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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle