ORLANDO, Florida––SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. reportedly threw 311 staff to the sharks of unemployment on December 12, 2014, less than 24 hours after president and chief executive officer Jim Atchison walked the plank, in the wake of a 28% dive in third-quarter profits.
SeaWorld stock continued a Titanic plunge from more than $40.00 per share at the January 2013 debut of the award-winning exposé documentary Blackfish at the Sundance film festival in Colorado, to just $15.77 and falling at the close of the December 12, 2014 business day.
Reported Sandra Pedicini of the Orlando Sentinel, “A company spokesman would not say whether the board asked for Atchison’s resignation,” to become effective on January 15, 2015.
Blackfish & rats
“Chairman David F. D’Alessandro will become interim CEO until the board selects a replacement,” Pedicini wrote. “Atchison will become then vice chairman of the board and will continue as a consultant on international expansion for three years. The board of directors expects to complete a search for a new CEO in six to nine months.”
While all laid-off workers “will receive severance packages,” Pedicini said, “Atchison’s severance package will include a cash payment of $2.4 million. He will also receive an annual consulting fee of $440,000. And he will be eligible for continued vesting of stock options,” not that those are likely to be especially lucrative within the foreseeable future.
D’Alessandro sold 43,179 shares of SeaWorld stock during the first four days of November 2013, when the share price dipped below $30, near the lowest point it reached since SeaWorld opened to public investment on April 19, 2013.
D’Alessandro’s sale, then derided by some observers as a panic move, looks today as if he was among the first rats to leave a sinking ship.
Whale was three-time killer
Summarized Pedicini, “SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. has been fighting public-relations crises since February 2010, when the orca Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, in Orlando. Controversy over killer whales at its theme parks has been fueled by Blackfish, which suggested the stresses of life in captivity may have caused Tilikum to lash out,” claiming his third human victim. Tilikum had in 1991 killed trainer Keltie Byrne, 20, at the now closed Sealand of the Pacific marine mammal park in Victoria, British Columbia, and killed a night intruder at SeaWorld in 1999.
“Just last month,” Pedicini continued, “Atchison told analysts that SeaWorld had hired new people with expertise in public affairs, along with outside advisers ‘to help us navigate some of this.’”
SeaWorld to increase advertising
However, Pedicini reported, “Attendance at SeaWorld’s 11 parks decreased 5.2 percent to 8.4 million” for the third quarter of 2014.
In addition to the three SeaWorld marine parks, in San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. owns the Busch Gardens theme parks in Tampa and Williamsburg, Virginia, the Aquatica parks in Orlando, San Antonio, and Chula Vista, California, and Discovery Cove in Orlando, all of which feature captive marine mammals.
SeaWorld profit for the third quarter of 2014 “dropped to $87.2 million from $120.7 million the previous year,” said Pedicini. “Earnings per share were $1.01, and revenue was $495.8 million. Analysts had expected $1.13 earnings per share and revenue of $495 million.
While cutting costs by as much as $50 million through layoffs and other economy measures, SeaWorld reportedly plans to increase advertising by $10 million, and to open new attractions at several of its facilities during 2015.
In August 2014, Pedicini recalled, SeaWorld announced plans to “nearly double orca habitat at its three SeaWorld parks. The first expansion, in San Diego, will be complete in 2018. The last, in San Antonio, will open in 2022. SeaWorld did not have a timeline available for Orlando.”
Added Pedicini, “SeaWorld said it expects the first phase of a Middle Eastern multipark development to open in 2020. It did not provide details.”
“Do not want SeaWorld to go out of business”
Blogged Animal Welfare Institute marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose, “While some animal advocates may see [the Sea World financial crisis] as a positive for the orcas, it has some significant negative aspects as well. As I have said repeatedly to those who will listen, I do not want SeaWorld to go out of business; I simply want it to change its business model. Going out of business will leave many animals––not just the 29 orcas that SeaWorld owns, but other whales and dolphins, seals and sea lions, sharks, sea turtles, birds, the list goes on––in the lurch. Even if some other corporation buys out SeaWorld, will it see captive marine wildlife in the parks’ future? Or will it simply put these animals up for sale to the highest bidder, who could be anywhere, even as far away as China?”
Rose, an outspoken critic of marine mammal captivity for more than 20 years, opined that “SeaWorld can still thrive as a true theme park with exhibits and rides that are interactive and based on innovative technologies without using live animals at all.
“While in 10 to 15 years we may be exactly where we want to be,” Rose continued, with “no more exploitation of captive orcas and the winding down of the display of other cetacean species, during the transition from one state of affairs to another, change might come suddenly, and that’s a situation these animals don’t handle well. We must work to ensure that SeaWorld––or whichever entity takes over the beleaguered company––does right by the animals and doesn’t just treat them like so much corporate inventory.”
Virgin retreats from PETA
Pressured, respectively, by Earth Island Institute and PETA, entertainers and airlines have been backing away from SeaWorld since November 2013.
Virgin America in October 2014 became the latest airline to withdraw from a promotional partnership with SeaWorld. PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk told media that PETA staff were “popping champagne corks” in response to the Virgin America decision, but Hugo Martin of the Los Angeles Times observed that the airline appeared to be hedging its bets.
“Although Burlingame, California-based Virgin America confirmed that members of the airline’s frequent flier program would no longer be
able to earn points to visit SeaWorld parks, the carrier wouldn’t publicly say why,” Martin reported.
Following the success of Blackfish, Martin wrote, “Virgin Unite, the philanthropic arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, asked its business partners to take a pledge never to accept marine mammals that were taken from the sea after February 14, 2014. Virgin Group is a major investor in Virgin America.
“When asked why Virgin America was cutting SeaWorld from its loyalty program, the carrier pointed to the pledge. But among those who have also signed the pledge are SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio,” whose marine mammal collections have for more than 25 years included only marine mammals born in captivity or acquired from other marine mammal parks.
“Virgin Holidays, the British-based online travel agency, continues to sell tickets to SeaWorld parks,” Martin noted.
Other airlines quit earlier
PETA said JetBlue Airways, Alaska Airlines and Aimia, operator of a Canadian rewards program called Aeroplan, had dropped promotional deals with SeaWorld in September 2014.
Southwest Airlines and SeaWorld Entertainment on July 31, 2014 jointly announced the end of a 25-year-old marketing partnership, effective at the close of the year.
“As part of the partnership, three Southwest airplanes had various SeaWorld animals painted on their bodies,” summarized Mike Schneider of Associated Press. “Those planes will be painted over to Southwest’s traditional look. SeaWorld also had Southwest signs in its parks, and Southwest offered vacation packages to SeaWorld, as it does to other tourist destinations. The vacation packages will continue.”
Bands back out
Earlier, Earth Island Institute between November 28 and December 14, 2013 persuaded all six original headline bands and one of the replacements to withdraw from scheduled 2014 performances at the SeaWorld “Bands, Brew & BBQ Fest.”
“The Canadian band Barenaked Ladies was first out of the water,” wrote Earth Island Institute International Marine Mammal Project spokesperson Laura Bridgeman, after Mike Garrett, of St. Catherines, Ontario, posted an online petition directed at fans that rapidly collected more than 11,000 signatures.
Willie Nelson, booked to be the “Bands, Brew & BBQ Fest” opening act, cancelled a week later. SeaWorld claimed Nelson backed out because of a scheduling conflict, but Nelson scuttled that claim in a live telephone interview with Brooke Baldwin of CNN. Nelson acknowledged receiving electronic petitions with 9,000 signatures, including 250 collected by his own great granddaughter.
After Nelson came the deluge. REO Speedwagon, Trisha Yearwood, Cheap Trick, Martina McBride, .38 Special, and replacement band Heart all withdrew in rapid succession.
In addition, Joan Jett, whose song “I Love Rock `n’ Roll” was formerly used as the opening music for the “Shamu Rocks” theme show, asked SeaWorld to quit using it.
“Thrill rides & roller coasters”
“The value of the bands leaving SeaWorld,” said Earth Island Institute International Marine Mammal Project associated director Mark J. Palmer, “is not from the lack of income for SeaWorld. The value is the publicity all over the place that big-name celebrities don’t like SeaWorld’s treatment of cetaceans.
“SeaWorld directors are selling off their own shares,” Palmer continued. “Their attendance is down. And SeaWorld is trending away from their animal performances toward thrill rides and roller coasters. Our goal is total shutdown––yes, an end to captivity.”
Trainers and orcas interacting in the SeaWorld tanks, the SeaWorld top draw since 1966, two years after the first SeaWorld park opened in San Diego, ended immediately after trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed.
The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration subsequently prohibited further interactive performances, and in August 2010 fined SeaWorld $75,000, but SeaWorld on appeal won a reduction of the fine to $12,000.
SeaWorld also appealed an OSHA ruling that prohibited trainers from entering the water with whales, but dropped the appeal on August 19, 2014.
Ric O’Barry applies for SeaWorld top job
Ric O’Barry, meanwhile, campaigning against marine mammal captivity since Earth Day 1970, posted to Facebook that he wants to officially apply for the SeaWorld chief executive job vacated by Atchison. “They have a problem and I have the solution,” O’Barry said from Taiji, Japan, where he has been monitoring the dolphin slaughters exposed in the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, directed by Louis Psihoyos and featuring O’Barry.
“The general public will buy tickets to experience captive dolphin rehabilitation, release, or retirement instead,” O’Barry said.
(See also “Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture & the SeaWorld Experience,” http://www.animals24-7.org/1999/06/28/spectacular-nature-corporate-culture-and-the-seaworld-experience/.)
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