Blackfish, Blackstone and the Great Vampire Squid

On Thursday October 24th, at 9PM E.T. in the United States, CNN will broadcast the documentary, Blackfishdirected by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.  Blackfish looks at the almost 40 year history of orcas in captivity, leading up to the killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau  in 2010 by the 12,000-pound orca, Tilikum, a whale previously associated with the death of two other people. (See our previous post.)


Orcas, also known as killer whales, have never been known to kill a human in the wild, yet have proven to be violent when held in captivity.  Blackfish demonstrates that this violent behavior is far more widespread than often acknowledged and asks if keeping whales in marine parks amounts to torture for animals whose brains may be more complex than our own. “When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home,” says John Jett, a former SeaWorld trainer turned critic. “Somebody’s looking back.”

Blackfish is highly rated, receiving 98% positive reviews by 94 reviewers, as compiled by Rotten Tomatoes.  SeaWorld, not surprisingly is less enthusiastic.

Keeping orca whales in captivity is big business. When Blackfish was released last January, Sea World was owned  primarily by Blackstone Group, a multinational private equity firm.   In April, Blackstone sold off most of its holdings in an I.PO.( Initial Public Offering) lead by Goldman Sachs, a firm which has earned the nickname, the Vampire Squid.

Squid Sells SeaWorld

With SeaWorld firmly in its tentacles, Goldman is sucking up millions in investment-banking fees. It’s also redeeming some of the $300 million in senior subordinated debt instruments it holds on the big corporate fish tank. 

Orlando-based SeaWorld runs 11 theme parks, including Busch Gardens in Tampa and SeaWorlds in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio. None of the more than $700 million raised in its IPO will go to Shamu the whale, Puck the penguin or anything else that swims in the parks. The money is going to retire debt and pay some enormous fees.

Buyout firm Blackstone Group BX +2.48% flooded SeaWorld with debt when it purchased it from Anheuser-Busch for $2.3 billion in December 2009. Blackstone put down $1 billion in cash and financed the rest.

Blackstone Group reportedly earned a return on their investment in Seaworld of 178% in three and a half years.

When the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) investigated the death of Dawn Brancheau  in 2010, they fined SeaWorld $12,000 for safety violations.

SeaWorld currently has 22 captive orcas.

Regarding the the “vampire squid” appellation, Al Lewis, writing in the Wall Street Journal notes: “Rolling Stone magazine writer Matt Taibbi gave Goldman this nickname in 2010, complaining that it was “relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

When I mentioned this in a column a few weeks ago, I was soon informed that attaching this term to Goldman was extremely insulting…to vampire squids.

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One Response to Blackfish, Blackstone and the Great Vampire Squid

  1. Phil says:

    Just in:

    ‘Blackfish’ sparks debate over taking kids to animal parks
    CNN – 17 minutes ago
    (CNN) — The family trip to San Diego that we’ve been discussing, in part to visit SeaWorld with the kids, might be off — indefinitely. I relayed that news to my husband (he wasn’t pleased) after watching the stirring documentary “Blackfish,” which will be showcased on CNN at 9 p.m. ET Thursday.