In a wide-ranging interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Atchison also discussed the public pressure his Orlando-based company has been under. Last week, SeaWorld stock plunged 33 percent after a weak earnings report, and the company announced that it would nearly double the size of killer-whale habitats at its three SeaWorld parks.
Here are excerpts from the interview, which has been edited and condensed:
In hindsight, do you wish you had come out more forcefully, sooner, against "Blackfish"?
In hindsight, yeah, we probably do, because the movie was so misleading, so full of falsehoods and so unfair in its framing and characterizing of what we do and how we do it and even our history. It's a delicate balance, though, because one of the worst things you can do is to turn it into the movie SeaWorld doesn't want you to see. Reacting too early to it might have made it more newsworthy, made it more of a marketing endeavor.
Some people might look at the new whale habitat you have announced and see that as sort of a concession that what you have now for the whales is not ideal.
You know, I recognize that. There's probably little we can do or say to kind of unwind that. We've kind of recognized that's just something we have to kind of accept and deal with and people are going to say that. The reality is, we conceived of these habitats before "Blackfish" was ever created. ... Our first drawings go back to 2010, so it's hard to call it a reaction to that when the reality is we started work before that. We're going to continue to kind of evolve what we do, just as everyone in society should.
These won't open for another few years. Is there a concern you need the benefit of these from a public-relations standpoint earlier?
We're not building these pools, these projects, for that purpose. We're building them because we want to make sure we continue to evolve and create a dynamic environment for the animals we care for and an equally dynamic environment for the guests to connect with it. At the end of the day, we're focused on doing it right as well -- really building something remarkable and special.
Are there any concerns you are making these huge investments and you may be facing a shift in public opinion, where more mainstream people don't feel comfortable with the idea of whales in captivity, period?
We don't feel that way. Our view is that there's probably never been a more important time to connect people with animals than now. Here's some perspective: 130 species go extinct every day on this planet -- 130 today, 130 tomorrow, 130 the next day. Our view is, I think to maybe rephrase your question, has the time for zoos and aquariums passed? I don't know about all zoos and aquariums, but it's never been more important for us to do what we do right now. The world gets more and more and more complicated with respect to population growth and the imperiled environment and the wild. Heightened sensitivity around animals or environmental causes, we don't think that's inconsistent with what we do. We think that's a great benefit to what we do.
But do you see the tide changing? Do you see more people in the mainstream feeling uncomfortable with SeaWorld having whales in captivity?
No. I don't. There will be efforts, there will be propaganda, there will be messaging about trying to get people there, but we have a beloved brand.
So what happened in California during the last quarter, then? [Attendance was weak at the San Diego park, which SeaWorld attributed partly to news coverage of state legislation regarding animals in captivity.]