Bending to pressure from animal rights activists -- and suffering from a wave of negative publicity following a documentary about one of its captive killer whales -- SeaWorld promised to end its whale breeding program and pivot to a focus on conservation instead of circus-style trick shows.
But despite the marine mammal park chain's shift in focus, public shares dipped to a record low in trading on Aug. 4 after the company released a disappointing quarterly report. That report revealed that attendance during a prime three-month stretch ending in June had dipped by half a million people compared to 2015, according to The Guardian.
The bad news drove stock prices down more than 14 percent after investors learned the park chain missed its quarterly earnings goal by 16 percent.
The park chain's profits were hurt by the fallout from the 2013 movie "Blackfish," a documentary that centers around Tilikum, a killer whale that has been involved in the deaths of three people over the years. The film, which also documented alleged abuses of the intelligent creatures, resulted in musicians like Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies to cancel planned concerts at SeaWorld parks.
In the fallout, the company agreed to build new, larger tanks for the animals, end its killer whale breeding program, and donate millions to killer whale research, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
But in a conference call with investors, company executives said they have "a Florida problem," not an "orca problem."
"Brand issues are abating," SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby told investors, referring to the "Blackfish" fallout.
Instead, Manby said, the lower-than-expected earnings were mostly the result of a steep drop in Latin American visitors to the Florida SeaWorld, partly attributed to economic troubles in countries like Brazil. Attendance at the company's California and Texas parks remained steady.
While the company has 30 killer whales, it has ended the practice of captive breeding, no longer captures orcas in the wild, and will end what it calls its "theatrical experience" in which the whales perform tricks for crowds.
“We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company, we are always changing,” Manby said in late 2015 as he unveiled the company's plans for improvement. “In 2017 we will launch an all-new orca experience focused on natural environment [of whales]. 2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience in San Diego.”
But representatives from PETA, the animal rights group, say they don't see the park recovering.
“SeaWorld is losing more and more visitors every month because public opposition to confining marine mammals to concrete tanks – where they are slowly driven insane, grinding their teeth down to nubs on the metal bars and floating listlessly in just feet of water – is at an all-time high,” said Tracy Reiman, PETA's executive vice president. “Meanwhile, PETA has continued its relentless campaign against SeaWorld all summer.”
In addition to those concerns, SeaWorld's Florida park faces stiff competition from nearby Florida tourist destinations like Disney World, Universal Orlando and Legoland, the Orlando Sentinel noted. The company plans to retool attractions at its Florida park and increase marketing.
"We can still win there, and we're proving that we can," Manby said.