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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era