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Sea World's Education and Research Programs Expected to Continue

June 21, 1989|LORI GRANGE | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The sale of San Diego's Sea World may involve billion-dollar wrangling on the corporate level, but it most likely won't change the park's role as a local education and research venue, those associated with the park say.

Details of the planned sale, announced Tuesday by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the publishing giant and owner of four Sea World parks nationwide, are vague. Local officials could offer few predictions about potential buyers and changes. But they spoke with greater certainty about what may not be affected.

"Since Sea World was founded in 1964, we've not only been committed to entertainment, we've also been here for the purpose of education and for the purpose of research," said Dan LeBlanc, a spokesman for the park. "For a marine-life park, those are self-imposed responsibilities that really can't change."

Education Programs

Nor is it likely that the community wants them to, say officials. LeBlance said Sea World pumps a sizable--he declined to say how much--sum into the San Diego economy, and directs 120,000 local children each year through its in-house education programs. Its programs are also held in the county's schools and universities. And about 25% of the park's annual 3.6 million visitors are San Diego residents, according to Sea World officials.

"I can't see somebody building a roller coaster in Sea World, or anything like that. I think they would be reluctant to tamper with a successful formula," said Al Reese, a spokesman for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. "I'd guess there would be relatively little change."

But local environmental activists, worried that business interests and profit motives could edge out the park's research and education aspects, aren't as convinced.

Skepticism Voiced

"We would be concerned that a new organization taking over would maintain the highest level of safety and concern for marine mammals. But there's also this skepticism about marine parks in general," said Rick Nadeau, director of Greenpeace Action in San Diego.

"One concern is the view that the education aspect legitimizes the business aspect. The two often get fudged, even with the current owners," he said. Nadeau likened the situation to Playboy magazine, which "does do educational work, but also is somewhat exploitative."

Researchers say they know little of what goes on behind the park's corporate doors. But they maintain any decision made in the sale probably won't hurt their interests.

"It's so speculative right now. All I know is that it's going to be a major acquisition for somebody," said Tom Collins, associate director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "It's our hope they will continue to provide the same appreciation and understanding for the ocean environment as the park has in the past."

Hope for Immunity

Officials hope that Hubbs Research Institute, a 25-year-old, nonprofit marine and environmental think tank on Sea World grounds, remains immune from corporate power plays.

Although it is a separate entity, its $1.5-million budget funded by research grants and contracts, the institute looks to Sea World for a sizable yearly donation, office space, payment of its utility bills, and help with repair, development and paper work concerns. But of more than 50 senior decision-makers at Hubbs, only one--Sea World President Bob Gault--represents the park.

Park officials "free us from a lot of constraints on the business side so we can concentrate on science," said Don Kent, executive director of Hubbs. "But they exercise no ultimate control over the institute.

'Institute's Still Here'

"I've seen lots of people in the park's administration come and go, and the institute's still here. I don't anticipate too much changing," Kent said. "If a new management team comes in, I'd expect that they'd recognize a good thing when they see it."

Local politicians say they expect the same.

"Sea World is an integral part of what is San Diego," said Paul Downey, press secretary for Mayor Maureen O'Connor. "We're hopeful the new owner will run it in the same spirit the park has been run in for the last 25 years."

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