The Sound of One Fin Flapping – San Diego’s SeaWorld ‘Debate’

by on March 18, 2014 · 9 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Media, Ocean Beach, San Diego, Sports

Orca in a bowlBy Doug Porter  / San Diego Free Press

A couple of weeks back Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced AB 2140, legislation that would put a stop to the practice of using orcas as performers, along with ending captive breeding programs and trafficking of the species in California.

SeaWorld, which has been in major damage control mode since release of the Blackfish documentary last fall, has seized upon this opportunity to bring its story to the media. There has been a virtual blitzkreig of coverage about the many wonderful accomplishments of this salt water-based amusement park.

Given that the San Diego City Council will most likely be declaring March to be “Sea World San Diego’s 50th Anniversary Month” later this week, we’ll take a look at some of the local reportage and commentary on this subject today.

My assessment of SeaWorld’s messaging thus far is that everybody should know by now about what a wonderful, job-producing asset to the community the Mission Bay facility is and all the charges against it are coming from animal rights extremists who have no idea of what they are talking about. Cough, cough.

While the primary advocates for maintaining the status quo are getting plenty of press, secondary and tertiary advocates are the ones being called upon for rebuttal. Despite what you might have been told, opposition to the practice of using sea mammals as props in amusement parks goes beyond PETA (People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the few disgruntled ex-SeaWorld employees appearing in the Blackfish documentary.

UT- San Diego staged a Sunday paper debate, featuring Assemblyman Bloom, sponsor of the Orca Welfare and Safety Act versus SeaWorld’s vice president of zoological operations Mike Scarpuzzi. (Click on the names to read their positions.)

The Data Driven Case

Voice of San Diego has set out to “explore” the role of SeaWorld in our city with a mega-series of articles. In terms of all the numbers and factoids you’ll ever want to see, this series is the place to go. Here’s how it all started back on February 24th:

It all started with a magazine story about a killer whale named Tilikum.

In 2010, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite read an article about the 12,000-pound orca tied to three deaths at wild animal parks, including two at SeaWorld. She decided to investigate.

What resulted was “Blackfish,” a documentary millions of Americans watched on CNN and Netflix – and serious blowback for SeaWorld, a publicly traded company that will celebrate its 50th anniversary next month.

The film, which argues killer whales don’t belong in captivity, raises both moral and economic questions about one of our region’s major tourist attractions.

Reporter Lisa Halverstadt makes a data driven case for (I think) the facility in the series, pointing out in detail its impact on the local economy along with refutations of the arguments made in Blackfish. This has led to suggestions via social media and elsewhere that VOSD is in the tank (pun intended, thank you) for SeaWorld.

In what is an interesting twist on the adage of the “pot calling the kettle black,” UT Watchdog editor Ricky Young (upset with what he feels was a nit-picky Fact Check) has suggested on Twitter that “I’ve had people suggest we should see whether SeaWorld is secretly underwriting latest quest.”

I think the real issue with much of the local coverage is that fails it to take into account the moral framework for the arguments against performing orcas.

Breaking Through the Local Echo Chamber

Seth Hall, who is a contributor to VOSD, has posted a comprehensive critique of their coverage, pointing out what he sees as deficiencies in the approach thus far. Calling out the series as “a worship service of SeaWorld’s economic import to San Diego,” he concludes:

What should be “next up” is perhaps is some discussion of censorship of anti-SeaWorld advertisements at the San Diego airport. Or perhaps an ongoing international movement to recognize the “rights” of whales and dolphins. Maybe, at the very least, we could start including the voices of some local SeaWorld protesters in the stories: they aren’t hard to find. This series started because of a critical film; are those filmmakers so eager to have their voices excluded from the narrative?

How is it possible for a news organization to advocate for a private company in such an absolute way, without involving any opposing perspectives, over a such a numerous series of articles? Where are the responses from activists, and where are the opposing viewpoints of San Diego’s dependence on SeaWorld? The answer is that they are on Twitter and in reader comments of the published stories.

SEa Shepard

The Passionate Moral Argument

I’ve been negotiating (or trying to negotiate) for over a week now, trying to get permission to reprint some of the thoughts of Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society.

What I was looking to do was to post a passionate moral argument from an activist position, since I’ve felt that’s not been part of this debate. Even conservation groups have bureaucracies I guess, so I’m just going to go for a little “fair use” here.

Today the mayor of San Diego announced that Sea World is important to the San Diego economy and that this California bill to ban performances by marine mammals will hurt San Diego’s economy if it passes.

It could also be said that Dachau was important to the economy of Munich. It can be argued that slavery was important to the economy of the South.

There can never be any economic justification for slavery or animal abuse. Bull-fighting was a big part of the economy of Catalonia, Spain, yet they have banned this sadistic sport because it is unethical and has no place in the 21st Century.

Forcing highly intelligent, socially complex, self-aware sentient beings to perform tricks for humans in a coliseum atmosphere has no place in the 21st Century either.

Remember this is about abuse and irresponsibility. It is about the death of a trainer and the captivity and suffering of intelligent beings.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is dedicated to closing the doors to Sea World. We are dedicated to ending the captivity of marine mammals. We are dedicated to ending the ruthless slaughter of dolphins by the captivity industry. We are dedicated to replacing these circus facilities that exploit dolphins with educational facilities that tell the public exactly what is happening in our oceans, especially the diminishment of bio-diversity.

We will not be distracted. We know who our enemy is. That enemy is the mentality that treats animals as objects of entertainment and abuses them for profit.

I know this quote is strong stuff, the kind of rhetoric that the spinmeisters at SeaWorld will tsk-tsk at and call extremist. But I post it to make a point. This ‘debate’ about animals performing in an amusement park isn’t about data. It’s about a larger shift in perceptions and ethics.

Sea World’s Winning the Battle, Losing the War

I suspect SeaWorld will “win” this public relations battle and that AB 2140 won’t get close to being enacted this time around. I don’t think they’ll win the long term struggle here. If they were smart, they’d put some of that energy and money they’re using to try and shape perceptions into building a new business model.

natural orderI get it that extending the moral basis for the arguments against performing animals will ultimately lead to larger changes in the ethics of our society, changes that I’m frankly not ready to accept. But looking at the larger and long-term picture, I know there is zero probability of resisting the incoming tide of change.

If we humans are truly an intelligent species, we’re going to have to re-evaluate all our relationships on and with planet earth. And if your understanding of the universe includes the premise that our species is somehow superior and destined to reign over the cosmos, it’s probably pretty hard to fathom why people are squawking about orcas.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

John Filthy March 18, 2014 at 12:37 pm

That graphic of circle versus triangle really says it all.

As extreme as that Sea Shepherd quote may be to some, it touches on an important point. Human beings are just as callous to other human beings as they are to their other fellow mammals. We are in a country that justified the use of torture as part of the so-called war on terror. It’s an uphill battle convincing a populace who is ready to torture and imprison their brothers and sisters that marine mammal captivity is wrong. That to me that is why PETA’s tactics often put the cart before the horse. Good luck convincing someone who thinks torturing people is ok, that it’s wrong to do it to an orca?

San Diego could easily replace the economic input of Sea World with other more humane forms of entertainment. Boat tours, snorkeling, there are other ways to see the creatures of the see besides imprisoning them in a tank.


Phil Lawrence March 18, 2014 at 3:23 pm

I’ve been to Sea World many times, my kids went to summer camps there, etc. If you talk to the people who care for the animals, they’re virtually all (I’m sure there is an exception). in it because they love animals. The animals in the shows are performing natural behaviors on cue. Everyone has an opinion, but mine is that the orcas, dolphin, sea lions, etc., are not being abused. These aren’t animals that were captured in nets and dragged here. Sea World has been around long enough that all of the animals have been born in captivity or rescued. It’s puzzling to me that it’s only Sea World that is under attack. Why aren’t we horrified that the zoo keeps highly intelligent, socially complex, self-aware being such as elephants, gorillas, orangutans, etc,? Is the performance the issue?


Dan Shay March 18, 2014 at 3:47 pm

This article says “Currently, California has 10 captive killer whales, and seven of them were captive-born, according to Bloom.” –


John Filthy March 19, 2014 at 5:37 am

We are talking about SeaWorld because they are in the press after the movie Blackfish and in the midst of a massive PR campaign to fight the movie. The people who made that movie love the animals as much or more than SeaWorld trainers. Zoos and circuses are similar situations and I don’t go to zoos either because it is depressing to see the state of the big cats in their tiny cages.

Orcas are different than most zoo animals in that their natural range is much larger. Orca pods can have a range of 1300km and travel 100 miles in a day. That is their natural state and the tanks they live in at SeaWorld are the equivalent of a human living in a bathtub.

Orcas also have an acute sense of hearing and SeaWorld explodes fireworks over them 200 nights a year. The zoo doesn’t do that. The zoo also doesn’t build screaming thrill rides while calling themselves educational.

If humans riding Orcas is such natural behavior than why doesn’t it happen in nature?


Eric Mills March 19, 2014 at 11:07 am

“These aren’t animals that were captured in nets and dragged here.”

Not true. For the record, THREE of SeaWorld’s ten orcas were, indeed, “captured in nets and dragged here”: Corky (wild-caught in Canada, 1970), Kasatka (wild-caught in Iceland, 1979), Ulises (wild-caught in Iceland, 1980), plus captive-born Orkid, Keet, Shouka, Nakai, Ikaika, Kalia and Makani.

Bottom line, NO CETACEANS BELONG IN CAPTIVITY. And certainly not for mere “entertainment,” and profits.

Letters in support of AB 2140 are needed NOW.



Jeffeck March 19, 2014 at 7:48 am

Phil the real reason is Sea World is a profitable corporation and the Socialist cant have any of those in their Amerika. Sea World is easy pickens and low lying fruit for the socialist march.

Just like their uncle Saul Alinsky always said ; Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.


John Filthy March 19, 2014 at 9:55 am

Only the capitalist focuses on profit. Read Financial Times and you will see that Blackfish has not hurt SeaWorld’s profit margins. Their stock and attendance are up over last quarter. Sorry to disappoint you. Can you explain how socialism is tied to animal rights? Never heard that one before.


Jeffeck March 20, 2014 at 10:15 am

Try looking at how many of the 1960’s socialist activists moved to the environmentalist movement. They could not convince people with the direct appeal of socialism so they hid behind animals and environmental causes to undermine capitalism. How better to gain possession of land and control industries through regulation? Do the research


John Filthy March 24, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Do the research? Ha! This coming from the guy who complained about injecting politics into an article about the Sex Pistols.


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