Did a killer whale doc just kill an industry?

Seaworld might be about to take a giant hit.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish is a clear successor to 2009’s The Cove: a documentary that, through condemnation of Japanese dolphin hunting, lodged within the public consciousness a deep unease at the relationship between people and cetaceans.

But while The Cove was only positioned to affect international attitudes towards a limited segment of Japanese culture, Cowperthwaite’s film is poised to make a significant economic impact on the marine park industry.

Blackfish, which premiered at the Sundance festival in April and is on general UK release from 25th July, tells the story of 12,000lb bull orca Tilikum, who has lived in captivity for 30 years.  In this time he has been linked with the murky deaths of 3 people, most recently SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

The film’s clear message is that a lifetime of boredom, claustrophobia and bullying from other whales conspired to build an abyssal psychosis in this highly emotional – and frighteningly alien – creature.

Cowperthwaite lays responsibility for the situation at the door of the marine park industry, and in particular SeaWorld, accusing the group (which is a heavyweight opponent indeed at a market cap of €3.5bn) of covering up facts surrounding the deaths, and propagating misinformation among visitors about the welfare of whales in captivity.

SeaWorld itself is conspicuous by its absence in the film; while a small army of former trainers assemble on camera to express their shame and regret over their part in Tilikum’s story, SeaWorld repeatedly declined to be interviewed or issue a statement to Cowperthwaite.

Only now, in the wake of unexpectedly intense media buzz surrounding Blackfish, has the group released a press release stating:

"To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld – among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research."

The statement is keen to emphasise SeaWorld’s non-entertainment credentials, focusing on animal rescue, academic research and conservation.

But for anyone who has sat through Blackfish’s harrowing cuts between footage of whales in extreme distress and fun-and-games SeaWorld adverts, it’s clear that the group’s marketing focus (and its reputational crisis) revolves around spectacular shows involving performing cetaceans.

The question affecting SeaWorld’s ongoing revenues is this: what does the American public think is the group’s ethos – and does it care?

After all, it’s one thing for the movie to stir up the emotions of reviewers (as it has done - it’s currently scoring 97 per cent on rottentomatoes.com with 38 reviews, and is making a Tilikum-sized splash on social media), and another entirely for it to change public attitude enough to make a genuine impact on SeaWorld policy.

Whether the American public could care less still remains to be seen, but they are at least going to be as aware of the situation as one filmmaker could hope to make them.

If they do decide that cetacean captivity is unacceptable, and their distaste is not sufficiently mitigated by SeaWorld’s CSR credentials to keep them buying show tickets, what’s at stake? For a start, the future lifestyle of the 45 killer whales currently being held in captivity around the world (not all of them by SeaWorld parks).

But beyond that, a vast sea change in the marine park industry.

Zoos housing terrestrial animals have undergone huge transformation in recent decades – in the UK at least, a zoo can expect public outcry over any perceived cramping and lack of stimulation in enclosure design, and the Zoo’s public image has become characterised by piety; it exists for conservation and as a place for people to view animals on the animals’ own terms.

The mentality of the chimp’s tea party is absurd in the 21st century zoological industry.

But for the big hitting marine amusement parks in America, Japan and elsewhere, it is the norm. And it’s not a relic of decades past, either. Only two years ago, America’s Georgia aquarium – the largest in the world, and one which markets itself as being founded on education and conservation – opened up a new dolphin exhibit.

If it was opened for the purposes of education, its methods must have been subliminal. While I didn’t see so much as a plaque explaining that dolphins are mammals when I visited, I did see hundreds of punters buy pricey tickets to watch the animals dance along to the singing and capering of a theatre studies graduate introduced as the "Starspinner".

Can you imagine if the revamped gorilla facility at ZSL’s London Zoo had opened along similar lines in 2007?

The reason for the discrepancy between zoos and cetacean-holding aquariums is financial. Marine parks have not made the jump from animal-based show entertainment to conservation and emulation of natural environments – as zoos have done – because of the costs involved. Because of the disproportionately greater costs of maintaining saltwater habitats in comparison to terrestrial ones, and the far greater spaces that must be maintained in order to house an orca as opposed to, say, a tapir, show admission revenues (and associated merchandise sales) are arguably vital to covering overheads.

The circus mentality with utilitarian pools, cajoled performances and megatons of cuddly toys is what has made the SeaWorld model the $1.4bn per year success that it is. Without it, the group would have the troubled P&L characteristics of most zoos, and would genuinely have to rely on its research and conservation credentials to survive. Such a shift in operating model would be challenging, to say the least.

SeaWorld’s share price has hovered between $35 and $39 since soon after it floated on the NYSE in April, and doesn’t seem to taking much of a discernible hit yet from the first wave of Blackfish reviews. Nevertheless, if the public do begin to vote with their feet against the captivity of marine mammals in the months and years to come, investor outlook could look very different.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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