The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1999, Volume 45, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience.

By Susan Davis, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Photos, maps, notes. ix + 313 pp., $50.00 cloth, $18.95 paper.

Reviewed by Annalisa Berta, Professor of Biology, San Diego State University, co-author of forthcoming book, Marine Mammals: Evolutionary Biology (1999).

In Spectacular Nature, Susan Davis, a communications scholar, provides insight into the development of Sea World as a nature theme parkДindustrially produced” popular culture. Sea World first opened its gates to the public in San Diego in 1964 and since then has expanded into a chain of four theme parks now owned and operated by the beer and agribusiness giant Anheuser Busch. With more than 11 million annual visitors, Sea World is a highly successful consumer experience, “one of the most popular and available versions of the wild, remote ocean world.”

Spectacular Nature is well-written, interesting and provocative. The book is divided into six chapters, exclusive of an introduction and conclusion. Detailed notes for each chapter follow at the end of the book and photographs interspersed throughout the text help tell the story of Sea World, both past and present. The first chapter provides a context in its review of the historical development of theme parks in the United States from modest beginnings as amusement parks to “corporate conglomerates”–a bewildering “maze of advertisement, public relations and entertainment.”

In the second chapter the author traces San Diego’s local history and development of the idea for Sea World. It was first suggested as an oceanarium with open spaces and provisions for a wildlife preserve. However, economic growth of the city in the mid-1960’s and increased tourism resulted in the establishment of Sea World as a “revenue-generating” connection between animals and people. This cultural connection is further explored in chapter 3 where Davis describes a “carefully timed, rhythmically experienced” Sea World visit where success is measured in terms of attendance figures and numerical ratings and as bottom line missive of “whether the customer is having a good time.” In contrast, zoos and natural history museums are motivated to “explore what questions visitors take away from exhibits or what questions they may raise.”

Chapter 4 is of particular interest. Here, Davis critically examines the role of Sea World as an educational experience. A “retheming” of Sea World evolved in the mid-1970’s to show that it is “much more than entertainment.” The author traces this transformation against the backdrop of changing public attitudes about animals in captivity, including the enactment of federal legislation (i.e. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972) specifically protecting marine mammals. Sea World’s education efforts are many and varied. Examples include the park’s exhibits of rehabilitated “oil-spilled” otters and rescued baby sea lions and the very successful killer whale captive breeding program. With elementary school-aged children as the target market, Sea World’s Education Department offers an assortment of opportunities including the ever popular class field trips, expert-led in-depth tours, Camp Sea World, and most recently Shamu TV. The latter production broadcast via cable and satellite, promotes the animals as Sea World “stars” and reaches an impressive in-school audience of more than 13 million. As Davis points out, however, although Sea World publicly touts its world class research endeavors, nearly all research is carried out at nearby Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (Hubbs-SWRI) not at Sea World. Hubbs-SWRI is a non-profit organization with scientists that conduct contract research for Sea World and also for state and federal government agencies and other corporations.

Chapter 5 discusses production of the animal shows, the “core product of the park,” in terms of “themed” vs. “here and now” shows. The former trace their origin to early portrayals of costumed animals as vaudeville performers doing “tricks” while the latter, more popular shows of today showcase the physical strength and beauty of animals. Both shows require well-trained animals to achieve the observed “routinized magic” behaviors. Chapter 6 describes the celebrity Shamu show which, according to Davis is “the piece that pulls the entire park together.”

In her concluding remarks, Davis analyzes the various ways that Sea World communicates its ideas about nature, science and the environment. Specifically, she worries about one of the take home messages given to Sea World visitors, e.g. “just by being here you’re showing that you care.” As Davis demonstrates throughout the book, by selectively shaping nature and presenting harmony and balance between animals and humans, the Sea World experience is in many ways unnatural. On the other hand, Sea World offers an unparalleled opportunity for us to view an incredible array of ocean animals that many of us would not be able to see, especially in one place. This diverse fauna includes not just the charismatic mammals mentioned by Davis, but scores of other vertebrates such as penguins, sea turtles, fishes, and the lesser appreciated but no less spectacular invertebrates, (e.g. chambered Nautilus, a large variety of corals and jellyfish). As an institution with an enormous and enthusiastic public following, Sea World is poised to offer deeper and richer educational experiences. Here, the public needs to take an active role by providing more guidance and direction–e.g. market surveys offer an opportunity for input. A Sea World experience requires active participation by the visitor. Learning can be enhanced by spending more time actually observing the ocean life on exhibit and reading the accompanying text rather than moving from one animal performance to the next.

The author’s impressions in 1995 of Sea World as a “theme park that kept revising itself” continue to be reaffirmed. It is a mixed bag of entertainment and education or in modern parlance “edutainment.” In fact, since the book’s publication in 1996, Sea World “Parks” have been renamed “Adventure Parks.” In San Diego, voter approval of a ballot initiative removed the building height restriction at Sea World raising it to 120 feet. This may have presaged the development of a new thrill ride “Shipwrecked Rapids scheduled to open this spring accompanied by a new restaurant where “various animals will entertain guests while they dine.” Along similar lines, “Wild Arctic,” which opened in 1997, is an attraction where visitors take a simulated jet helicopter ride and disembark in an Arctic research station to view polar bears, walruses, beluga whales and seals. More educational exhibits include “Manatee Rescue” which opened in spring 1998, featuring scarred West Indian manatees (undergoing rehabilitation from boat collisions). During 1997 and early 1998 the public was afforded the rare opportunity of viewing a baleen whale, an orphaned gray whale, that was cared for at Sea World and released 14 months later.

Spectacular Nature is recommended for the lay person as well as the professional. Both audiences will find it a significant contribution to our understanding of the development and growth of one of the most popular nature theme parks in the United States and more importantly as a warning of how corporate culture influences our visions of nature, science and the environment.