KILLER WHALES | SEAWORLD’S OCEAN OF CASH
Company’s brand is built on orcas, and none has more value than Tilikum.
OShamu is big business at SeaWorld, which owns more killer whales than anyone else in the world and builds the orca image into its multimillion-dollar brand.
The death of a trainer last week won’t change that.
Trainers at the for-profit parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego weren’t allowed back in the water with the hulking ocean predators Saturday when shows resumed. SeaWorld and a panel of outside experts are conducting a review of how the company handles orcas.
But the timing of the killer whales’ return to performances reflects just what the sleek black-and-white mammals mean to SeaWorld, which the private equity firm The Blackstone Group bought last fall for about $2.7 billion from Anheuser-Busch InBev in a deal that included two Busch Gardens theme parks and several other attractions.
“SeaWorld operations are built around Shamu and the orca. So quantitatively they mean literally hundreds of millions of dollars to that company,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting firm.
No animal is more valuable to that operation than Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity.
Tilikum now has been involved in the deaths of three trainers and requires a special set of handling rules, which Atchison wouldn’t specify.
Captured nearly 30 years ago off the coast of Iceland, Tilikum has grown into the alpha male of captive killer whales, his value as a stud impossible to quantify.
Killer whales — actually part of the porpoise family — aren’t endangered. Estimates of their worldwide population range from 50,000 to more than 100,000.
But it is illegal to capture killer whales in the U.S. and several other countries, and while a few have been caught in recent years in Russia and Japan, U.S. import laws make it difficult to acquire an orca caught in the wild.
“Really, you can’t buy them,” said Speigel, who put the market value of an individual whale at up to $10 million.
That makes breeding the best way to build a collection of killer whales to draw in visitors at up to $78.95 each to sit in the splash zone or take pictures of their kids petting Shamu, the stage name SeaWorld gives all of its adult orcas in shows.
And no one is better at breeding killer whales than SeaWorld.
The company owns 25 of the 42 orcas in captivity, and other theme parks sometimes come to SeaWorld to get theirs.
At the heart of it all is Tilikum, the company’s go-to sire. Of the 20 calves born at SeaWorld parks, Tilikum has fathered 13, the company said. SeaWorld has only one other breeding male.
Before SeaWorld improved its artificial insemination methods, males were more commonly crated, put on planes and lent to various theme parks for breeding, part of the reason that only a handful of parks worldwide have successfully birthed calves. The practice continues despite an outcry from animal rights groups.
Like many amusement parks, privately held SeaWorld doesn’t release attendance figures or say whether it charges More than 2,000 people watched orcas, or killer whales, perform Saturday at SeaWorld in Orlando. Trainers directed the orcas from outside the tank. other facilities stud fees or other fees for the right to buy or borrow orcas.
Nor does it disclose what chunk of its revenue comes from killer whales.
But that’s what everyone goes to see.
Mitchel Kalmanson, a marine mammal appraiser in central Florida who has brokered the sale of two killer whales, agreed that parks such as SeaWorld aren’t the same without Shamu.
“Without killer whales,” said Mitchel Kalmanson, a marine mammal appraiser in central Florida who has brokered the sale of two killer whales, “the rest are ancillary shows.”