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Orca protests bite into earnings of SeaWorld

The campaign against theme park operator SeaWorld's killer whale shows took a bite out of the company's quarterly earnings on Wednesday (Aug 13), sending its shares plunging by more than 30 per cent.

WASHINGTON: The campaign against theme park operator SeaWorld's killer whale shows took a bite out of the company's quarterly earnings on Wednesday (Aug 13), sending its shares plunging by more than 30 per cent.

SeaWorld Entertainment, which runs 11 popular parks in the United States, barely acknowledged the pressure over its captive orcas, which picked up after the national broadcast of the acclaimed documentary "Blackfish" last year.

But the company warned that the 5 per cent fall in revenues in the first half would continue, for a possible 7 per cent fall for the whole year, blaming tougher competition, a delay in a new attraction, and, obliquely, the controversy.

SeaWorld said it "believes attendance in the (second) quarter was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California." That was a reference to the March proposal by a state lawmaker to ban the use of captive killer whales for entertainment, which aimed at SeaWorld's San Diego park.

The politician who proposed the law cited "Blackfish", which probed the impact of captivity on SeaWorld's orcas and the fatal 2010 attack by one of them, Tilikum, on a trainer.

While the company has downplayed the impact of the orca campaign, its first-half performance compared poorly to that of Walt Disney Co, which operates theme parks like Disney World in the same markets.

Disney reported an 8.2 per cent rise in income from its parks and resorts division for the same period, citing higher attendance and spending by guests.

SeaWorld's shares sank nearly 31 percent to US$19.45 (S$24.30) in early trade on Wednesday, putting them far below the US$27 (S$33.73) offering price when the company went public on April 19, 2013.

Chief executive Jim Atchison said the company was "certainly disappointed" with the results but will step up marketing. "Every business is going to have a rough patch," he told analysts in a conference call. "We will run more promotions to generate attendance."

He noted that the popular travel website TripAdvisor named the company's Discovery Cove park in Orlando its top amusement park for 2014. TripAdvisor meanwhile ranked SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego, both with orca shows, seventh and 17th respectively.

The quarterly report came two weeks after Southwest Airlines' announcement that is ending a 26-year-old joint marketing programme with SeaWorld, one that had involved painting two of Southwest's jets as SeaWorld's famous first killer whale Shamu.

The airline cited "shifting priorities" for the change, but some suspected it related to the campaign for the killer whales, as some of the protests had targeted the airline.