Archive for February, 2014


First, let’s get something out of the way.  Here’s the ThemedReality policy on posting comments.  The comments section of this blog is moderated.  I allow just about all comments to see the light of day because I encourage discourse and believe in freedom of speech.  However, if you post a comment that insults or assigns derogatory titles to myself of another comment writer, not only will your comment not see the light of day, but neither will any other comments you make, and any comments of yours already approved will be removed.  I’m the only person allowed to call someone an idiot on this blog.  Because it’s my blog.  And I will never do that to someone writing a comment.  

Those are the rules.  Don’t like them? Tough. Live with it or go somewhere else.

And now to our regularly scheduled blog post already in progress:

Hey nerd! How’s it going? How’s your mom? Last time I talked to her, she said you were still living in her basement.  Anyway, remember how you said there was no way the new Robocop could be as good as the old Robocop?  Well, you were wrong.  And remember when you said I was sniffing glue for saying there was a Robocop ride?  You were wrong on that too.  The ride was a simulator film from Iwerks Entertainment that premiered in 1995 for its TurboRide and TurboTour simulator systems.

And remember how I wrote about all those awesome Star Trek attractions that have gone the way of the dinosaur and Ron Howard’s hair?  Well, the good news is that new Star Trek attractions are coming to North American cities near you – cities like Aqaba, Jordan and Kent, England and Murcia, Spain.  In fact, Star Trek’s owners have just released conceptual artwork of the Star Trek attractions headed to the Paramount Park in Murcia.  And now, get out the kleenex™ and lotion, as we present the first ThemedReality Nerd Porn Photo Spread, brought to you by Paramount Pictures, CBS, and AXE Body Wash.  All artwork are copyright one or more of those companies and used without permission.

First: The Starfleet Academy, motion simulator ride, and a retail store that wants to be the DS9 Promenade from Las Vegas, but seems to be stuck on a human-built space station.  If they do it right, it’s Epsilon IX and all the shoppers will be killed by V’Ger in a killer sound and light show.







And then, there’s a coaster! The Warp Speed Coaster, which will have an underground section through a wormhole.



Now throw those kleenex ™ out and take a quick shower.  You need to get to school and ask Josie Lopez to the prom!  Ah, who am I kidding? You’re a nerd!


5. Projection mapped stadium floor



4. Flying children

OC 10


3. Whales



2. TRON rollerbladers


Olympics: Opening Ceremony

1. Olympic icons that failed to participate




As we approach the 50th anniversary of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, let’s take a look back.

First, in this short film by Ray and Charles Eames, we take a look at the IBM pavilion designed by the famous husband/wife team.

Next is Ford’s Magic Skyway, designed by Walt Disney’s WED Enterprises.

Finally, Sinclair produced this short film for its franchisees about the Sinclair pavilion designed by Dave Cobb and Paul Redding of Thinkwell.  Yes, folks, they sold their souls to Satan and cannot age.



FlyOver Canada, a next-generation attraction simulating the sensation of flight, opened June 29, 2013 at Vancouver’s Canada Place.  Rick Rothschild of FAR Out! Creative Direction served as Creative Director on the project.  A former President of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and Senior VP – Executive Show Director at Walt Disney Imagineering, Rothschild previously had served as Show Director on Soarin’ Over California, a flagship attraction at Disney California Adventure park.

I spoke with Rick Rothschild for this piece which originally appeared on the InPark Magazine website June 30, 2013:

Star Tours: The Adventures Continue (C) Disney

JK: FlyOver Canada is a next-generation flying/gliding, media-based motion attraction in the style of Soarin’. What are the key elements that make this experience distinct from earlier genres of motion theater such as represented by Star Tours and Back to the Future – The Ride?

RR: With rides like Star Tours, the idea is that you’re in a vehicle. You view the world through a window while moving through an environment. In contrast, FlyOver Canada gives you the opportunity to look around the world you are flying across, without the intermediary of a vehicle. The experience is much more like that of a bird flying forward and moving around as it flies – or like being Peter Pan – which was in fact much of the inspiration for me. Guests can move their head to view the world around them much like a bird while the sensation of surrounding motion is created by our camera, attached by a gyro mount to the helicopter.

Another important distinction is the live-action capture. With FlyOver Canada as with Soarin’, the action is all live action as compared to a large number of simulator experiences that are principally produced as CG fantasy based environments. FlyOver is about experiencing real places and extraordinary environments in a way not seen before. It ends up being a very personal experience.

Soarin' Over California (C) Disney

JK: In terms of technology and technical design, how would you compare  Soarin’ and FlyOver Canada?

RR: Here are some of the similarities. Guests view a dome-based experience while suspended in nine, open-air, flying vehicles. The orientation of the guest in relation to the dome screen, the idea of having image below you, to the side, in front of you, and somewhat truncated at the top are all quite similar.

Now for the important differences. What distinguishes FlyOver first is that the production is all-digital. Soarin’ was shot on film in the IMAX 15 perforation/70mm format; we filmed and projected at 48 frames per second (fps). FlyOver was captured and is presented digitally; shot and projected in 4K digital at 60 fps. With high resolution and higher frame rate, it’s like watching 3D without glasses. The closest objects we captured in FlyOver are probably 15-20 feet from you, but for the most part, everything’s beyond the surface of the screen, out beyond 30 feet in the actual shot, which is beyond the projection surface of the dome from the guest’s eye. Everything you look at feels natural and real with appropriate parallax. Being able to experience this attraction with no glasses also adds to the sense of reality, given we have added effects like mist and wind.

We filmed with a Phantom 65 digital camera with a Nikon spherical lens.  We are projecting with the first commercial installation of a Christie 4K 60 frame projector in the world, with a specially designed and manufactured lens from Schneider Optics. Given our principal capture was digital, it opened up the creative opportunity for us to do a number of unique transitions and effects in post production.

Finally, there’s the length of the attraction. At almost a full 8 minutes, its nearly double the length of Soarin’. Because of this, we were able to shoot in more locations. Conceptually, we wanted to create something that appropriately showcased the landscape and the diversity of the breadth of Canada. Not constrained by capacity and hourly numbers that theme parks demand, the longer experience also allowed us to have sequences that are a little bit longer than the individual sequences in Soarin’.

The Phantom 65 camera

JK: What were some other reasons you elected to shoot digitally with the Phantom? In the field, how did it compare to shooting Soarin’ in IMAX?

RR: In the dozen or so years that separated the Soarin’ production from FlyOver, technology provided us with a completely new set of opportunities to think about in regard to what we could do with production and how we could go about doing it.

Using the Phantom added tremendous flexibility. An IMAX camera can hold only a very  limited amount of film at one time, and when shooting in 48 fps it gets used up twice as fast as at the standard frame rate. With the largest IMAX film canister available, we were able to get a full 90 seconds shot before having to land the helicopter and reload the camera. So essentially, we were filming two 45-second sequences at a time while shooting Soarin’.

With FlyOver, even shooting at the higher rate of 60 frames per second, the digital magazine on the Phantom 65 camera still allowed us to shoot 11 minutes before we had to reload, and it was easy to carry extra magazines on the helicopter.  We were able to land, reload within a minute, and be in the air filming again without having to return to our base production camp. It was a very different approach from a production standpoint and it allowed us a lot more creative freedom and spontaneous opportunity.

There are a number of cameras that we evaluated before coming to our production decision. The thing that led us to the Phantom 65 was the belief that the chip being the largest chip physically in any 4K camera on the market would help us technically capture in our spherical format. Its physical chip size is equivalent to a 65mm film negative as compared to other digital cameras that are more the size of a 35mm film negative. Capturing the image spherically was found to be benefited by pushing it to a larger sensor. We also found the Phantom provided us appropriate creative options to capture at different speeds, both over-cranking and under-cranking.


JK: How is  FlyOver Canada owned and operated?

RR: FlyOver is a separately ticketed, standalone attraction in Canada Place in downtown Vancouver. Soaring Attractions is the Canadian entity that created and operates it. The two principals in this company are Stephen Geddes and Andrew Strang. They’re both Canadians and Vancouver residents.

Moment Factory at work on UPLIFT, the pre-show to FlyOver Canada

JK: How did you collaborate with pre-show producer Moment Factory and the dome show production team, Sherpas Cinema, to unify the themes of the pre-show and main show?

RR: The overarching idea of FlyOver was to feature the diversity of Canadians and the expansive Canada landscape. If the state of California was a big subject for Soarin’ to tackle, the country of Canada is even bigger. Our “pre-show” – Moment Factory’s UPLIFT experience, was actually looked upon from the beginning more as “Chapter One” of a two-chapter guest experience. UPLIFT lasts around seven-and-a-half minutes, nearly as long as the main show.

We were very happy to collaborate with a company having such a rich background. Moment Factory has worked on an acclaimed projection show on the Parliament building in Ottawa and did the Madonna Superbowl halftime show in 2012. They’re currently in the final stages of installing a unique large scale multimedia installation at LAX’s new international terminal.

We met with the Moment Factory team a number of times to discuss how their piece would connect with the dome show experientially, connecting both emotionally and conceptually. Our approach from the start was that their team and the dome show team (Sherpas Cinema) would work together with our core creative team to produce a guest experience that properly and appropriately connected the pre-show with the dome’s FlyOver ride, in particular with reference to locations across Canada. We made a few discoveries and a few changes as a result while we were filming, but nothing that drastically changed our conceptual view of the project.

We hired Sherpas out of Whistler, BC as our principal media capture team for the dome ride show. Dave Mossop was our director and was in conceptual discussions with us and with Moment Factory as the two “chapters” were developed. In part, it was these discussions between the two parties and us that made this whole concept succeed.

Andrea Wettstein with Six Degrees Music out of Calgary was our principal composer for the ride and Vincent Letellier, who works with Moment Factory, was the composer for the pre-show. Vincent was farther along when Andrea joined the process; however, when Andrea began her independent work composing the ride score, we were delighted to discover that the two scores had common musical themes, drawn from the Canadian cultural personality. As we were moving along, the two composers were encouraged to share with one another. So, in the end a bit of intended thematic bookending and connection exists, while the compositions themselves are very unique and appropriately different.

The pre-show we did for Soarin’ was much different. The story of flight in California is the subject of that pre-show, so setup context was there for the ride, and it helped place the show in the context of the California Adventure theme park as a whole. It’s done through photos on the walls and is more a queue line experience than a true pre-show, if you will.

Canada Place originally served as the home of the Canada pavilion during Vancouver's Expo 86.  The portion of the complex that once housed the world's first IMAX 3D theater is the new home to FlyOver Canada.

JK: With Soarin’ you had the luxury of new construction. What were some of the challenges and solutions of retrofitting the building at Canada Place to house FlyOver Canada? 

RR: Any challenge one faces, whether a blank piece of paper or a preexisting facility, comes with constraints that you begin to work with. In the case of FlyOver Canada, the constraints started with the facility. This was not just a preexisting facility, but a preexisting facility on a large harbor pier several floors above pilings that also support a full convention center that sits directly below the original theater space. So there were both spatial and structural challenges to integrating our dome and ride system.

The space dictated that we could only have a dome 19m (60ft) in diameter.  For comparison, each of the Soarin’ domes is around 84 ft in diameter, and the capacity of Soarin’ is 87 people. Due to the smaller dome, FlyOver‘s capacity is 61 people. There are nine vehicles (3 tiers, each with 3 vehicles) with both systems.

There are key differences between FlyOver and Soarin’  in how the dome is entered and the size of the vehicles. Soarin’ has single-level boarding, which is proprietary to that attraction. Everything at FlyOver is a bit smaller and our guests first take stairways to one of three levels outside the dome ride experience to board. The FlyOver ride support structure looks a lot like the old Hollywood Squares set, with each of the “squares” containing one of the ride vehicles.

The FlyOver building originally housed an IMAX theater. We removed the concrete floor and support structure of the theater, and drove several new columns below the convention center to support the ride.

The size of the building wasn’t the only constraint on the size of the dome. With current digital video projection technology, we would be unable to do a Soarin’ size ride without tiling multiple projectors. Practically speaking, our 60-ft dome is the maximum size for the state-of-the-art, single-projector  technology we have in place to operate efficiently.

Brogent ride system as seen at E-DA park in Taiwan.

JK: Tell us about the ride technology you selected.

RR: Brogent Technologies is the manufacturer of the ride vehicle.

They have an association with Vekoma, which allows them to leverage Vekoma’s substantial expertise in ride manufacturing as well as its sales and marketing resources. Brogent developed the vehicle on their own, and E-DA park in Southern Taiwan is the site of their first system installation. Brogent, which is also based in Taiwan, has a strong background in advanced flight simulator technology.

Each of our ride vehicles has a full six degrees of movement, with all the benefits of advances in engineering and technology since Soarin’ was first created to help us provide a step up in flying ride experiences.

FlyOver Canada from behind the dome screen

JK: Do you have any thoughts on FlyOver now occupying the space that once housed the world’s first IMAX 3D projector?

RR: I was actually involved in Disney’s participation with Telcom Canada as the executive creative producer when Disney agreed to create a special Circlevision experience for Telcom’s pavilion at Vancouver Expo 86. We developed and produced a film experience entitled Portraits of Canada, which featured 13 “stories” drawn from the diversity of Canada and its unique multicultural peoples.

For me to be able to come back to Canada a quarter-century later and take a tiny bit of what I learned about this country back then to help create something that is inspirational to Canadians and to visitors from around the world has been a wondrous and most pleasurable experience.

The way I see it is that one of the highlights of Expo 86 – the old IMAX theater – has ended up providing a great opportunity for Andrew and Stephen 26 years later – to bring a completely fresh but still equally special and unique entertainment venue to Vancouver. With their tenacity and vision, they’ve brought the next generation of Canadian entertainment and media technology to Canada Place. It’s been an honor and so exciting for me to be a part of their dream.

Rick Rothschild (R) directs Jeff Leyland, a Vancouver actor and sports reporter in the pre-flight briefing video., According to Rothschild, "It was fun doing that because our Pre-Launch video is very Canadian.  Canadian’s have a self-effacing type of humor which we put to good use."

JK: Did O Canada at Epcot have an influence on this attraction?

RR: It’s interesting how life plays out. Back in 1981-82, I was at Epcot during its “birth” – as an Imagineer in charge of show programming for a number of attractions, including The American Adventure, France and Canada. I spent a lot of time watching the Canadian Circlevision show O Canada come to life. Watching it during final installation in part led me to make the decision with several other Imagineers that when Epcot was finished, we needed to take a vacation and visit Canada. In the early summer of 1983, we drove a motor home up from California spending most of our 30-day trip in Western Canada – up into Alberta, through Calgary, up through the Rockies, and out across British Columbia and out onto the islands. I was hooked on Canada as a wondrous place from that trip.

So there’s been a personal journey for me – getting interested in Canada through Disney in the early 80’s, learning about Canada with Expo 86, finding it to be such an extraordinary place – and then to return and do FlyOver Canada. As a personal journey of one American, it’s been quite interesting and rewarding.



“The challenge that faces us is to create a new dimension in immersive storytelling,” says Rick Rothschild of FAR Out! Creative Direction, who is featured in the “Great Storytelling” discussion at IMERSA Summit 2014, March 6-9 in Denver.

“We’re bringing together some of the best minds and forward thinkers from planetariums, giant screen cinema, themed entertainment, pano-photography, gaming and virtual reality, computer graphics and science visualization,” says IMERSA co-founder Dan Neafus, director of the Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, which is one of the host venues for IMERSA Summit 2014.

Registration is open and discounts are available through Feb 17, 2014.

Click to see Summit schedule overview

IMERSA Board of Directors Dan Neafus, Ed Lantz, Ryan Wyatt, and Michael Daut

IMERSA Board of Directors Dan Neafus, Ed Lantz, Ryan Wyatt, and Michael Daut

IMERSA is a trade group founded in 2008 by Dan Neafus and several colleagues in response to the rapid adoption of digital dome video (“fulldome”) in planetariums that has essentially transformed these spaces into state-of-the-art immersive theaters. They saw new, potential creative and market opportunities exploding in multiple directions – as indicated by the group’s acronym, which stands for Immersive Media,Education, Entertainment, Research, Science and Arts.

Sponsors of IMERSA Summit 2014 include Attraktion!/Sphere of Light Award, California Academy of Sciences, Clark Planetarium, Dome3D, Evans & Sutherland, Electrosonic, Holovis, Loch Ness Productions, Morrow Sound, OpenLens Productions, Seiler Instrument/Carl Zeiss, Sky-Skan, Spitz Inc., SCISS, SlicedTomato Video Productions and Vortex Immersion.

Participants in IMERSA Summit 2014 include:

292px-Kor,_2266Doug Roberts
 A member of the WorldWide Telescope team at Microsoft Research, and liaison to the planetarium, astronomical research and informal learning communities, Roberts will participate in the “Virtual Realities and Game Changers” session on Sunday, March 9. Read more


292px-SirellaDr Donna Cox – Pioneer in the use of science data for the creation of educational visuals in media. Giant screen cinema credits include Cosmic Voyage. Fulldome credits includeDynamic Earth. Dr Cox will deliver the keynote address for IMERSA Summit 2014. Read more

Click here for Speakers’ Gallery (downloadable images and bios

Click here for information on featured screenings at IMERSA Summit 2014


590px-KahlessJonathan Barker – President of SK Films, producer of Flight of the Butterflies, a current top success of giant screen cinema, recently repurposed for fulldome exhibition. “Butterflies” will be screened in fulldome and Barker will lead a case study session on itscross platformingRead more

Read on to learn about more participants…


The closing event of IMERSA Summit 2014 will take place on Sunday, March 9 at the new 8K fulldome facility of Fiske Planetarium in Boulder (shown above). Very few digital dome systems are capable of 8K resolution, currently considered one of the furthest frontiers of any cinematic medium. This event is an opportunity to see 8K content created specifically for the 8K digital dome and to hear from early adopters, system providers and producers all in one place.

Please read on for much more information…

“The challenge that faces us is to create a new dimension in immersive storytelling.

Klingon_cranial_ridges_dissolveRick Rothschild Former Disney creative executive and a driving force in many top attractions including “Soarin’ Over California“; and as a consultant, more recent projects include the refresh of the Adler Planetarium with the new Grainger Sky Theater, andFlyOver Canada. Rothschild will speak about “Great Storytelling in the Immersive Media Space” on Sunday, March 9. Read more



640px-KlaangDaren Ulmer (Mousetrappe) Leading media producer in theme parks and museums, whose recent accomplishments include the USA Pavilion at Yeosu Expo 2012, and primary media components of the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at Kennedy Space Center. Ulmer will join the “Great Storytelling” session. Read more


klingon-300x221Jeff Jortner president of SIGGRAPH will introduce keynote speaker Dr Donna Cox, and will participate in various sessions as an affiliate representative on behalf of SIGGRAPH.



klingon-dwarf-01Ian McLennan Specialist in projects and events in cultural and educational organizations, museums, planetariums, science/interpretative centers, tourism projects and World Expositions. McLennan will participate in several areas, including a session about “Steering an Immersive Dome Theater Toward Success” (Saturday, March 8) and a workshop onplanetarium budgeting (Sunday, March 9)



Kruge_2285Paul Fraser – (Blaze Digital Cinema Works) A leading consultant to the giant screen industry, Fraser will chair a roundtable session on the potential for convergence between the larger fulldome theaters and giant screen film domes, including the first public presentation of his new research findings in that area. Read more



klingon-ladyJeri PanekEvans & Sutherland (shown at left with colleague Michael Daut) will receive lifetime honors at IMERSA Summit 2014. The development of the digital planetarium was a counterpart to the development of computer graphics technology and the personal computer culture. Jeri Panek was on hand for all of these, and she helped E&S introduce Digistar digital planetariums to the world. Panek’s estimable sales record at E&S put into place a vast part of today’s fulldome theater network. Read more

Michael Daut of Evans & Sutherland is an IMERSA Board member and is chairing the Professional Development sessions on Thurs-Fri, March 6-7. Read more

plummer_chang01Berend Reijnhoudt of Omniversum (left), a leader in the GSCA, will join the session on “Steering an Immersive Theater Toward Success,” Saturday, March 8. Read more





Klingon_Magistrate (1)Steve Savage The CEO of Sky-Skan will take part in a panel discussion, “The Pros and Perils of 8K” as part of the 8K closing event of the Summit, at Fiske Planetarium in Boulder. This push-the-envelope event is an opportunity to see one of about 5 existing 8K digital dome facilities in the world, watch 8K content and be part of a discussion with 8K providers, early adopters, operators and producers. Those unable to attend the full Summit can purchase individual tickets to this event, which runs 6-11 pm on Sunday, March 9. Read more

(Below) “To Space and Back” will be screened in the Gates Planetarium in 4K, and at Fiske Planetarium in 8K, as part of IMERSA Summit 2014.

More about IMERSA and IMERSA Summit 2014

To help fulfill its vision IMERSA has formed active alliances with other trade groups where it sees common cause, including the Giant Screen Cinema Association, Producers Guild of America, Themed Entertainment Association, SIGGRAPH, and Association of Science Technology Centers.

Embodying IMERSA buzzwords “Cross-fusion” and “Convergence,” the 2014 Summit discussions, screenings and demos are aimed at sharing information across industry sectors, looking at promising directions and innovations, offering professional development for producers, exploring business models and honoring pioneering contributors.

The IMERSA Board members are Dan Neafus (Gates Planetarium, Denver Museum of Nature & Science), Ryan Wyatt (Morrison Planetarium, California Academy of Sciences), Ed Lantz (Vortex Immersion) and Michael Daut (Evans & Sutherland). Visit

Opportunity for producers, artists and storytellers

For producers and distributors of giant-screen movies, the fulldome network – currently estimated to number roughly 1,000 digital dome theaters of varying sizes and configurations in science centers, planetariums, educational institutions and other facilities around the world – can represent a significant market expansion if the industry is able to meet the technical challenges of cross-platforming. The cross-platform chain potentially spans a wide range of formats including (but not limited to) flatscreen and dome screen, 2D and 3D, resolutions from 2K to 8K, and frame rates from 24 fps to 60 fps – as well as virtual reality platforms such as Oculus Rift.

For other media producers, including those active in broadcast, movies, video games or entertainment attractions, as well as artists, theatrical producers and those working in multimedia, the fulldome network offers numerous creative possibilities and new directions.

Opportunity for facilities

Existing facilities with fulldome theaters can learn to use those spaces in new ways that help reach new sectors of the community, enhance their positioning, generate revenue and increase their power to serve educators and educational missions.

New facilities can consider incorporating immersive dome theaters for education or entertainment purposes.


IMERSA is a professional trade association recognized as a non-profit 501 (c) (6) Corp. IMERSA’s vision: To build an international community of professionals who create large-scale immersive digital experiences. IMERSA’s mission: To advance and promote the art and science of large-scale digital immersive media, fulldome, and immersive group experiences in digital planetariums, mobile domes, themed entertainment and giant screen theaters.

What is fulldome?
Fulldome is digital video projected onto, and filling, a hemispherical dome screen. A fulldome system can range from a single fisheye projector for a small portable dome, to 20+ edge blended projectors for the largest domes (up to 80 feet in diameter). Fulldome systems can play back “pre-rendered” shows, and also stream real-time imagery and navigate digital databases. The first fulldome systems grew out of the digital planetarium industry and advances in computer graphics. Fulldome systems continue to improve with advances in digital cinema and there are now systems capable of showing movies at 8K resolution, 60 frames per second and in stereo 3D.


Like the rest of you, we at VOTO are deeply saddened & heartbroken by what is happening right now near Taiji, Japan. Thanks to the brave work of SeaShepherd volunteers we are all witness, in real time, to the termination of entire pods of bottlenose dolphins at a roped off cove. Approximately 250 have been captured. The few animals that are now “blessed” by their corporate masters, and spared, will spend their lives impoverished, swimming in circles and performing tricks for human tourists at sea circuses. 

As described by attorney Martha Brock, “After all desirable calves are taken for captivity, most of the pod will face ‘death-by-spike’ and processed for human consumption. Those deemed unfit for capture or consumption will then be forced back out to sea, forced to fend without the companionship of their pods.”

At VOTO we ask, Why hasn’t SeaWorld spoken out and denounced this practice? 

In the words of Dr John Jett, “Interesting the great conservation organization SeaWorld has never spoken out against this practice. They’ve never commented on it at all to my knowledge. Hmmmm. Could it be that this helps supply the industry with cheap “assets?” The public should press them on this. Bogus.

— Voice of the Orcas 1/18/14

But SeaWorld has indeed spoken on the drive fisheries.  The following three videos, a bit outdated, have been available on its website and YouTube channel since 2010.  For the record, I am not endorsing these videos, rather sharing them.

SeaWorld’s involvement with the drive fisheries did not begin until the mid-1980’s, and they were joined in Japan by another purchaser of drive fishery dolphins and pilot whales – the United States Navy.  However, the first recorded capture at the Taiji drive took place a few decades before SeaWorld’s involvement, in 1969, when four pilot whales were taken captive and moved to the Taiji Whale Museum.  Even if SeaWorld had never purchased from Japan, it’s quite likely with the exponential increase in aquariums and dolphin attractions throughout Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, that the current growth we’re seeing in captures would take place anyway.  As a former trainer for the Whale Museum told the BBC: “Foreigners would often come to Taiji to buy dolphins and I remember them saying that Taiji was the only place in the world where they were able to buy dolphins so easily.”

On January 21, 2014, SeaWorld released the following statement:

Each year, hundreds of dolphins are slaughtered by Japanese fishermen in a brutal hunt known as the “drive fishery.”

SeaWorld is opposed to these drive hunts in Japan and elsewhere. Every accredited zoo and aquarium in America also is opposed to the practice.

No animal in our collection is from a drive hunt. The overwhelming majority of marine mammals in our parks were born in our parks.

In fact, it is a violation of U.S. law to bring an animal collected in that manner into the U.S.

An elongated version of this statement has appeared for a number of years on SeaWorld’s website:

SeaWorld, like every zoo and aquarium in America, is opposed to hunts like the ones shown so graphically in The Cove.  It is a violation of U.S. law to bring a marine mammal into this country that was collected in a drive hunt.  None of our marine mammals came from a drive hunt.  In fact, more than 80 percent of the marine mammals in our care were born at SeaWorld.

The Cove is purposefully misleading on these points, which diminishes what is otherwise a moving and important film.

In the 1980s, SeaWorld and other U.S. parks saved a handful of marine mammals from these fisheries, but we stopped many years ago because we didn’t want to be a party to a hunt of this kind, even if we were only present to save animals.

SeaWorld is also opposed to the practice of killing dolphins (known as drive fisheries) and remains committed to seeing it stopped.

No animal at SeaWorld came from these hunts nor does any other U.S. marine institution purchase animals from this hunt. The collection method is in violation of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means that it is illegal for any animal taken as part of this fishery to be brought into the U.S. for display.

A day after SeaWorld released its statement, Merlin Entertainments, another attraction company partly owned by Blackstone, released their own statement on the drive fisheries.  It was released through Merlin’s non-profit Sea Life Marine Conservation Trust, an offshoot of the company’s Sea Life brand of aquariums and marine mammal sanctuaries.

In light of the ongoing dolphin drive hunt season in Taiji, Japan, the Sea Life Marine Conservation Trust (SLMCT) – the conservation charity launched by the global network of Sea Life centres – strongly condemns these activities and calls upon all zoos and aquaria to cease association with the dolphin drive fishery in Japan.

“The Taiji drives involve the herding of dolphins at sea to be then driven and corralled into the confines of a cove. After sometimes being held for days, the dolphins are then slaughtered for meat or kept alive for sale to marine parks and aquaria across the globe,” said Sarah Taylor, Head of the Sea Life Marine Conservation Trust.

“Yearly quotas for these drive hunts reach into the thousands. They are a brutal reminder that we have a very long way to go towards securing a safe and humane future for all whales and dolphins,” she added.

Sea Life, with 44 attractions around the world, is working with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), to establish the first permanent sanctuary for captive whales and dolphins where they can be retired or rehabilitated and live a more natural life.

We likely won’t hear anything stronger out of either SeaWorld or Merlin this year.  It doesn’t have anything to do with acquiring animals, but rather corporate expansion, and in this case, it’s not SeaWorld’s.  Today, THE BIG PICTURE looks at


And here with the answer direct from her twitter account is Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite:

BREAKING. SeaWorld’s largest shareholder Blackstone claims Dawn’s death was her fault.

— GabrielaCowperthwait (@GabCowperthwait) January 24, 2014

Actually, Gabriela, it didn’t.  He never mentioned her.  He said “the person involved violated all of the safety rules that we had.”  I’ve been told he knows much more about what happened than you and I combined.  And I don’t believe he was talking about Dawn.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Once you get past the emotional screaming of a CNBC anchor that SeaWorld “abuses fish,” and rewind to the beginning of that interview in Davos, you’ll notice that Blackstone’s CEO Steve Schwarzman did not confirm when questioned that Blackstone would be investing in Japan, but he did state that he had met with Prime Minister Abe and the head of Japan’s central bank.

However, one company in the Blackstone portfolio is putting a huge investment in Japan.

Four hours up the coastal road from Taiji sits Nagoya, the third largest city in Japan.  All the dolphins headed to points north and to international destinations are driven through this town.

Merlin is planning to open the LEGOLAND Japan theme park in Nagoya in 2016, complete with LEGO themed hotel.

LEgo3 Lego1

And this is where things get sensitive.  This is where either SeaWorld or Merlin having a louder voice on Taiji can be detrimental to this project.

The land the park will sit on is part of the Port of Nagoya.  The Port, through its nonprofit Port of Nagoya Foundation runs a number of museums and educational attractions in the vicinity.  One of those is the Port of Nagoya Aquarium.


Most of the aquarium’s dolphins come from drive fisheries.  In 2010, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) announced:

WAZA has worked with the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) and the Port of Nagoya Aquarium, to establish a new, transitional approach to the capture of dolphins as part of a tradition of Japanese inshore fishery. At this time it has been officially confirmed that during September dolphins will be collected for aquaria, the only species taken will be the Bottlenose dolphin, and the method employed will be ‘herding’. No dolphins will be taken for human consumption during September, and all surplus animals will be released.

But activisit groups have expressed concerns that this more “humane” method is only at the start of the drive season and that there is nothing to prevent the aquarium from purchasing directly from Taiji fishermen or other aquariums such as the Whale Museum.

In the meantime, one wonders if there will be a joint ticket between the two hottest attractions in Nagoya.

THURSDAY: As promised, how an IMAX film on dolphins didn’t let you know how sexy dolphins could be.

In August, 2012, a pseudo-scientific advocacy group and California farmers petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to delist the endangered status of the Southern resident population of orcas.  Their reason: they believed “the classification of the Southern Resident killer whale population as a distinct population segment of an unnamed North Pacific Resident subspecies was in error.”

Their true purpose: With the population, which resides in the Puget Sound area, being endangered, the whales preferred food, salmon, needed to be protected as well.  This meant that water levels in the American and Sacramento rivers needed to be maintained in order to allow the salmon to reach their spawning grounds.  As a result, the amount of irrigation water the farmers could take from the Sacramento River delta diminished, increasing costs as they looked to other sources.

After an extensive year-long assessment, the NMFS determined that the endangered status was correct.  This allowed a petition to list Lolita, the orca at the Miami Seaquarium captured in 1970, as endangered to proceed.  Which is why today we look at THE BIG PICTURE of


Once she becomes protected under the Endangered Species Act, one of two things are likely to take place.  A lawsuit filed by Peta, the Animal Defense Fund, and others in 2012 has been on hiatus in Federal Court in Miami since the eligibility of one of the plaintiffs was brought into question.  This lawsuit filed against the Seaquarium and the US Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that oversees animals in captivity, seeks to show that the facilities are not only inadequate, but that the Seaquarium’s license for Lolita was renewed in violation of federal standards.  Under the ESA, acceptable husbandry becomes an even more important factor than with the Animal Welfare Act.

If the plaintiffs win this case, barring any appeals, they have plans to fly Lolita to Washington and reunite her with her family.  But she could be headed to Europe instead.  I’ve confirmed that Palace Entertainment has entered into an agreement in principle to purchase the Seaquarium.  Palace is best known for its chain of Boomers! and Monterey Grand Prix family entertainment centers, as well as historic amusement parks such as Lake Compounce and Pittsburgh’s Kennywood, and numerous waterparks.

From speaking with someone associated with the chain, I’ve learned that they have been well aware of both the lawsuit and the Fisheries filing. And although the ESA prevents the interstate or international sale and trade of protected animals, it does not prevent a company that already has an animal from transfering it to a bigger and better facility at another one of their parks.

Palace Entertainment is the American arm of Madrid-based Parques Reunidos, the fourth most attended chain in the world according to the most recent AECOM/TEA Themed Index (after Disney, Merlin, and Universal).  Of their operations, quite a few are zoos, aquariums, and marine life parks.  That includes Sea Life Park in Hawaii, operated by Palace.

If Palace purchases the Seaquarium and she is not labeled endangered under the ESA, expect them to move her to the world’s largest orca tank, at Marineland on the French coast.


So when I asked Lolita what she thought of all this, this is what she had to say:


I’m not an animal activist by any means.  I’m not, as they say, “anti-cap.”  Which is why as I read through the writings of the anti-SeaWorld and animal rights crowds, I continually become flabbergasted at how single-sided and incomplete the articles and the blog posts are.  Lately, I’ve been reading how orcas are headed to the Olympics in Sochi, how a new petition might set Lolita free, and that SeaWorld is staying silent on Taiji.  But there’s a whole other side to these stories and I’m sure you’ll find what Blackfish star Jaff Ventre likes to call “The Big Picture” fascinating.  In the first of three installments, we look at the fate of:


The Vlodivostok Center for Marine Mammal Adaptation has become a training center and clearing house for dolphins, belugas, orcas, and other species in much the same way the Seattle Public Aquarium operated in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The two orcas, one of which is believed to be Narnia, were scheduled to arrive at the Sochi Dolphinarium, operated by White Sphere, in time for the Olympics.  You can see the Dolphinarium in this photo.  The widest point of the tank where the orcas were scheduled to perform is 27 meters.  For reference, the swimming pool just to its south in the photo is around 90 meters long.  This is a different dolphinarium than where the dolphin will be swimming with the Olympic torch (that one is a swim with dolphins type operation).


The public outcry (and the concern that Putin’s release of Greenpeace activists might backfire) resulted in the orcas being sent to Moscow instead.  Although it’s not certain where they might be, the best data shows they are likely near the construction site of the new Moscow Aquarium in the All-Russian Exposition Center, an enormous complex of buildings that once showcased the best of Soviet accomplishments.  Russian activist Mirumir Dobrosklonov shared the following photos online via social media.  The first shows tanks constructed to “acclimatize” marine animals for the new aquarium.

10. Выводной круг.

In October, an inflatable structure was placed over the tanks:


To give you a sense of scope, a poster on Russian Orcas using the handle “MacAlpine” took the following video:

It’s assumned that these orcas will eventually find their way to the Moscow Aquarium when it opens, though that still has to be at least two years away.  And here’s what they have to look forward to:


The building of the aquarium will consist of underground and ground parts. Underground part, its total area will be 9.68 million square meters, will include the aquarium (about 9 thousand square meters) and the theater of pinnipeds (680 square meters). Dolphin Therapy Center (2 thousand square meters), technical facilities, cafes and restaurants will be located on the top floor. Auditoriums of the dolphinarium can host 2,500 people. Preparatory works have already been started.

Visitors of the largest aquarium in Europe, the aquarium with dolphins can not only entertain, but also get new knowledge and improve their health. Five special pools will also operate for children with special needs. In the educational and entertainment center one will see killer whales and beluga, South American sea lions, sharks, rays and many other species of fish. Visitors will be able to travel around the world and meet the aquatic flora and fauna of Russia, the Far East, China, Southeast Asia and America. Project is developed by a team of professionals, for example dolphins, caught in Japan, will be trained by the Japanese experts.

Meanwhile, the question remains what will happen with the orcas during that interim period of construction.  An associate of mine in the Russian attractions business asked around and came back with this: “Very likely Sochi before the big summer season starts.”

In addition to the two orcas in Moscow, two or three (depending what source you use) were sent to China late last year.  Rumor had it they were going to perform at the new Chimelong Ocean Kingdom on Hengqin Island, literally next door to the resort town of Macau.  When the rumors surfaced, Tom Mehrmann of Ocean Park, an AZA-certified zoo and theme park in Hong Kong, told Post Magazine, “There is a lot of concern in the industry that they don’t have the space [for killer whales].  The arena they have is sufficient for belugas and dolphins but orcas were never in that mix. If they went and acquired orcas I would assume they would have to scramble to develop and expand their facilities.”

In fact, orcas are planned for the park, but as this map shows, not until a later phase of construction:

ocean kingdom map

If the orcas are on property, they’re well hidden.  But there’s the posibility they could have gone elsewhere.  I asked someone in the Chinese attractions industry to look at all the existing aquariums, theme parks, and zoos in China to see if orcas were spotted at any.  No luck, but then he told me something that bothers me: “One aquarium guy told me ‘Not China.  Try Pyongyang.'”

Kim Jong Un has been on a major building spree lately, with a new state of the art waterpark last year.

Spectators watch people use The Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang in this undated photo released by North Korea's KCNA

And in 2012 a new Dolphinarium, inspired by the belugas placed on display during the World Expo in Yeosu, South Korea.  Even more troubling is what else this Chinese aquarium manager had to say to my associate.  “We were approached by Pyongyang asking where we could find orcas.  He likes that SeaWorld movie so much, he wants one for himself.”  Sometimes advocacy films can backfire when reason isn’t in play to begin with.  In the case of North Korea, the Rungna Dolphinarium is just too small for orcas.  Take a look:

Rungna Dolphinarium, Pyongyang, North Korea



In the end, we don’t know where the orcas flown to China are nor the ones intended for Sochi.  They won’t be performing during the Olympics, but they will be, somewhere, for someone.  And the Russians will continue to catch orcas and sell them for an estimated value of $1 million apiece to parks around the world.

That’s “The Big Story” on Sochi’s orcas . . . for now.

TOMORROW: The effort to free Lolita from the Seaquarium, how the cost of lettuce could derail the process, and how the ultimate decision on her future may lie with the Spanish.