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How Much Shamu Means to SeaWorld

Even before the so-called Blackfish Bill, observers have long emphasized that killer whales are the park’s top draw.

This post has been updated.

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.

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.

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