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Did a killer whale doc just kill an industry?

Seaworld might be about to take a giant hit.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.