This Photo is Both Very Real and Very Fake

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In this post, I’ll be analyzing why hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people believe this photo is either fake or from an earlier date than advertised, through a discussion of bubbles, belief systems, and morality. But before I get there, it’s important to understand the technical side of the argument.

To help me analyze the photo, I enlisted the assistance of two friends, Stephen Low and Hans Kummer. We compared the photo to a screen grab (below) taken from the first drone video shot by Lincoln O’Barry of Dolphin Project, a video that was deleted from Facebook less than an hour after posting, and to Dolphin Project’s second drone video. Our objective was to use the best available material to compare the Seaquarium’s image to other images taken around the time the park claims theirs was shot.


Some background on my collaborators: Stephen was the first documentary filmmaker to shoot the Titanic – and the only one to do so with IMAX film cameras (Titanica). His other IMAX documentaries include Skyward, The Last Buffalo, Beavers, Fighter Pilot, Aircraft Carrier 3D, Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, and The Ultimate Wave Tahiti with Kelly Slater.

Hans is an archival image and media specialist. He was a consultant on the feature film Rebirth, a portion of which appears as a key component of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. This year, Hans is continuing his duties as a Judge for the biennial Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

The most popular argument given against the Seaquarium’s photo is the perceived difference in water color from the drone footage. The first thing to understand is that water color is irrelevant when comparing the two images. Factors such as the angle of the shot, sunlight, distance, cloud cover, reflection, and even camera specifications can cause two different images taken an hour or so apart (based on the Seaquarium’s time stamp and the time of the first drone flight broadacast) to appear very different.

It is also very easy to change the color, brightness, and saturation of a photo within a camera, a computer, or even a phone before it’s distributed. If the photo had been taken on Sept 11, it could have been altered to create a more cheerful image. However, Hans blew up the image to inspect the pixels, as any changes to an image would typically create a slight alteration in pixels, but he was unable to see any. The time stamp on the image is 12:38 pm on Sept 11, but time stamps can easily be altered, so it’s also irrelevant. The only way to determine whether the photo is from an earlier date or was taken the morning it was posted, and to determine if it was altered in any way, would be to access the metadata on the original photo, which we do not have.

The above two photos may appear different, but are of the same person taken at the exact same time from different angles by Dutch photographers Thijs groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren

Our assessment is that, using the resources available, it’s impossible to tell if the photo is from the date stated, from an earlier date, or has been modified in any way, but it is a real photo. One thing that we found of interest is that during a period when every other zoo, aquarium, and animal attraction in the state (with the exception of Walt Disney World) reported on and showed via video and photos damage to their facilities, we did not see any such images from the Seaquarium until a few days later. Instead, the park released a carefully staged public relations photo of its orca, Lolita. In the background are two smiling employees in wetsuits. Analysis of video and photos of the park shows these two to be dolphin trainers. Speculatively, they could have just been stopping by to visit or to check on the white sided dolphins in the tank. Either way, their presence does not give any indication on when the photo was shot. The only thing we could actually determine was that the photo was composed in a way that it encourages the public questioning it (it’s far too cheerful for the day after the park was hit by a hurricane). The composition of the text that accompanied it on Facebook did not help either.


But why would so many people be so quick to judge based on an assumed difference in water color? In 2011, Eli Pariser, the Board President of, coined the term “filter bubble”. It’s the idea that when you do web searches or browsing, algorithms send you towards the type of material it believes you’d be interested in (such as animal rights campaigns or zookeeper discussion boards, depending on your taste), preventing you from seeing items that might present the opposing point of view. The concept that internet algorithms affect your personal viewpoint has been widely debated, but one thing is certain: we all live in bubbles.

Think of a bubble as your personal belief system. It is derived from your experiences throughout your life – including your interaction with family, friends, at school, at the workplace, your place of worship, the group of friends you associate with – and how everything you experience in life impacts you. Your belief bubble is also home to your morality, which, based on your beliefs, allows you to decide what is right and wrong (note that morality and law are two very different things). It’s very possible to share beliefs with someone who has a completely different moral standing. For instance, two people can believe “I love animals.” From that belief, one moralizes, “I love animals, so zoos are good because they allow me and others to see animals we could not in the wild,” while the other moralizes, “I love animals, but they are abused in zoos, so zoos are bad.”

When we strongly follow the beliefs in our bubble, two things happen to data that might counter our beliefs. First, we might consider all information outside our bubble entirely invalid or untrue. Over the past year, objectivity has been redefined to be the same as subjectivity. The concept “fake news” was originally used to define news sites with fabricated or unvetted facts. During the Presidential campaign and into his Presidency, Donald Trump appropriated the term to imply any news source that does not agree with him or does not provide the coverage he wants. This means that for a large number of people working within their belief bubbles, any intent to disprove verifiable facts is now validated by the actions of the country’s leader, regardless of whether they support the Administration or not.

In industries where conspiracies historically exist, such as tobacco, finance, and marine mammal captivity, it’s easy to come up with a plausible conspiracy theory. And anything that’s plausible can be believed to be truth.

Because the marine mammal captivity industry, going back to Marine Studios in 1938, has a history of fabricating its realities (to give just three examples: the original Shamu was advertised as a male – “King of the Deep”), secrecy (the overnight shipment of Orky and Corky from Marineland of the Pacific to San Diego) , and illegal activity (John Holer’s 1977 dumping of dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act), it becomes easier to believe that such a cheerful photo taken at the Seaquarium the day after a hurricane is fraudulent.

The second way we treat information outside our bubble, when we know it to be accurate but at conflict with our beliefs, is to either avoid it altogether in favor of something more aligned to what we believe, or to use a generalized explanation when presenting an argument. For example, both Howard Garret of Orca Network and I independently kept tabs on the weather hitting the Seaquarium during the storm. I used hourly data, eventually switching to minute-by-minute data, from a weather station at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School, located on the opposite side of campus from its boundary with the Seaquarium. Almost all winds came from the east, with the strongest sustained gusts from the EastSouthEast at 101 miles per hour. This led me to the conclusion that the orca stadium was protected from the winds by the UM campus’ buildings, which either deflected or channeled the strongest gusts.

101 gust

Garrett used an overall wind chart for the entire storm, using it to justify the winds were coming from the SouthSouthEast, which would be a direct hit on the stadium.


So which one was accurate? This is, in many ways, like the argument about the photo. We’re both accurate and we’re both very wrong. There are so many factors that go into wind direction and velocity that two different people only a few hundred feet apart will experience different wind directions and speeds, thanks to variances in man-made and natural topography, pressure, and other variables. In fact, the only way to accurately measure wind velocity and direction at the tank would be to measure it at the tank itself during the storm, which neither of us had the ability to do.

So why the difference in approaches? I was targeting a general audience without focusing on any one belief system. Garrett utilized a more generalized graphic to support his argument that the orca needs to be released into his organization’s custody, so the graphic became a marketing tool targeted towards a certain group with similar belief bubbles. The axiom that less is sometimes more came into play.

While Garrett carefully chose his image to support his argument to his targeted audience, there are instances where the omission or generalization of data is taken to its extremes, and the message becomes propaganda, a practice of which both PETA and SeaWorld are very adept. The word “propaganda” often carries a negative connotation, but the practice is in actuality based in fact – even though it’s selective fact, and keywords are often used to influence both those with specific belief systems or those on the fence.

The omission of information in an argument can also act as a window into a person’s belief system. In August 2016, Brad Andrews, the Zoological Director Emeritus of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and the company’s Vice President of Theriogenology, Todd Robeck, presented a paper on SeaWorld’s history of artificial insemination of orcas.

In the final portion of the paper, the authors lamented the ending of the breeding program, announced just a few months before by the company’s new CEO, Joel Manby. In the paper, the two never mentioned either Manby or SeaWorld as instituting the breeding ban. Instead, they blamed the anti-zoo movement for placing at risk both the captive whales’ futures and the research to sustain wild populations. By omitting SeaWorld’s and Manby’s decision to breed future orcas, they presented an argument that the company is infallible and that the anti-zoo movement is immoral. Their audience – zoo professionals.

Very often with belief bubbles, truth is certainly in the eye of the beholder. But there are other universal truths that affect everyone (although some people fail to accept these universal truths, such as flat-worlders). These are the scientific and historical truths, which remain true until evidence is presented to alter or disprove them, at which time another truth takes their place. From these truths, we can speculate on future actions or intentions, with documented evidence as the basis for our educational guess.

I will be presenting both my speculation and the evidence I base it on about SeaWorld’s future, and this calls for a disclaimer: the speculation I present is purely mine. It does not necessarily reflect on the beliefs of any of my employers or clients past, present, or future, and my complete employment experience in any capacity with SeaWorld is limited to an unpaid internship in the Aviculture (birds) department in 1987.

SPECULATION: Zhonghong Group is about to implement its business plan for SeaWorld.

EVIDENCE: The October 9 departure of David d’Allesandro marks the end of any Blackstone appointees on the board. The two others departing are former State Department appointees and their departure indicates that their experience in international relations is no longer needed. As of October 9, Zhonghong, SeaWorld’s largest shareholder, will have control of the board, allowing it to set policy. It is unknown at this time if a buyout offer is being made. The new rules instituted by the Chinese government on August 4 would require Zhonghong to provide evidence that an acquisition of or further investment in SeaWorld Entertainment would be beneficial to the nation and the Chinese people. This should not be too difficult to do, providing such an investment would allow acquisition of a large animal collection and the expertise of SeaWorld’s staff.

SPECULATION: The two Busch Gardens parks will remain in the SeaWorld portfolio, but SeaWorld San Diego will close within the next five years. Aquatica San Diego will be transformed into Sesame Place.

EVIDENCE: Rumors that SeaWorld was being pressured to sell the Busch Gardens parks came up during a recent Merlin Entertainments earnings call. The pressure came from one of SeaWorld’s largest shareholders (currently owning just under 15% of the company), Hill Path Capital. SeaWorld’s Q2 earnings filing with the SEC specifically warned against Hill Path’s intrusion.

Unlike the to Busch Gardens parks, the San Diego SeaWorld park continues to be problematic. The two new attractions, Ocean Explorer and Orca Encounter are failures at drawing attendance (as Manby stated during the Q2 earnings call, neither attraction will show a positive return on investment). New attractions in San Diego, including the Orca Encounter set, are modular in construction. Rides, with the exception of the submarine dark ride vehicles, are off the shelf, and this includes the 2018 coaster. This implies that recent attractions have been designed and selected for an easy move to another location. Brady MacDonald of the Los Angeles Times pointed out that the same off the shelf coaster model going into San Diego failed to increase attendance when installed at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, while Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider and the Orange County Register stated the obvious: LEGOLAND California’s recent announcement of a submarine ride through a real tank full of real fish has made Ocean Explorer obsolete.

Submarine Quest at SeaWorld San Diego’s Ocean Explorer
Submarine Adventure at LEGOLAND Dubai

Two other factors have the potential to negatively affect SeaWorld’s attendance. In 2018, Six Flags Magic Mountain, on the north side of Los Angeles County, will switch to a 365 day a year operation schedule. If Six Flags can make the park more family friendly, the primary tourism boundary for Southern Calfornia could realign from Universal Studios and Hollywood on the north and San Diego on the south to Magic Mountain on the north and LEGOLAND on the south, about 40 minutes north of SeaWorld. Figures from the San Diego Tourism Authority between January and July 2017 show that attendance at the county’s attractions has been decreasing from the prior year. The Tourism Authority tracks and combines attendance figures for SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, LEGOLAND Calfornia, Sea Life Aquarium, Cabrillo National Monument, and the Midway Aircraft Carrier. When looking month to month, it becomes apparent the impact SeaWorld has on the market. The attractions industry in San Diego saw an overall loss of 15.6% in February (the end of the One Ocean show at SeaWorld), offset by a 24.1% increase in April (the Seven Seas Food and Wine Festival at SeaWorld).

The other threat to SeaWorld is the large scale OdySea Aquarium planned for the San Diego Harbor waterfront. This will bring a third aquarium, in addition to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps and Sea Life at LEGOLAND to San Diego county, this one in a highly trafficked area and in a redevelopment project designed to pull heavy attendance from both locals and tourists.

The proposed Seaport San Diego, home of the OdySea San Diego aquarium. The site is in a high traffic area adjacent to both the convention center and the San Diego Children’s Museum.

The Aquatica park in Chula Vista is approximately a 23 mile drive south of SeaWorld. Attractions investment for this park has been restrained compared to the two other Aquatica parks, but as a Sesame Place park it can take advantage of both the additional distance from LEGOLAND, a primary competitor, and having a nearby multi-million dollar Gaylord family resort. A Sesame Place park in this location would fill the void caused by the closure of the Sesame-themed attractions at SeaWorld San Diego.

SPECULATION: Manby is out, breeding will resume, orcas are headed to China

EVIDENCE: Joel Manby’s contract expires in April. Provisions within his contract provide for early termination either by Manby or the board. My speculation on his departure is based on two things: 1. the continued loss of attendance, revenue, and stock value during his period of employment. 2. the transition of control of the board to a new ownership group.

If Manby leaves, there is no certainty who will take his place. It could be an outsider. It could be Don Robinson, who is familiar with both Orlando and Asia, having overseen Disney resort and theme park operations in Florida and Hong Kong. But as Lead Independent Director, he cannot have a business relationship with SeaWorld other than sitting fees as a board member. Of course, that could change, especially if Zhonghong buys out the company, de-lists it from the NYSE, and takes it private. There’s also the possibility that the incoming Chair, Yoshikazu Maruyama, could take on the dual role of Chair and CEO.

If Manby goes, the bans instituted with orcas are likely to go with him. An attempt to appease the animal rights crowd, by all appearances the move backfired, especially in the San Diego market.

Transport of orcas to Zhonghong’s Chinese parks and their breeding will be important if the company wants to succeed in a highly competitive marine life park and aquarium market that is growing exponentially.  Next year, three high profile orca show arenas are scheduled to open to the public in Linyi, Shanghai, and Zhuhai. A holding, training, and “breeding” facility is being built in a fourth city, while other locations, including Sanya, are developing future plans for orcas.

Orca stadium at Linyi Polar Ocean World under construction is slated to house two whales.
Orca stadium (top of photo) at Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World. Haichang currently claims to have four orcas at a holding facility in Dalian.
Original design for Chimelong Ocean World, located adjacent to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai.
Final design for Chimelong Ocean World in Zhuhai. This will be home for Chimelong’s orcas. The company claims to currently have nine in its possession.
Recent construction photo of Chimelong Ocean World in Zhuhai. Special thanks to Michael Giskin for locating and sharing images of the Chinese facilities.

The majority of Chinese familiar with the American SeaWorld brand (as compared to the Australian park or the numerous unaffiliated Sea World parks and aquariums throughout China and Asia) identify it with orcas. Zhonghong could have easily just contracted for park design services from SeaWorld and leased or purchased animals for its parks without buying into the company. The fact that it paid 33% above market value for a 21% stake in SeaWorld indicates Zhonghong wants more.

SeaWorld’s inventory of killer whale genetic material is as valuable in China as live orcas. All of the other marine life park companies in China that will display live orcas obtained theirs from the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia, a population that lacks significant surveying. Zhonghong will have the advantage of being able to sell genetic material to Chimelong, Haichang Ocean Park, and the others, in order to create genetic diversity within the Chinese captive orca population.

Regarding the California orca law’s prohibition on export of both orcas and genetic material from the state, the provisions are as follows: 1. It is illegal to “Export, collect, or import the semen, other gametes, or embryos of an orca held in captivity for the purpose of artificial insemination.” There is no ban on removing genetic material from the state for the intention of research. Of course, that’s assuming that the genetic material is still in California at all; 2. it is illegal to “Export, transport, move, or sell an orca located in the state to another state or country unless otherwise authorized by federal law or if the transfer is to another facility within North America that meets standards comparable to those provided under the Animal Welfare Act (7 U.S.C. Sec. 2131 and following).”

There has been some debate on whether a state ban supersedes Federal law, in which Federal authorization would only be given in certain circumstances, such as an orca in San Diego under special permit, like Shouka. On the other hand, an easy way around any such issue would be to relocate the Florida orcas out of country and move the San Diego whales to Orlando. There is no provision in the law restricting orcas to “educational presentations” should they leave California.

So, that’s what I see in my bubble. My agenda is to share what I observe. My morals are to evaluate before rushing to judgement. My belief is that by sharing, my readers might notice something they hadn’t before, regardless of their beliefs. If you disagree with what I’ve had to say, I’m sorry that our bubbles didn’t overlap. POP.


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