01 Dec SeaWorld to Phase Out Orca Performances: Real Change or Not?
Many of those who love being in the outdoors and watching and learning about wildlife credit a childhood experience for inspiring their passions. And as an adventure enthusiast, you’re probably one of them.
Perhaps for you, it was the camping outings you took with your mom and dad. Or maybe it was the annual family road trips to a national park. It could have been explorations in your neighborhood or even in your own backyard, where you discovered frogs, lizards and snakes with your best friend. Or, you might have been introduced to the wonders of wildlife at an aquarium or marine park. For those who grew up in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, that park might have been SeaWorld.
So you may have had some mixed feelings when SeaWorld San Diego announced recently, on November 9, 2015, that it would be phasing out its orca-performance shows, will all of them ending by 2017. SeaWorld plans to replace them with a “new orca experience” focusing on whales in their natural environment and emphasizing a strong conservation message.
But given the now-known facts about orcas in captivity, can a marine park ever simulate a natural habitat or native existence for a whale?
A nontransparent transformation
In recent years, SeaWorld has come under attack over how it treats its captive whales. The 2013 documentary Blackfish, a film that portrays the alleged mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld, caused the enterprise to lose half of its market value. Although SeaWorld has criticized the movie’s depiction of its orca program as inaccurate and “emotionally manipulative,” it did admit that the company—whose attractions also include a 20-minute, $215 session of playing with dolphins in their tanks—failed to evolve with the changing times and attitudes and expectations of its guests.
Critics say SeaWorld’s motive for discontinuing its orca shows may not have been due to public enlightenment but the California Coastal Commission’s passing a bill in October that bans California properties from breeding orcas in captivity and restricts the transfer of whales. And on November 6, 2015, California Representative Adam Schiff announced that he would introduce a bill in Congress to phase out orca captivity throughout the U.S. If passed, the bill would ban breeding, export, import and wild capture of orcas.
Before the California bill passed, SeaWorld had hoped to implement a $100-million plan to almost double the size of its San Diego whale-tank complex, which is home to 11 orcas. That and the fact that SeaWorld is suing the California Coastal Commission over its restrictions makes some animal welfare advocates believe the new announcement is merely a PR stunt for investors.
Wildlife advocates point out that the details explaining how, exactly, the theatrical shows will be transformed into a more “natural” and educational experience were lacking from SeaWorld’s statement. They say SeaWorld is not phasing out orca shows; it is simply reworking them and calling them by a different name—a change of semantics that makes no difference to the orcas still living in captivity. SeaWorld will still not release its orcas to marine sanctuaries.
Too, the company has said it would phase out its orca shows only in San Diego. SeaWorld has 13 other orcas that perform at its parks in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas. There was no word on any changes there.
An inspiring incident
In the wake of Blackfish, SeaWorld likes to remind the public of the work it does to protect and care for whales and other animals. SeaWorld has stranded-animal rescue teams on call and operates rehabilitation centers. While the performance shows have been highly criticized, they did provide the highly social orcas with tasks and opportunities for interaction. The “trained behaviors,” say SeaWorld officials, were valuable in that they allowed the whales to use their brains and avoid boredom.
No matter where you stand—with SeaWorld or in opposition to all marine parks—almost everyone agrees that firsthand experience is one of the best ways to spark a child’s interest in nature and wildlife conservation. Children who don’t live near the ocean may visit parks such as SeaWorld and as a result develop a lifelong interest in marine wildlife and research. Some even believe places such as SeaWorld are essential places for inspiring future conservationists. Rather than do away completely with SeaWorld and other marine parks like it, they say, why not have these venues aid in conservation in any way they can.
Do you think SeaWorld San Diego is taking a real, positive step toward ending its captive orca shows, or is the park just calling them by a different name? Is there room for marine parks in the future, or should they all be closed?
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
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