When the documentary “Blackfish” was released at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, the filmmakers had no idea that it would spark a revolution that would later be known as the “Blackfish Effect.” What was originally produced as a means to tell the story of an orca named Tilikum and the Sea World trainer he killed, has caused big waves in the world of animal activists and politics, changing Sea World forever.
The film focuses on the capture of Tilikum as a young orca, his captivity at Sealand of the Pacific and Sea World and the three trainers he is responsible for killing. Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death sparked the making of the documentary. The film alleges that orcas are not dangerous to humans in the wild but that captivity causes them to become aggressive, that captivity decreases the lifespan of orcas and that removing orcas from their natural habitat is emotionally damaging to the killer whales.
No immediate effect was seen after the movie aired at the independent film festival. When it was picked up by Magnolia Films and CNN Films and given a wider release, however, Sea World became the center of controversy. Popular song artists and performers cancelled their concerts in 2014 with the theme park, upcoming films edited out scenes that were filmed at SeaWorld and Southwest Airlines ended their 26-year relationship with the aquatic theme park. By the end of the year, Sea World experienced a $15.9 million loss.
Lawmakers became involved after their constituents raised concerns about orcas being kept in captivity. The Orca Welfare and Safety Act was introduced by California lawmakers, which would require that killer whale captivity for entertainment purposes be banned. In New York, legislation was also proposed that banned keeping orcas in captivity. In June 2014, an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Act that required the Animal Welfare Act be updated in regards to cetacean captivity passed in Congress with unanimous support.
SeaWorld changed it’s policies due to public concerns following the film. Following Brancheau’s death, OSHA required that all trainers be in barriers away from the animals, no longer performing together in shows. At the end of 2014, Sea World announced that it would build larger environments for the whales and will fund additional research to protect ocean health.
SeaWorld become a public company on April 19, 2013, with its initial public offering set at $27 per share, quickly rising to over $32 by the close of the day. The company raised $702 million from the deal. After the widespread release of “Blackfish,” however, stocks plummeted. In 2014, Sea World reported low admittance, which didn’t meet the theme park’s expectations for the year. This caused the stock to fall by 31 percent by the end of the year. Currently, stocks prices are still low, averaging approximately $18 a share.
Despite low attendance and dropping stock prices, Sea World employees are hopeful that things will soon turn around. Experts say, however, that the “Blackfish Effect” may continue to harm Sea World for some time to come, unless Sea World can change their focus from entertainment to education.