ORLANDO––SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc on November 13, 2013 reported partial recovery from a year-long attendance slide, plus record third quarter revenue of $538.4 million.
The financial data cooled speculation that the July 2013 theater release of the award-winning documentary Blackfish might have marked the beginning of the end of profitable marine mammal exhibition. Blackfish had won increasing critical acclaim since debuting at the Sundance film festival in January 2013.
Influenced by Blackfish or not, SeaWorld attendance slipped 9.5% in the second quarter of 2013, 5.7% in July, and 1.8% in August and September, for a total dip of 3% in the third quarter.
SeaWorld said the numbers showed audiences returning to the 11 SeaWorld-owned amusement parks, including marine mammal parks in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego, after a drop in early 2013 due to bad weather.
But trainers and orcas interacting in the SeaWorld tanks, long the SeaWorld top draw, have been suspended for nearly four years, and may be history. SeaWorld halted in-the-water interactive performances immediately after trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was killed in February 2010 by an orca named Tillikum at the SeaWorld park in Orlando. Tillikum had in 1991 killed trainer Keltie Byrne, 20, at the now closed Sealand of the Pacific marine mammal park in Victoria, British Columbia, and killed a night intruder at SeaWorld in 1999.
Whether the interactive performances ever resume well depend on the outcome of a SeaWorld appeal of an August 2010 order by the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration that the trainers and whales must be physically separated during performances.
The SeaWorld appeal was heard by a three-judge panel of the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on November 12, 2013, one day before SeaWorld released the third quarter revenue figures. Eugene Scalia, son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, was among the five-member legal team representing SeaWorld.
As well as prohibiting further interactive performances, OSHA in August 2010 fined SeaWorld $75,000, but SeaWorld on appeal won a reduction of the fine to $12,000.
The federal Occupational Safety & Health Act includes a “general duty clause” which requires employers to protect employees from recognized hazards. SeaWorld contends that performances in which trainers and orcas interact in the water are “integral to its mission,” and are therefore beyond the scope of OSHA to regulate.
The SeaWorld brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals argues that “The [general duty] clause cannot be used to force a company to change the very product that it offers the public, and the business it is in. The clause is no more an instrument for supervising the interactions between whales and humans at SeaWorld, than it is a charter to prohibit blocking and tackling in the National Football League or to post speed limits on the NASCAR circuit.”
“The nature of SeaWorld’s show is waterwork,” asserted SeaWorld lead attorney Carla Gunnin after appealing the OSHA ruling in September 2011.
Added SeaWorld corporate curator of zoological operations Julie Scardina, “It’s something that we’ve been successful doing throughout our history. We know it inspires people, and we know that it allows us the best access to the whales.’”
“SeaWorld has continued allowing close contact between orcas and trainers during ‘drywork,’ when staff interact closely with the whales at the stage or in the slide-out area during a show,” observed David Kirby, author of the 2012 hardcover bestseller Death At SeaWorld. “And, the company let it be known, it wanted trainers to resume waterwork as soon as possible.”
But SeaWorld on the eve of the appeal hearing appeared to hedge its bets, Kirby noted.
“Our trainers have not entered the water for performances since February 2010 and we have no plans for them to return to that kind of interaction with our whales,” SeaWorld spokesperson Fred Jacobs told CNN in a written interview soon after CNN broadcast the Blackfish documentary.
“It was the first time I can recall SeaWorld saying it had no intention to resume water work during shows,” Kirby wrote.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish centers on the death of Brancheau. Featuring several generations of former trainers, mostly for SeaWorld, who have come to question the ethics of marine mammal exhibition, Blackfish structurally parallels Death At SeaWorld.
The paperback edition of Death At SeaWorld, released in June 2013, went to a second printing in only 16 days. Yet despite the success of both Blackfish and Death At SeaWorld, SeaWorld revenue for the first nine months of 2013 soared to $1.2 million, up 2% from 2012. This was achieved, however, not by attracting more vistors, but rather by increasing revenue per visitor to $56.80 through “targeted price increases and increased in-park offerings,” SeaWorld said.
SeaWorld board chair David D’Alessandro sold 43,179 shares of SeaWorld stock during the first four days of November 2013 with the share price below $30, near the lowest point it reached since SeaWorld opened to public investment on April 19, 2013. The share price peaked just under $40.
“The more people see the film Blackfish, the deeper stock of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. dives,” wrote Wall Street Journal and MarketWatch financial columnist Al Lewis on November 7, 2013. But the share price climbed back above $31 before the SeaWorld third quarter earnings report was released.