The Secret Spies of SeaWorld

SeaWorld admits its employees posed as protesters to spy on animal-rights groups—and activists say that was only one of the company’s dirty tricks to silence critics.

Photo illustration by The Daily Beast

SeaWorld has come clean about its employees posing as protesters to spy on animal-rights activists. But the dirty maneuver is just one of many below-the-belt tricks from the foundering corporation whose profits are tanking, advocates charge.

Since Blackfish torpedoed its public image, the theme-park giant has been accused by activists of deploying moles to gather intel and communist trolls to discredit protesters’ efforts, and even went as low as leaking an embarrassing video of a former SeaWorld trainer after he released a tell-all that slammed the company.

SeaWorld sent the video to reporters after allegedly receiving it from “from an internal whistle-blower,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Now The Daily Beast has learned SeaWorld allegedly used a rabble-rousing infiltrator to challenge a scientific paper—which claimed that theme park-bred orcas had poorer survival rates than their wild brethren—before it was even published.

“It’s paranoid behavior by a corporation that is trying to control the message like they always have,” said study co-author and former SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre, a key figure in the documentary Blackfish, which exposed how highly intelligent orcas turned violent after being forced to perform in captivity.

“Unfortunately for them, with the curtain being pulled back, they’re having a hard time of it these days,” Ventre added.

SeaWorld’s public relations nightmare has dragged on since the film’s release. This month, Dart, a 12-year-old Pacific white-sided dolphin, died of unknown causes at SeaWorld San Antonio—the third relatively young mammal to die at the branch in as many months.

In June of last year, the Orlando Sentinel revealed THAT the U.S. Department of Agriculture was probing two dolphin deaths at SeaWorld after Lagos, a 7-year-old bottlenose, died of what’s suspected to be pneumonia.

Meanwhile, SeaWorld saw revenues nose-dive 84 percent in the second quarter of 2015, and the company’s stock was down 11 percent Thursday afternoon.

In the latest blow, CEO Joel Manby conceded that SeaWorld had spies trailing its critics. In a conference call with investors, he said SeaWorld’s board of directors “directed management to end the practice in which certain employees posed as animal welfare activists,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.

“This activity was undertaken in connection with efforts to maintain the safety and security of employees, customers and animals in the face of credible threats,” Manby added.

SeaWorld confirmed Paul T. McComb, a human-resources staff member at its San Diego park, as one of the spies. The 29-year-old was put on leave pending an internal probe after PETA blew his cover last summer, but now he’s back at work in a different department, SeaWorld said Thursday.

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The embattled chain wouldn’t comment further to The Daily Beast on the unseemly tactics, and messages left for McComb were not returned Thursday.

“We had already discovered that SeaWorld was using spies, and this latest report only confirms it,” PETA spokesman Liam Cronin told The Daily Beast. “The company actually values its spies more highly than its executives [that were recently fired]… because at least one is still working at the company.”

Cronin said that while McComb is the only informer identified, “We’re not sure where this begins and ends. This could be much larger than we can even anticipate.”

In McComb’s case, activists say he was leading a double life as “Thomas Jones” since at least 2012, first seeking information on Facebook about Blackfish’s release. Then he continued to fish for intel from PETA staffers and fellow activists, the group charges.

The animal-rights group said McComb routinely posted inflammatory messages on social media, trying to incite protesters to “burn [SeaWorld] to the ground,” and to blow horns at night outside the homes of SeaWorld executives.

In early 2014, he was arrested alongside 16 other adult protesters who blocked a SeaWorld float at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. But while the others were booked and freed on bail, McComb suddenly vanished, PETA says.

McComb was mysteriously released, wasn’t charged, and never appeared on arrest logs—prompting PETA to file a lawsuit against Pasadena cops to obtain the arresting officer’s notebook after the agency refused to answer a public records request.

In announcing the legal action, PETA said it wanted to determine whether SeaWorld had “colluded” with the Pasadena Police Department to silence demonstrators.

Police have denied McComb was ever in custody, despite a photo appearing to show him in a police van alongside fellow activists, PETA said.

Organizers grew suspicious of “Thomas Jones” and jotted down his license plate number at a June 2015 protest in San Diego, Bloomberg reported.

The plate was allegedly traced to McComb, according to Bloomberg.

The secret agent also allegedly listed two addresses when registering with PETA, Bloomberg reported, one in Jamul, California, on a street that doesn’t exist there. But the street exists in El Cajon, where McComb lives, according to Bloomberg. The other address Jones provided reportedly belonged to SeaWorld’s head of security in San Diego.

McComb isn’t the only suspected infiltrator.

Former trainer Samantha Berg told The Daily Beast she was at an April 2015 SeaWorld protest in Orlando when people apparently posing as commie sympathizers—believed to be aligned with SeaWorld—crashed the party. They hoisted big red flags that read, “Support Social Communism,” with images of a hammer and sickle, all in a bid to “make the activists look like crazy people,” Berg said.

In response to the dubious flock, one animal activist held a sign above the red posters stating “Paid by SeaWorld.” The radical demonstrators refused to speak when one SeaWorld protester questioned why they were there, as shown in a YouTube video.

“The fake communists pretended to be part of our demonstration to discredit it, linking us to communism, but when questioned they knew nothing about communism,” the video’s author, Bob Heisler, wrote. “They held USSR era flags and signs advocating socialism. They muscled into our group photo and tried to place their signs in front of ours.”

Still, SeaWorld sympathizers weren’t just raising protest signs. McComb attended the annual Superpod event on San Juan Island, Washington—created by ex-SeaWorld trainers and which attracts a host of scientists, filmmakers, journalists, and orca advocates.

In July 2014, “Thomas Jones” attended a Superpod lecture by former trainer John Jett on captive orca whale survival. Jett asked the audience not to record or publish his material, as it would soon be released in a scientific journal.

At the time, ex-SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre unwittingly sat next to “Thomas Jones” and snapped of a photo of him in the front row and holding a camera. A bootleg video of Jett’s speech circulated among SeaWorld supporters soon after, Ventre recalled in a blog entry.

Indeed, Ventre learned of the video after a reporter informed him that SeaWorld reps sent her a link to it. “Some red flags went off when you said in the presentation that you didn’t want this on the Internet just yet,” the journalist wrote of the footage, which has since been removed.

Ventre told The Daily Beast that after Superpod, SeaWorld released its own study in the Journal of Mammalogy, mirroring his and Jett’s methodology. The SeaWorld study claimed there was no life expectancy difference between killer whales born at SeaWorld and those in the wild.

“There’s a SeaWorld critique paper of our science paper… based on the spy work of Paul McComb,” Ventre said, adding, “It’s really kind of crazy in the realm of science stuff.”

His research, published in the Journal of Marine Mammal Science in April 2015, stated, among other things, that “captive-born whales faced a higher risk of dying between two to six and 11 to 12 years old.”

After the study’s release, SeaWorld contacted the journal to criticize it.

Marine Mammal Science asked if Ventre and Jett, the paper’s lead author, would provide a critique to SeaWorld’s rebuttal, which is co-authored by former SeaWorld trainer and anti-Blackfish talking head Grey Stafford.

Both critiques will be published side by side this April, a SeaWorld spokeswoman confirmed. (She would not comment on claims that McComb allegedly tipped SeaWorld off to Jett’s study.)

“Now it’s a battle in a scientific journal,” Ventre told The Daily Beast. “It’s all the same façade of perpetuating this dying industry.”