In quest of aquatic novelty
SAN DIEGO, ORLANDO, SAN ANTONIO––A false alarm that SeaWorld San Diego might phase out orca exhibitions in early November 2015 upstaged word that would-be aquarium magnate Ammon Covino had been arrested––again––for wildlife trafficking.
Even in San Antonio, Texas, where Ammon’s brother Vince Covino operates an aquarium almost in the shadow of one of the three SeaWorld theme parks, the Covino family’s four aquarium start-ups scarcely rival SeaWorld.
Flippers & scales
SeaWorld San Diego, opened in 1964, Sea World Orlando, opened in 1973, and SeaWorld San Antonio, opened in 1988, together with eight subsidiary SeaWorld attractions draw about 11 million visitors per year.
Even the smallest SeaWorld facility appears to draw more people than the combined attendance at the Covino-built aquariums in Austin, San Antonio, Boise, Idaho, and Portland, Oregon.
But both the SeaWorld false alarm and the Covino bust underscored how much the marine life exhibition business depends on novelty to continually rejuvenate visitor interest.
Novelty also attracts visitors to zoos, of course, and is why most major zoos build or rebuild at least one new major exhibit per year.
At the same time, zoo-goers are encouraged to develop identification and relationships––or at least imagine they have developed identification and relationships––with zoo animals who have names, whose families have lived for generations at the zoos that keep them.
No empathy for fish
Though the American Zoo Association sought for decades to discourage member zoos from naming and otherwise anthropomorphizing exhibit animals, most zoos resisted, knowing that birthday parties for favorite animals and other such humanizing hucksterism tend to boost paid admissions and souvenir sales.
Appealing to human empathy has not worked well for marine life exhibitors. Most humans do not easily identify with fish, while despite 50 years of effort by SeaWorld to promote the “Shamu” brand, human identification with marine mammals has produced campaigns to “Free Willy!”, “Free Lolita!”, et al, and to try to boycott SeaWorld into dropping orca exhibition entirely.
Orca shows have been the SeaWorld chain’s signature attraction since the acquisition of the first Shamu, in December 1965. She performed in San Diego until she injured trainer Anne Eckis on April 19, 1971, in an incident distantly presaging the February 24, 2010 fatal attack on trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando. The Brancheau attack confirmed Tilikum’s reputation as a serial killer; Tilikum had in 1991 drowned 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.
The 2013 hit film Blackfish centered on Brancheau’s death. The release of Blackfish immediately preceded a year-long SeaWorld attendance slide.
After reportedly spending $10 million on publicity to counter the effects of Blackfish, SeaWorld in April 2015 hired new chief executive officer Joel Manby, 55, for $1 million a year. Manby had for 10 years been president and chief executive officer of Herschend Enterprises, owner of the Silver Dollar City theme park in Branson, Missouri; the Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Georgia; and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball traveling exhibition team.
“In 2017, we will launch an all-new orca experience,” Manby pledged to investors in a November 9, 2015 conference call. “It’s going to be focused more on the natural setting, the natural environment and also the natural behaviors of the whale. And it will have a strong conservation message.”
But a SeaWorld spokesperson admitted in an e-mail to Newsweek reporter Stan Ziv, Ziv wrote, that “The orcas in San Diego will remain in the same tanks they are currently kept in for the ‘new orca experience’ coming in 2017, and that the company plans to continue breeding the whales in captivity. The spokesman also said SeaWorld has not considered retiring its orcas or working to place them in sea pen sanctuaries,” Ziv added, “as animal welfare groups and orca experts have suggested.”
Observed Slate senior business and economics correspondent Jordan Weissmann, “Last year, SeaWorld announced plans to build much larger $100 million environment for its whales in San Diego,” featuring a pool three times the size of the present main orca tank. “But the ‘Blue World’ project ran into a wall,” Weissmann continued, in October 2015, “when the California Coastal Commission ruled that the company could only proceed with the construction if it also stopped breeding orcas at the park.
Plans to sue
“SeaWorld says it plans to sue over the commission’s ruling,” Weissmann continued. “But in the meantime,” Weissmann wrote, “it seems to be reaching for a more modest plan B that might improve its public image a bit,” even as “It doesn’t appear that SeaWorld will be changing its killer whale shows in Texas or Florida.”
Congressional Representative Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) on November 7, 2015 pledged to introduce a bill to prohibit breeding orcas in captivity. Schiff also said the bill would prevent the capture of wild orcas for exhibition, which has not been done in U.S. waters since six were caught in Budd Inlet, just below the Washington state capitol building in Olympia, on March 8, 1976.
Those were the last orcas captured by oceanarium supplier Don Goldsberry, whose seven-year series of roundups of orcas for sale, mostly from Puget Sound, were finally stopped by Washington state legislation introduced on March 9, 1976.
Imports & exports
The proposed Schiff bill would also ban either importing or exporting orcas. The most recent imports of orcas, however, include Keiko, brought to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1996 from El Reino Aventura in Mexico City, to be rehabilitated for eventual release, and Bjossa, relocated to SeaWorld San Antonio from the much smaller Vancouver Aquarium in April 2001, three and a half years after the death of her longtime companion Finna in November 1997.
The most recent export of an orca was the transfer of Keiko to a sea pen in Iceland, from which he was released back into the wild in July 2002 to spend the last six months of his life as a nominally free whale who spent most of his time seeking human contact in Skaalvik Fjord, Norway.
While the SeaWorld plans to change little of substance to animal welfare took the media spotlight, and took the activist spotlight with it, occasioning commentary from many leading animal advocacy organizations, Ammon Covino yet again ran afoul of the law.
Reported Katie Terhune of KTVB-Boise, “The former president of the Idaho Aquarium was arrested in Texas [in late October 2015] on charges of violating conditions of his release from prison, including an agreement not to buy, sell or possess fish or wildlife. The condition, which effectively barred Ammon Covino from working with aquariums, was put in place after he was convicted in 2013 of conspiring to illegally import sea life for the Boise aquarium.”
Refused bond by U.S. federal judge Mark Lane, “Covino will be transferred to Florida to face charges,” Terhune said.
Ammon Covino and Idaho Aquarium cofounder Christopher Conk on September 24, 2013 pleaded guilty in federal district court in Key West, Florida, to illegally conspiring to acquire eagle rays and lemon sharks from the Florida Keys. Covino was sentenced to a year plus a day in prison, followed by two years of supervised release. Conk was sentenced to four months in prison plus two years of supervised release. Covino’s nephew, Peter C. Covino IV, 20, was sentenced to serve 100 days of home detention for obstruction of justice, in connection with seeking to destroy records pertaining to the case.
The Idaho Aquarium, three years in development, opened in December 2011––the same month in which Conk and his ex-wife Deirda Davison pleaded guilty to trafficking in smuggled coral. For that offense Conk was sentenced to serve six years on supervised probation.
Animal care issues
The Idaho Aquarium was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. While it was in development, Ammon and Vincent Covino in December 2012 opened the for-profit Portland Aquarium in Milwaukie, Oregon, a Portland suburb.
Within less than eight months both the Idaho and Portland aquariums ran into trouble.
With Ammon Covino facing the Key West charges, Idaho Aquarium attendance fell 60% during 2013. Coinciding with the convictions of Ammon Covino and cofounder Conk, a new management team headed by former Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce president Nancy Vannorsdel took charge in September 2013, pledging to ensure that alleged mistreatment of animals at the aquarium would not be repeated.
The allegations of neglect of animals emerged after media in both Boise and the Portland area––and the editor of ANIMALS 24-7––received “death logs” purporting to be from one aquarium or the other. The allegations involving the Portland Aquarium were investigated by the Oregon Humane Society in August 2013.
The dates on the pages that ANIMALS 24-7 received covered the time from February 16 to May 16, 2013 when the Portland Aquarium reportedly had no regular vet care. The most often stated probable causes for animal deaths were starvation, electrical failures, getting caught in drains, and attacks by other animals.
Responded Vincent Covino in a prepared statement, “The death log submitted appears to be fabricated, or to be skewed by such deaths as dozens of snails, baby damsel fish and others.”
Fish in the Texas hills
KGW-Portland and KTVB-Boise meanwhile reported that Vincent Covino had been told to remove fish from the proposed Austin aquarium site, then also in development, because the site was not licensed to house animals.
While Ammon Covino served prison time for his Key West convictions,
Vincent Covino opened the Austin and San Antonio aquariums in December 2014. The latter, in the Leon Valley, occupies a former Dodge dealership near the Primarily Primates and Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation sanctuaries, in an area also including several biomedical research animal facilities, but none of the other animal-related sites are open to the public.
“It’s unclear what relationship, if any, Ammon had with [the Austin and San Antonio aquariums],” said Terhune.
Also unclear is how different the Covinos may be from SeaWorld cofounders Milton C. Shedd, Ken Norris, David DeMott, and George Millay, four former UCLA frat brothers, all now deceased, whose initial idea was to build an underwater restaurant and marine life show.
Shedd and Carl Hubbs, an eminent marine biologist, had cofounded the Mission Bay Research Institute in 1963, renamed the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in 1977. Norris was already among the best-respected marine mammologists of his time. DeMott and Millay provided business acumen.
Pre-AWA & MMPA
Discovering that building and operating an underwater restaurant concept would probably be economically unfeasible, the four partners revised their plans and built 22-acre theme park featuring dolphins and sea lions. Attracting 400,000 visitors in a year of operation before acquiring the first Shamu from the Seattle Marine Aquarium, SeaWorld established itself a decade before the Animal Welfare Act was extended to animals used in exhibition, before the passage of the Endangered Species Act, and before the introduction of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Indeed, the original SeaWorld was not even required to produce an environmental impact study in the current sense of the word.
Whether SeaWorld could have enjoyed the success it has had if trying to operate under the present regulatory regimes and current public expectations is anyone’s guess.
What is clear is that the window of opportunity for captive marine life exhibitors who cannot compete with SeaWorld has narrowed, even for those as persuasive and able to raise investment capital as the Covinos.
In the Pacific Northwest, where the Covinos started, marine life exhibition was pioneered in part by the Depoe Bay Aquarium in Depoe Bay, Oregon, opened by Portland entrepreneurs H.L. Collins, J.C. Bradford, and Jerry Newman in 1926. The 17-tank aquarium featured seals, sea lions, octopi, and a wide variety of mostly local fish, mollusks, and anemones.
Early success inspired R. E. Clanton, J. G. Houghton, and J. E. Jacobson to purchase the site of Sea Lion Caves, between Yachats and Florence, Oregon, in 1927. They spent the next five years developing access to the caves by building a 135-step wooden stairway down from newly built U.S. Route 101.
Discovered in 1880 by William Cox, the caves had belonged to the Cox family from 1887 to 1926, but as access could then be accomplished only by small boat, navigating perilously through rocks and rough surf, the family had not found a way to profitably manage the caves as a visitor attraction.
Sea Lion Caves survives
Sea Lion Caves, featuring uniquely spectacular close-range viewing of sea lions and other marine life for most of each year, remains in operation, still owned by descendants of Jacobson and R.A. Saubert, who acquired Clanton’s share of the business in 1934.
Sold to John and Talley Woodmark in 1978, the Depoe Bay Aquarium survives only as a photo exhibit in a gift shop occupying the renovated and subdivided aquarium building, finished by competition from the Oregon Coast Aquarium, 20 miles south, opened in 1992, and by the estimated $200,000 cost of improving the facilities to comply with the Animal Welfare Act.
Keiko killed Depoe Bay Aquarium
The Woodmarks began a three-year phase-out of the aquarium business in 1995, after the Oregon Coast Aquarium was selected to physically rehabilitate Keiko after his removal from El Reino Aventure, featured in the first Free Willy! film. The Depoe Bay Aquarium harbor seal went to the former SeaWorld park at Aurora, Ohio, closed in 2000. Two sea lions went to the Indiana Children’s Zoo in Fort Wayne. The shutdown was completed, ironically, one day after Keiko was transferred from the Oregon Coast Aquarium to Iceland.
Loss of Keiko nearly killed Oregon Coast Aquarium
The Oregon Coast Aquarium itself nearly collapsed within a few years.
While Keiko resided there, from January 1996 to September 1998, the Oregon Coast Aquarium drew more than two million visitors. During the next six years it barely drew 400,000, while the cost of building exhibits meant to replace Keiko in public appeal ballooned from $4.5 million to more than $11 million.
“Then-director Phyllis Bell applied for a $2 million loan to help cover the gap, but did so without board approval,” recalled Dan DeCarbonel of the Salem Statesman Journal in March 2004. “Bell, who resigned in 2002 when the unauthorized loan was discovered, pleaded guilty in October 2003 to a felony charge of forgery and a related misdemeanor in connection to the loan. She was sentenced to eight days in jail and about a month of community service. The resulting financial mess left the aquarium in default on its revenue bonds.”
Surviving the crisis, just barely, the Oregon Coast Aquarium is currently promoting an exhibit entitled “Secrets of Shipwrecks.”