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SeaWorld’s Undercover Spies

The covert work of a SeaWorld employee accused of infiltrating the animal rights group PETA extended far beyond his involvement with any single organization. Former SeaWorld orca trainers have confirmed that Thomas Jones, whose real identity and name, Paul McComb, were revealed by PETA last week, attended last year’s Superpod event, an annual gathering of orca enthusiasts, researchers, and activists in Washington State.

On Friday PETA identified three more SeaWorld employees it believes acted as undercover spies.

In addition to gaining access to activist circles, McComb used social media to encourage protesters to engage in violence or sabotage. In one tweet he said if Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that shattered SeaWorld’s animal-friendly image, didn’t put the company out of business, protesters would “burn it to the ground.” In Facebook message posted before a July 2014 protest, he wrote, “Grab your pitch forks and torches. Time to take down SeaWorld.”

According to Dr. Naomi Rose, a prominent marine biologist who also attended last year’s Superpod conference, McComb said that he was there because he was “truly dedicated to the cause.” During the weeklong event he joined in on whale watching rides, had lunch with a group of scientists and researchers, and bootlegged the presentation of a draft scientific paper containing sensitive captive orca survival data that researchers had explicitly asked the audience not to post online.

One afternoon McComb joined Rose and about seven other scientists and conference participants at lunch. They weren’t discussing anything sensitive, Rose says, but McComb’s presence was notable. He was alone, she says, and tried to be part of the conversation, but everyone thought he seemed strange. “He was very obvious,” she says. “He stood out like a sore thumb.”

When they asked who he was, he identified himself as “Thomas Jones” and said that he was committed to protecting orcas.

The earliest evidence to surface thus far of McComb’s efforts to gain access to activist circles is a tweet from August 2012 in which he asked “guys on the Voice of the Orcas website”—the site maintained by former Sea World trainers—for information about the release of a documentary film. “Does anyone know what that documentary is?” he asks.

The film in question was Blackfish, set to premier the following year at the Sundance Film Festival, and later widely released. The film is an exposé of SeaWorld’s treatment of orca’s, the risks its trainers were subjected to, and ultimately the company’s attempts to control its public image in the face of increasing scrutiny from environmentalists. The film has had a significant impact on the marine park’s public image. Share prices plummeted, some corporate sponsors backed out of partnerships with the company, and the CEO resigned.

The company, which mounted a vigorous counter offensive, has struggled to regain its footing ever since.

Sea World has long feared the work of critical scientists, environmental activists, and even scholars. When Susan Davis began fieldwork in the early 1990s for her book, Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, she was initially rebuffed by the company, which refused to grant her access to upper management to conduct interviews.

A July 2014 file photo of SeaWorld employee McComb (circled in red) on a whale watching boat along with naturalists, journalists and Blackfish cast members.

“This access took a discouragingly long time to obtain,” she writes in the introduction. She had to work her way up the ladder from the public relations office in San Diego to the corporate headquarters of Anheuser-Busch, which owned SeaWorld at the time. (SeaWorld was acquired by the private equity firm Blackstone Group in 2009.)

Davis, who now teaches folklore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says “she got access by saying I was not an animal rights activist.” Once she gained access, however, interviews were still tightly controlled and Davis was prevented from photographing or describing things like necropsies or anatomical work.

Even back then, Davis says, SeaWorld was worried about environmental activists or what they generally referred to as the “nuts outside the gate.”

“From the beginning SeaWorld’s strategy has been to conflate animal activism and now Blackfish with PETA,” says Jeff Ventre, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld and of the organizers of Superpod. “There is a built in animosity towards PETA, and SeaWorld exploits that.”

Indeed, SeaWorld appears to keep close tabs on critical researchers and activists who visit its theme parks.

On one occasion Dr. Rose and a colleague, Ingrid Visser, also a marine biologist, were together in San Diego and decided to pay a visit to SeaWorld. Visser, who is from New Zealand, was in the US for several months and had plans to visit all SeaWorld venues.

When they went to the desk to get their tickets — Visser had a season’s pass — they were told there was a problem with the pass. The employee went to consult management and after about eight minutes Rose and Visser were allowed to enter the park.

As soon as they went through the gates, however, the director of education greeted them both by name and asked if they wanted a tour. They declined. But about an hour later, when Ingrid was setting up her camera to photograph an underwater viewing area, John Reilly, the president of SeaWorld San Diego “came out of nowhere” to greet them. Rose believes their movements within the park were being monitored on video.

“Every time I enter their parks I am followed by undercover people and staff coming up to me ‘challenging’ me,” Visser says.

In a statement released on Wednesday SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said that, if true, the allegations that McComb may have infiltrated PETA “are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated.”

Critics and former employees of the company, however, have a hard time believing that McComb’s actions, and now possibly those of others, were not sanctioned at the highest levels.

They point out that one of the addresses McComb gave under the name of Thomas Jones linked back to SeaWorld’s head of corporate security; that he had substantial resources to attend events like Superpod; and that he created an elaborate false identity online, something he probably didn’t do on his own.

Former trainers like Ventre and Samantha Berg, both featured in Blackfish, say that since they became whistleblowers they have lived in fear of retribution from the company. It does not surprise them that SeaWorld would enlist employees to spy on activists and researchers alike.

“The main thing I find disingenuous about Manby’s statements,” says Dr. Rose, “is they imply that Paul McComb was acting on his own. That is laughable. SeaWorld obviously directed this man.”

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Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal.He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com.

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