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The Death of Marineland : When Orky and Corky Moved to Sea World, It Meant the Whale Show Could Go On. For Marineland, the Show Is Over.

August 09, 1987|NINA EASTON | Nina Easton is West Coast correspondent for the American Banker.

THE PARK WAS CLOSED the day the moving equipment rumbled across the tawny Palos Verdes bluffs toward Marineland. The orders that had come down the day before were accompanied by strict warnings against leaking the news.

The afternoon was growing warm and hazy as 33-year-old Gail Laule pulled on her wet suit and jumped into a 650,000-gallon tank containing two killer whales. Marineland's new owner, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, had ordered the famous whales shipped out that night, and Laule wanted to spend a few final hours with them. After four years training the whales, Laule knew their personalities well, and now, as she swam with them, their agitation was so palpable she could almost feel it rippling like waves through the pool.

When night fell, floodlights were turned on and most of the water was drained from the tank to limit the whales' movement. A 200-foot crane moved in behind the three stories of spectator stands surrounding the tank and swung a boom across the stadium. Down in the tank Orky turned his 14,000 pounds to the side and watched a huge stretcher drift out of the sky and into place next to him. With just a light tap to his head, Orky--who is generally gentle but capable of outbursts so violent that he once nearly killed a trainer--swam gracefully into its folds. "I truly believe that as he watched, he realized what was going on. He knew what he had to do, and he did it, " says Laule.

But Corky, his 8,000-pound mate, was frantic. The pair had been together in the same pool for nearly 18 years. Corky tried to throw her massive body into the stretcher along with Orky but failed. As the crane lifted her mate hundreds of feet in the air, above the bleachers and into a tank aboard a flatbed truck, the sounds of her desperation filled the hollow tank. Orky responded with a cry Laule had never heard before.

By midnight, both whales had been loaded onto trucks, and a 20-vehicle caravan began its trek to Sea World in San Diego, one of three ocean parks owned by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. For Harcourt, that long night of Jan. 20 meant the end of a desperate search for breeding killer whales. For Marineland, it simply meant the end. Twenty-two days later, William Jovanovich, Harcourt's chairman and chief executive officer, abruptly closed the park and fired its 300 employees.

What ensued was a bitter struggle with former Marineland employees, local residents, Los Angeles schools and the City of Rancho Palos Verdes that damaged Harcourt's reputation and threatened a boycott of its textbooks. Executive Vice President Peter Jovanovich calls the episode the worst public relations disaster in the company's 68-year history--and under the leadership of his father, William, Harcourt has never been known for a knack for dealing with the public. The company became the target of hate mail and the butt of Johnny Carson jokes. Pickets appeared at Marineland and Sea World. Some Southern California schoolteachers and college professors stopped using the publisher's books. Newspapers editorialized about "corporate greed." And, along the way, seven Marineland animals died.

AS THE CHRISTMAS holidays approached last December, rumors began to circulate throughout Marineland that Harcourt had bought the park. That in itself was no cause for alarm to the park's employees. Every winter, like clockwork, the park's attendance dropped off, prompting rumors of a sale. But this time there was reason to take the whispers more seriously: Winston had died.

Winston, at Sea World in Orlando, Fla., was one of the few male killer whales in the Sea World empire, its only male breeder and the father of the only calf to survive in captivity. To the tightly knit world of marine animal specialists, his death the previous April meant that Sea World needed to intensify its search for a male killer whale old enough to breed. Marineland's Orky was the only proven male breeder left in captivity. He had fathered six calves, though none had survived. For at least two years, Sea World had been trying to buy Orky.

The stakes in Sea World's search were high. Shamu the killer whale is Sea World's Mickey Mouse; whales named Shamu are the star attractions of three parks and the focus of their marketing efforts. On a weekday in June, when attendance at the San Diego park was light, there were still no empty seats in the park's shiny new Shamu Stadium as a parade of orcas twirled trainers on their noses and flipped through the air. Even Wall Street doesn't underrate Shamu's draw: One year a Paine Webber analyst began his report to Harcourt investors by noting that the company had lost two killer whales in the fourth quarter.

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