if it can come up with something better. (That’s a big if – but another Southern California park has already done it.)

Such a shift could be more challenging in San Diego. SeaWorld’s agreements with the city require that at least 75 percent of its attractions contain a significant education or animal-conservation focus  and many San Diegans have long opposed the idea of a ride-heavy theme park on Mission Bay.

Then there’s the fact that SeaWorld isn’t interested in changing its model.

Lingering Questions

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

• Will “Blackfish” start affecting SeaWorld attendance and thus, San Diego tourism? The film went viral late last year so any impacts are likely to emerge in 2014.

• Will the “Blackfish” bill return and if so, how might it change? Many Capitol observers considered its tabling last week a form of slow death but Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who sponsored the legislation, vowed to press on.

If the bill gets revisited, San Diego support – particularly from Speaker-elect Toni Atkins – will be crucial. If San Diego Democrats get behind the bill, SeaWorld may be forced to the negotiating table.

• What do SeaWorld’s conservation and research efforts, particularly associated with its nonprofit arm Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, contribute to our region and to scientific knowledge of killer whales? The company has repeatedly pointed to this work as a major benefit of captivity. Assembly members last week requested related details when (or if) the bill returns to the Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife.

• Could SeaWorld eventually relent and end its orca shows, or perhaps even get rid of its killer whales? Theme-park gurus tell me SeaWorld’s attendance trends in coming months could be a driving factor.

If numbers fall, the company may be motivated to shift.

• OK, now I’ve got a few questions for you. What have you learned about SeaWorld and “Blackfish” in the last several weeks? Is there something you’re still wondering about?

And finally, do SeaWorld’s local contributions outweigh the accusations about its treatment of killer whales? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous storySeaWorld’s Tentacles of Influence.

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

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    denali subscriber

    People need to stop arguing that just because SeaWorld pays its rent (on one of San Diego's most prime pieces of real estate) that this somehow makes orca dancing ok. SeaWorld pays rent, taxes, and hires people, basically what businesses are supposed to do, and this somehow equates to moral exemptions in the eyes of many. This type of thinking is the same for why corporations get all sorts of hand outs and tax breaks, and why rich people usually get lower or no sentences during trials.

    SeaWorld needs to immediately develop a new business model, one that truly represents a marine sanctuary and educational park. Right now the model for SeaWorld (and many zoos) is to take animals from the wild or to pretend to rescue them from the international animal trade, which essentially is partially there because of operations like SeaWorld.

    Parents and teachers need to stop hiding behind the "child's experience" excuse. Going to a show where orcas do tricks distorts kids' views of these beautiful creatures. I challenge parents and teachers alike to take a stance and don't take children to see this show. The payoff when the kid gets older to explain to them that wild animals are not meant to be show animals and for learning tricks may help the paradigm shift against these types of operations and the animal trade as a whole.

    If you want your kids to see Orcas and to see real smiles on their faces, go on a whale watching boat and sit and wait. The payoff is substantially higher, more memorable, and in harmony with mother nature. subscriber

    I read the article; not impressed; very one sided, as usual for the Voice of San Diego.  Bottom Line:  I like SeaWorld; I don't like Ms. Halverstadt's biases toward a company that has done more for San Diego then anyone else within the opposition.  Bullying, half-truths, misdirection are not the way to win friends and influence people.

    CCTS subscriber

    If they released the orca into Seapens, they could still have the best of both worlds and their rehabilitation could be relayed back into the park, adding to the educational displays they are meant to have. That of course will depend on how much Seaworld get behind the project. Keiko learnt to catch his own fish and he was sick and captive for 22 years, Seaworld know it could be done, they are just choosing not to. As for the research look through it, my blog might help.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Nice work on this series of articles Lisa. Difficult to do when you have a bias but I believe you presented balance.

    "do SeaWorld’s local contributions outweigh the accusations about its treatment of killer whales?"

    I would say absolutely.    

    shrkb8 subscriber

    In 2013, a single small non-profit in San Pedro CA saved 640 sea mammals...200 more than all SeaWorld Parks combined.  And that is just one of many non profits.  SeaWorld's rescue/rehab program is window dressing for PR.

    Note SeaWorld is silent on their continuing capture of other sea mammals for show.  SeaWorld is currently party to an application to import 18 beluga whales captured of Russia.  NOAA denied the permit as 5 belugas were still nursing when they were captured and the taking was an unsustainable impact on that population of belugas.  Not so conservation minded as they would have us believe....

    Hypnotik1 subscriber

    I have learned that Seaworld will stop at nothing in it's attempt to undermine the facts in Blackfish, and that they have never truly focused on the questions of ethics and morality of keeping orcas confined to tanks.  The blackfish movement, which they refer to as "extremists" grows  daily and has shaken them to the core.  Local contributions, financial and otherwise do not give them licence to exploit these animals. Thank you for your series and I hope you too have learned something about the dark side of captivity. 

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    @Hypnotik1  I think you got it backwards; Blackfish will stop at nothing in it's attempt to undermine the facts about Sea World. 

    They never truly focus upon the questions of ethics and morality in using propaganda techniques and deception to manipulate public opinion.

    People who anthropomorphize animals are immature and paradoxically refuse to acknowledge how we learned about the social lives of cetaceans in the first place. 

    The GLOBAL contributions to public education and science by Sea World are deserving of reward.

    In 100 years, when there are no more whales in the wild, and the species are keep alive because of Aquatic Zoos like Sea World, will these uneducated and misguided "activists" acknowledge that their emotional ploys and illogical arguments threatened their extinction? 

    There are REAL issues in the worlds Oceans, a few aquatic ambassadors of the sea entertaining children is not one of them. This distraction is keeping us from dealing with the end of our oceans.

    Hypnotik1 subscriber

    @Michael Russell , Orcas suffering in captivity to line Seaworld's pocketbook is a REAL issue. What you consider to be aquatic ambassadors, I see as apex predators reduced to circus sideshows and Seaworld's cash cows. Seaworld does nothing to protect orcas in the wild, in fact they are responsible for nearly decimating the entire Southern Resident Orca Populations. Doesn't sound like conservation to me. Their shows are purely for entertainment, not a shred of real education happening there. Their rescues are done by Hubbs, who take public and Federal dollars away from non profit groups who run circles around Seaworld when it comes to science and education. Seaworld has been cited numerous times for dumping polluted water into Mission Bay, so they are no friend to the environment either.  If you don't like Blackfish, perhaps you should read "A Death At Seaworld" or watch "A Fall From Freedom", or "Frontline: A Whale of a business". Ah but you probaly would consider that to be propaganda too. Sounds like you bought into Seaworld's BS hook, line and sinker, and are probably a member of their new little "cult" The truth team.  hahaha The only ones spouting propaganda is in fact seaworld and their ever shrinking band of clueless supporters.

    Kelly Abbott
    Kelly Abbott moderator memberadministrator

    Wear it like a badge of honor, Lisa. Ad hominem attacks are not too low for the U-T. I'm glad the discourse here is more civil. 

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    I didn't know that FeeWorld offered rehab. I might sign myself in later today.



    NDavis subscribermember

    Thank you for this series of articles. No, I don't think sw's contributions justify their treatment of the orcas. Orcas should not be bred in captivity to create future "entertainers". They should not be housed in tanks. This is wrong regardless of the amount of money SW generates. 

    Arguments about zoos (or even pets) are interesting and useful in the broader discussion of why humans hold some animals in captivity, but they do not rise to the level of "justification" for sw's actions. And attempting to excuse treating one animal poorly because it makes money to help another animal is, well,...a sign you don't have many good arguments.

    Sea World will change as people become more aware. Years from now people will look back at the orcas' treatment  much the same way we now look at old circus animals' conditions....bewildered and a bit saddened by man's inhumanity.

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    @NDavis  I love the circus. What is wrong with animals in the circus? You do realize that there are now 7,000,000,000 people on the planet Earth? We humans have taken over the environment and hunted most species to near extinction, where else are animals to live if not zoos, parks, reserves, and the circus? 

    asmith79 subscriber

    @Michael Russell @NDavis Yeah! You are soo right! To hell with the environment!! Why focus on it when we can play God and create MORE ambassadors!  Oh wait... if their extinct, I guess they can't really be ambassadors any more huh?  Dohhh!

    AlfieUncle subscriber

    Thank you for this article and I am pleased to answer your questions:

    What have you learned about SeaWorld and “Blackfish” in the last several weeks?

    That SeaWorld's practices are even worse than I thought. That they masturbate a whale to get sperm just to create more free in bred "whale product" for profit. That they remove calves from mothers. That a SW employee would not even give a straight answer about this at the AB2140 hearing last week. That their continual bragging about their rescues is really a joke:  .05% of their revenue? $750,000 out of billions?  This is an entertainment for profit company. It is NOT an educational or rescue organization. The rescues are clearly a very, very small sideline and the facts people receive during the "shamu shows" about whales are merely a few comments, and some (such as why their dorsal fins are collapsed, orca lifespans, and how far they swim in the wild) are not even accurate.   That the money SW is spending on their top dollar lobbyist to fight AB2140 would be far better spent on building sea pens.

    Is there something you’re still wondering about?

    Yes, why is SW resisting the sea pen solution? It would be win win win. The whales would have adequate space, be able to catch live fish, still get veterinarian care, and the public would still get to see them. And SW and San Diego would not lose money. They may even make more. There are MANY people opposed to the whales being in the tanks but would gladly visit the whales in sea pens. Attendance could RISE. And the activists would be happy that the whales are out of tiny tanks.   Why the resistance from SW? Is it mere stubbornness and arrogance that they cannot believe the world is screaming 'no more tanks'?  Shift your business model regarding the whales SW and you will thrive. Continue your arrogance and you will be fought against forever. If SW thinks the activists, the whale lovers, the school children protesters, the filmmakers and the legislators are going to go away because they hired a big scary, obnoxious, bully lobbyist who sounds like the soulless Michael Douglas character in Wall Street (and the lobbyist is those things, which admittedly, is his job) think again.  We are not going away. SW may be a ruthless Goliath. But there are millions of deeply passionate, committed Davids who will simply not stop. Not until every whale in a tank is released.SW has a choice. They can be the last white plantation owner in the south who hangs onto their slaves until the law removes them by force and look like villains forevermore. Or they can release their whale slaves now--to sea pens, and look like heroes who had the corporate flexibility to flow with the times while still making money.

    And finally, do SeaWorld’s local contributions outweigh the accusations about its treatment of killer whales?

    Absolutely not. And the financial contributions can continue!!  The move to sea pens does NOT need to reduce contributions. It could increase it.

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    @AlfieUncle  Have you ever wondered where they get dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.? Humans breed many, many animals. You likely have a captive few at home.

    AlfieUncle subscriber

    @Michael Russell @AlfieUncleYes, actually I have cats. Cats, however, are not wild animals. They have been domesticated for thousands of years, unlike whales. And, I do not confine them to live in a tiny, tiny spaces. They have FREE reign of the house and garden. I do not force them to do tricks for strangers in order to eat. And, I do not make my living by making  people pay to see them do tricks. I also do not give them anti-depressant drugs, or masturbate them and sell their sperm, or articifically inseminate them to make more cats to sell. These are things SeaWorld does to whales.

    My cats are part of my family, not commodities. The whales at SeaWorld are commodies and slaves, not part of any human's family.  SeaWorld itself refers to them as "their collection."

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    I have appreciated this series very much, and have learned quite a bit about SeaWorld's finances and its financial ties to the City of San Diego and its business community. I particularly appreciate your reporting that SeaWorld San Diego's President, John Reilly, finally admitted that he spent just 0.05% of 2013 corporate revenue on SeaWorld's much-touted animal rescue activities. These activities are the #1 rationalization for the captivity of highly intelligent, socially sophisticated orcas. So -- what I am still wondering about is the morality and ethics of such a trade off. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, “At least 137 orcas have been brought into captivity from the wild since 1961. 124 are now dead, surviving an average only four years in captivity.”

    Secondly, 3 of these 13 survivors are here in San Diego: Corky2, Kasatka and Ulises. WHEN do they get to retire, after 35-45 years in captivity and performance? Why is it so unreasonable from SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.'s perspective to provide retirement facilities for these long-serving beings who by SeaWorld's insistence have been crucial to its financial success? Are these survivors doomed to perform until they die?

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    @Martha Sullivan  Seriously, the $750,000 that Sea World spent last year to rescue sea mammals is just the EXTRA money they spent to respond when called to help by outside organizations (like the City of San Diego lifeguards). One might argue that EVERYTHING that Sea World does actually promotes environmental engagement, reinforces public education about oceanography, and promotes the conservation of ocean species. By your own count they have saved at least 137 Orca from brutal deaths in the wild, and provided them safe, productive lives as ambassadors of the sea. Millions of human children have been inspired to become naturalists and oceanographers, scientist and environmentalists (including me) by these interactions with these wonderful animals. 

    Don't make it so easy to satirize well intentioned people. 

    John Falchi
    John Falchi subscriber

    Michael-Your extremely one-sided approach, e.g., "they have saved at least 137 Orca from brutal deaths in the wild, and provided them safe, productive lives as ambassadors of the sea," really ignores the negative side of confining these marine mammals in unnaturally small spaces so that they can earn their keep, so to speak, by entertaining humans for the profit of Sea World.  Many people object to this unethical and unfair treatment of these fine marine mammals.  Sea World should follow the lead of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD which is seriously considering sanctuaries for marine mammals!