Since Blackfish's premiere in January 2013 rapt viewers have flocked to the anti-SeaWorld cause, while SeaWorld has worked furiously to repair its reputation and dispute almost every minute of the documentary. So which side should you believe?

Like a great deal of people, I recently watched Blackfish for the first time. I found it both fascinating and tragic. Before marching on SeaWorld HQ in Orlando, I did my research, scouring SeaWorld's website and "Truth about Blackfish" page, brushing up on whale science, and reading news articles covering both sides of the debate.

My verdict: Believe in Blackfish. Blackfish's main claim that orcas are unsuited for captivity aligns with modern science. SeaWorld seems to be avoiding facts to protect its profits.

Let's go through the main facets of the argument to gain a better understanding of who to trust.  First, here are each parties opening statements:

Blackfish's claim: Orcas are 100 percent not suitable for captivity. SeaWorld does not benefit the public attitude toward conservation or whale science. 

Seaworld's claim: We treat our orcas very well, and captivity contributes to education and research. Blackfish is propaganda and both biased and incorrect. 

1. Ownership

SeaWorld Entertainment is a family entertainment company owned by Blackstone Group (HQ shown above).  SeaWorld is responsible for the operation of 11 theme parks in the U.S.

The Blackstone Group L.P. is an American multinational private equity corporation based in New York City. As the largest alternative investment firm in the world, Blackstone owns companies like Colombia House Records, the Hilton Group, Michaels, etc.

Both SeaWorld and Blackstone are publicly traded companies, stock symbols (SEAS, BX). They owe a duty to their shareholders to grow the company and increase profits.   

Blackfish was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a documentary filmmaker and mother who wanted to find out more about Seaworld after the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

Garbriela has yet to make any money on the movie. 

It is true that the structure of each organization does not have a direct link to trust. Corporations can be honest and transparent, and filmmakers without financial motive can still be caught lying. But knowing SeaWorld's background is certainly enough information to ask further questions about their corporate motivations. 

2. Financial Motive


SeaWorld makes over 60% of it's 1.46 billion in revenues from ticket sales to shows like the Orca one above. They have a huge financial stake in keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity. This enormous financial incentive makes SeaWorld a potentially biased source for information about Orca science and the logic of captivity. 

In the past corporations have rarely taken a stand for science that hurts their profits. Look at Phillip Morris. If the internet had existed 50 years ago, they would have published a "Truth about smoking" page featuring employees touting the health benefits of cigarettes. 

On the Blackfish side, it's hard to imagine that the documentary was created because of greed or need for profits. Again, the director hasn't yet made a dime on the movie. Maybe some activist groups  have seen a rise in donations and gotten more television interviews, but its nowhere near the revenues that SeaWorld is trying to protect. I think it's a stretch to look at the documentary Blackfish and conclude "They were in it for the money!". 

Is Blackfish Propaganda?
First let's define the term. Propaganda is information used to influences the attitudes of a group or population by presenting facts selectively. 

It's a bit tricky in this case to say who is doing what. Both sides are trying to influence a population and promote their agenda. Both sides prevent facts that show themselves in the best light possible. But once we take the organizational structure and finances into account, it's a lot harder to believe SeaWorld's claim that "Blackfish is propaganda". On one side is SeaWorld, a company making hundreds of millions of dollars on orca shows with a duty to grow it's revenues and return profits to shareholders. On the other side are Blackfish and other activist groups concerned with the well being of orcas. 

Could it be that the company making hundreds of millions by having orcas in captivity is benevolent, and the organizations lobbying against SeaWorld and captivity without any tangible benefits are the self-interested ones? It's surely possible, though it seems unlikely that would be the case. It's more likely that SeaWorld's priority is investors and profits, and that its statements are in its own self interest. 

3. Education and Research


Seaworld claims a large part of the benefits they offer are education and science, much like other zoological institutions. 

Let's investigate that statement starting with the science. I couldn't find much. 
On the research tab of SeaWorld's website, they list a single example of orca research from 2010. It's a study measuring the energy usage of whales in conservation parks to estimate the energy needs of whales in the wild. Huh? This seems like studying the energy use of inmates to estimate the needs of marathon runners.  

After some further digging I found that SeaWorld has produced at most 30 research articles in 50 years. Sounds impressive until you do a bit more digging. In well written expose, Sam Lipman explains that most of these articles are over 30 years old and few are applicable to wild orcas. So they've produced a small amount useful research, but it doesn't seem like enough to justify such wide-scale captivity. 

In terms of education, SeaWorld claims that they have changed the landscape of conservationism:

"Millions of people have visited SeaWorld since the first park opened in 1964, and these visits have played a role in developing a sense of respect for wildlife, especially killer whales, and cultivating a sense of environmental stewardship."

That statement sounds great, but where is the data? Has SeaWorld done studies to quantify the sense of environmental stewardship that their guests develop or if it persists over time? If they have, I couldn't find it. 

"The unique opportunity to observe and learn from live animals increases public awareness and appreciation of wildlife."

This raises an interesting question. Does keeping animals in confinement so that they can entertain humans help us appreciate them in the wild and care for their natural habitats? Maybe. Seeing an orca is a powerful experience that most people won't ever forget. But where is the data? How many people will take action to help orcas in the wild. 5%? Less? Again, it seems like there is a lot of room for doubt here. 

Plus, these days we have astounding series like Discovery's Planet Earth. I'd rather watch stunning footage of animals in their natural environment than see a tiger sleeping on a rock in a zoo or an orca performing tricks in a tiny tank. What's the utility of Seaworld when the alternative is probably more educational? Again, this story is swimming with reasonable doubt.  

4. Animal Health

In an article about giving orcas Valium-like psychoactive drugs, a SeaWorld spokesman said "There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care.”

Is that true? Not entirely. SeaWorld has a pretty spotty record of treatment of both animals and staff. But even if they received the best possible care, would captivity be justifiable on grounds of animal health? Research shows that Orcas are super intelligent, live much longer lives in the wild than at SeaWorld, and that captivity violates a host of natural orca behavior. The clear answer seems like it's no. Imagine if someone told you "We take you to a new place and are going to take the best care of you possible - but you'll die 20 years earlier than normal." Even if the care is world-class, it doesn't seem to justify the other drawbacks from placing orcas in captivity. 

Final Analysis

Looking at all of the facts I can't help but doubting the genuineness of SeaWorld's "truth" claims. Both their motives and justifications fall a bit flat under deeper scrutiny. Yes, Blackfish is not a perfect documentary. It uses a heavy dose of emotion and focuses on trainer deaths to push home it's point. But overall its claims supported by facts, while SeaWorld's are doubtful. 

Using these findings, it's clear that orcas should not be in captivity and responsible citizens should not visit SeaWorld.

It was a daring experiment. Can we capture whales and raise them in captivity? Well we did it. And now 50 years later we know that whale captivity is flawed, it's benefits doubtful, and it's harms widespread. Let's call on SeaWorld and other aquariums with orcas to empty the tanks. It's time for this failed experiment to end. 



Kurt Berning

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