Going to SeaWorld? Get your blinders ready

Whether you’re an avid fan, an activist, or indifferent SeaWorld has likely gotten your attention in recent weeks.

Beginning with the premiere of Blackfish on CNN October 24th, the hype has not let up.  CNN had major publicity for a week leading up to the premiere.  The film was the highest ranking film on CNN this year and was the second most mentioned cable news show on Twitter.  #BlackfishonCNN trended for a good portion of the opening weekend.  Blackfish also had a big younger viewer turnout. SeaWorld San Diego facebook page was forced to disable comments following a ridiculous debate including SeaWorld, and captivity, advocate Jack Hanna. Word was, and still is, spreading quickly!

Friday, Animal Rights Florida staged an “Orca in a Crate” demo in downtown Orlando.  The event was a huge success.  It was followed by a protest outside the park on Saturday morning to commemorate Tilikum’s capture 30 years ago.  Protesters were met by Orange County Sheriff’s department after an apparent threat to the park Friday.  Officers circled protesters on bikes and left the cars parked through out the day.

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The law enforcement was also present inside the park.  As a guest, I’m not sure if this would make someone feel more secure or make them question why.

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(Orange Co. Sheriff’s Dept. in green)

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Tuesday SeaWorld was in the stoplight again as they entered the US Court of Appeals for the ongoing OSHA saga.  SeaWorld, with the assistance of Eugene Scalia (son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), is appealing OSHA’s use of the General Duty Clause when issuing it’s original citation in 2010.  Comparisons were made to football and hockey players and NASCAR drivers. The difference, however, is that there have been feasible safety changes and improvements in these sports.  Scalia also repeatedly dismissed expert testimony by OSHA witness David Duffus, stating that he lacks knowledge to captive orcas.  It is important to note, however, that Duffus was involved in reviewing the coroners report for Keltie Byrnes (Tilikum’s first victim 20 years ago) and stated at the time that her injuries were consistent with the predatory behaviors he witnessed in wild orcas.  Scalia also repeatedly stated that SeaWorld’s “product” is the close contact between trainers and the killer whales.  What about education???

You can listen to the entire audio of Tuesday’s hearing here.  

While we await the decision, today SeaWorld released their highly anticipated 3rd quarter earnings report which states:

Attendance for the first nine months of 2013 declined by 4.7% compared to the same period in 2012 from 19.9 million to 18.9 million guests. Attendance was impacted by new pricing and yield management strategies implemented at the beginning of 2013 that increased revenue but reduced low yielding and free attendance, adverse weather conditions in the Company’s second quarter and in July, and the negative impact of an early Easter in 2013.

According to their press release:

Attendance trends improved in the third quarter compared to the second quarter reversing a negative trend earlier in the year, with a 3.6% decline versus a 9.5% decline in the second quarter.  Attendance trends also improved steadily within the quarter with July attendance down 5.7% due to adverse weather and August/September attendance down 1.8% as weather conditions improved.  Preliminary attendance in October showed continued improvement with attendance comparable to prior year levels. In addition to adverse weather, the attendance decline in the third quarter was an expected result of planned strategies that increased revenue but reduced low yielding and free attendance.  These strategies were implemented at the beginning of 2013 to increase revenues and operating margins through higher quality attendance which the Company achieved in the third quarter. – See more at: http://seaworldinvestors.com/news-releases/news-release-details/2013/SeaWorld-Entertainment-Inc-Reports-Record-Third-Quarter-2013-Results/default.aspx#sthash.pnWoig83.dpuf

Is the saying true that all publicity is good publicity?  Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish director, has repeatedly said in interviews, making Blackfish was peeling back the layers of an onion.  The onion has been peeled and the crying has begun.  For anyone planning to visit SeaWorld in the future, get your blinders ready.  There is too much to look past to visit without them for anyone with a conscience.  I don’t think it’s the weather keeping people away either!

A Bad Week for SeaWorld

Last week was a rough week for SeaWorld, and this is just the beginning.

On Monday, iTunes released a new trailer for the movie Blackfish.  The new trailer is amazing, encapturing the theme of the movie within a little over 2 minutes.  If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out here: http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/magnolia/blackfish/ or on YouTube here:  

Also on Monday, a petition was released to ask SeaWorld to end their orca breeding program.  Within the first 2 hours, the petition had over 200 signatures and in a week has grown to over 3,220 signatures!  If you haven’t signed or shared the petition yet, you can find it here:  Anti-breeding petition

Monday night Samantha Berg interviewed John Hargrove, both former whale trainers at SeaWorld on Radio Free Palmer.  You can find the link to that interview here:

http://radiofreepalmer.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/BTE6.3.13.mp3

Part 2 will air tonight live at 11pm EDT at radiofreepalmer.org 

Wednesday, David Kirby wrote an amazing article titled:  Six Ways You Can Help Captive Killer Whales.  This is a tool that can be, and will be, used for years to come by advocates to work towards ending captivity in marine parks.  His piece, also published on TakePart, was named the “Pick of the Week” by TakePart at the end of the week.

David is the author of the amazing book “Death at SeaWorld”, due out in paperback on July 2.  You can pre-order your copy today at:  DASW Pre-order or for an autographed sticker, join the event at Fins and Fluke here:  http://www.facebook.com/events/420429341398500/ DASW-PB-Cover1

Death at SeaWorld has continued to gain momentum throughout the week and as of last night had the #1 ranking in several categories in Canada.

DASW Canada

To close out the week, SeaWorld announced that they were going to raise their single-day ticket price yet again on Friday.  This is the third time in the past year for a total of a 12% increase since July 2012.  Tickets last July were $81.99 and have now been raised to $92.  Throughout all of these rate hikes, not a single improvement has been made to the tiny concrete tanks that the whale and dolphins live in, or to the habitats of the sea lions and seals.

The clencher of the week occurred Friday morning when SeaWorld Orlando was issued another citation by OSHA.  This was a REPEAT violation of the previous citation stating that “The employer did not furnish employment or a place of employment which was free from recognized hazards…”

“At Shamu Stadium pools, animal trainers working with whales other than Tilikum were exposed to struck-by or drowning hazards in that they were allowed to engage in dry work performances with the killer whales without adequate protection.”  This resulted in another fine of $38,500.

Is that what the raised ticket price will be paying?

Last night, a news story broke of an escaped sea lion at SeaWorld Orlando.  The news station was “waiting for an explanation from SeaWorld”.  If history repeats itself, they could be waiting for a long time.  Here’s the story…

Sea lion escapes enclosure at SeaWorld Orlando

Barely two weeks ago, a penguin escaped the new enclosure at SW’s new Antarctica exhibit.  What will be next???

A couple other fun things to check out from last week are:

and

SeaWorld Full of Excuses and Contradictions at PMA Extension Hearing

Does this look like 3 foot distance to you?

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SeaWorld claims that they have a current 3 foot protocol for kneeling with whales, however this photo was taken on April 16.  Clearly this is not a 3 foot distance.

SeaWorld and OSHA went at it again yesterday to decide if the Petition for Modification of Abatement Date (PMA) should be extended for a 6 month request.

OSHA insists that SeaWorld must prove that factors were beyond their control in order to extend the PMA.  They said the PMA was denied because the employees are not protected.  Bottom line!

SeaWorld claimed that it took time to consult with outside experts, which is the reason they needed more time.  They said that in the interim they set up a 3 ft rule, but trainers said it was too difficult to feed the whales at 3 ft so it was changed to 18 inches.  The 3 foot rule remained in place if the trainer was kneeling.

SeaWorld claims that they finalized these protocols in December and met with outside consultants in January.

So, who are these experts?

Terri Corbett – VP of Atlantis in the Bahamas (Atlantis does not have killer whales)

Bill Hurley – General Curator at Georgia Aquarium (Also no killer whales)

SeaWorld claims that it took so long to put the current protocols  into place because they listened to trainer and expert feedback to make ongoing modifications.  They feel that the interim measures safeguarded employees because the trainers “felt and remained safe”.  SeaWorld did not approach experts until September after the petition to Abate in July.

SeaWorld devised a list of 26 safety measures that became a “living document” which was in place at the time of the PMA.  They are not willing to make this document public which leads me to wonder if it is being followed.  The judge agreed to only a temporarily seal, but asked SeaWorld to draft a Limited Protective Order within 2 weeks.

Since then, SeaWorld has put a 6 page document into place where they claim they only added more specific and enforceable language.   According to SeaWorld, this document was NOT put into place because of OSHA but only to keep the trainers safe.  This sounds to me like a child saying they are sorry only after being caught doing something wrong.  If they were “sorry” or felt they were acting safely at the time of the citations, SeaWorld obviously would not have undergone such an extensive review.

OSHA questioned SeaWorld about trainer safety specifically when whales turn 360 degrees on the slideout in a break move.  SeaWorld stated that they have never seen a whale perform that behavior without being asked.  They state that it takes a lot of effort for whales to do that behavior, including the whale moving it’s tail fluke up and down.  So, if a whale is angry they wouldn’t put forth additional effort to react?

SeaWorld showed a video of a small part of One Ocean show from October while maintaining their “safe distance” which clearly shows a dance sequence on the slideout with a whale moving its fluke up and down.  SeaWorld stated that the video was only showing interim measures. The video conveniently did not show any touching or kneeling that is happening today.

I’ve gotta call another BS on this one.  This video was also taken on April 16.  Tail fluke moving up and down as, according to SeaWorld, would need to happen in order for a whale to do a 360 Break move.  Who is to say it wouldn’t happen?

SeaWorld maintains the stance that the current protocols of distance prevent the whales from grabbing or hitting the trainers allowing trainers time to move away if a whale moves.  They claim that a whale does not move as quickly out of the water.  (Perhaps they have never seen video of whales hunting on a beach.)  They say trainers don’t have to approach a whale if they don’t want to “unless conditions are optimal”.  Optimal is defined by the whale’s compliance during a line-up.

OSHA does not approve the abatement.  They expected that in the interim, while waiting for external sources, SeaWorld would apply the same separate protocols for Tilikum to all whales.  The current burden on trainers to make decisions is too great.   Just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean something won’t.  With exposure to the whales, there is still potential for additional injury.

SeaWorld stated that it would not be possible to do a show if the procedures for Tilikum were in place for all whales.  Yes, and???  Sounds perfect to me!

Overall, there have been no distinct changes to protocols in the past 6 months, and current protocols are still not enough to keep trainers safe.  Trainers will never be guaranteed 100% safe until there is no contact.   Will we ever get to that point?

For now, SeaWorld was given two weeks to write the Limited Protective Order on the 26 protocols, then the post-hearing briefs will be due 30 days later.  Although Judge Welsch requested that the case be handled expeditiously, SeaWorld, of course, didn’t feel the need.  Go figure!

Stay tuned…

SeaWorld’s Blatant Disregard for Safety Continues

Almost a week after US District Judge Roy Dalton upheld the order for OSHA inspectors to interview SeaWorld trainers about federally mandated safety measures, SeaWorld trainers are closer to the whales than ever.

The mandates include a ban on trainers getting near the whales during shows without a protective barrier or maintaining a minimal distance.  Although minimal distance was not defined by OSHA, SeaWorld has come up with it’s own protocols.  They have also taken the liberty to change those protocols in the years following the initial OSHA citations.

Perhaps they have been modified again, but I will be very interested in hearing the results of the interviews as they explain the pictures below.

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These photos were taken on April 13, 2013 – 5 days after the ruling for trainer interviews to proceed.  Does this look like minimal distance to you?

With so many documented cases of incidents happening in these very situations, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

Is It Time for SeaWorld To Move Away From the Whale Business?

An article published by Courthouse News Service on Monday reports that SeaWorld’s three year fight with OSHA will continue.  Three whale trainers who were issued administrative subpoenas after a follow-up inspection by OSHA in December will now be forced to comply as ordered by US District Judge Roy Dalton.

OSHA first cited SeaWorld following the death of Dawn Brancheau on February 24, 2010 for a Willful violation to the general duty clause for exposing trainers to dangers when working with the whales.  Other violations were also cited.  Trainers immediately suspended “waterwork” during show performances, yet they have continued to maintain close contact to the whales during “drywork”.

In July 2012, the Willful citation was changed to Serious for unprotected trainer contact with Tilikum (the whale responsible for Brancheau’s death) and inadequate trainer contact with the other whales at the park.  The proposed abatement stated that SeaWorld would either install physical barriers between the trainers and the whales, or trainers would be required to maintain a minimal distance from the whales.  SeaWorld petitioned to modify the abatement date, stating they needed more time to correct the violations.

In months that followed, SeaWorld trainers openly remained in close proximity, petting and kissing the whales, with no barriers in place.  At a follow-up inspection, OSHA issued the administrative subpoenas to three current trainers who insisted they would not give testimony.  In December 2012, the US Department of Labor petitioned the court to enforce the subpoenas, now ordered to occur.

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(Photo taken by me on March 3, 2013)

SeaWorld is currently appealing the violations to D.C. Circuit and the petition to modify the abatement date is still pending.  They claim they have not had enough time to put new practices in place, yet over three years after the incident no visible changes have been being attempted.

In December 2012 SeaWorld also filed for a US IPO (Initial Public Offering) for $100 million placeholder amount.  Monday, according to Bloomberg, the amount of public offering it plans to raise was increased to $500 million.  Blackstone Group LC, the park owner, plans to move ahead with the IPO as soon as later this month.

SeaWorld continues to strongly promote the opening of Antarctica:  Emperor of the Penguins in late May.  With the opening of Antarctic and last year’s Turtle Trek, along with the highly successful Manta, they have increased profits by over 300% in the past year.  This was accomplished without trainers getting in the water with the whales, which begs to question:  Is it time to phase out the whales completely?