No, SeaWorld Is Not Phasing Out Orca Shows

The marine entertainment company is reworking its orca shows, not eliminating them

Yesterday’s headlines proclaiming that SeaWorld will be ending orca whale shows were almost as misleading as the alleged “educational value” of the shows themselves.

On Monday, SeaWorld announced that it will “phase out” the San Diego park’s theatrical killer whale show in 2016, and unveil a “new orca experience” in 2017. According to the announcement, which was made in a presentation to investors, the new experience will be “informative.” SeaWorld also says the new shows will be take place in a “more natural setting” and that they will carry a “conservation message inspiring people to act.”

Photo of SeaWorld Orca ShowPhoto by Josh HallettSeaWorld is not phasing out orca shows, just calling these shows by a different name.

This announcement was quickly picked up by media outlets around country, generating headlines that SeaWorld was “ending,” “getting rid of,” and “drawing the curtain on” its killer whale show.

Unfortunately, many of Monday’s headlines exaggerated the announcement. SeaWorld’s infamous orca shows are being reworked, rather than eliminated, at the San Diego, California park. (The announcement does not pertain to SeaWorld’s other parks.) The announcement does not mean that SeaWorld will end orca exploitation, or that it will release orcas to marine sanctuaries, the preferred course of action among many advocates.

The lack of meaningful change left many advocates frustrated. “SeaWorld fully intends to continue forced breeding of orcas in captivity,” says David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), an Earth Island Institute project that works to protect dolphins and whales. “They will continue to keep orcas in concrete tanks with no intention of retirement or release. They intend to continue to import and export orcas to other captive facilities as they see fit.”

Responding to the announcement in a press release, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said: “This move is like no longer whipping lions in a circus act but keeping them locked inside cages for life.”

SeaWorld has faced mounting public pressure in recent years. The 2013 release of Blackfish, a popular documentary criticizing SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas, sparked public outrage, and company profits have taken a hit. The marine mammal giant has also faced several lawsuits this year, including one by Earth Island’s IMMP, arguing that SeaWorld has misled the public about the health and wellbeing of captive orcas.

In October, the California Coastal Commission voted to ban SeaWorld San Diego from breeding orcas in captivity and to restrict transfer of whales. (SeaWorld has said it will sue the Commission over these restrictions.) And just last week, California Representative Adam Schiff announced that he will introduce a bill in Congress to phase out orca captivity throughout the United States. If passed, the bill would ban breeding, import and export, and wild capture of orcas.

Given the timing of SeaWorld’s announcement, many animal welfare advocates believe it is simply a public relations response to negative publicity, and amounts to nothing more than greenwashing. Referencing the October Coastal Commission vote on orca breeding and transfers, former Coastal Commission chairwoman Sara Wan notes that “[SeaWorld] is still proceeding with their litigation against the Commission and with their captive breeding program as well, proving that this is all a PR stunt for their investors.”

On Monday SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby acknowledged the benefits that a more positive public image would bring. “People love companies that have a purpose, even for-profit companies,” he told SeaWorld investors in a webcast. “Just look at WholeFoods … I don’t see any reason why SeaWorld can’t be one of those brands.”

Manby also assured investors that any capital expenditures to spruce up orca tanks at SeaWorld San Diego will be “minimal,” leaving advocates to wonder how exactly the “theatrical” shows will be transformed into a more “natural” and “educational” experience.

What Manby doesn’t seem to understand is that the public is not only upset with the tricks the orcas are forced to perform for large crowds, or the appearance of their tanks — it is the very fact of their captivity and the suffering it causes. SeaWorld is not phasing out orca shows, it is simply calling these shows by a different name, a semantic difference that makes no difference to the orcas still living in captivity.

To take action, sign IMMP’s petition demanding that SeaWorld begin telling the truth about orca captivity.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

The Computer Chip Industry Has a Dirty Climate Secret

As demand for chips surges, the semicondutor industry is trying to grapple with its huge carbon foot print.

Pádraig Belton The Guardian

A Matter of Spirits

A passionate group of farmers, distillers, and bartenders across the US and beyond are seeking to reduce the environmental footprint of alcoholic beverages.

Shanna Farrell

Activists Stand Guard Over California Redwoods Amid Logging Threat

So far, tree-sitters have foiled recent logging plans in Jackson Demonstration State Forest. But they are calling for long-term protections.

Austin Price

The Dixie Fire and Me

Can My Town Rebuild After Losing It All?

Jane Braxton Little

20 Meat and Dairy Firms Emit More Greenhouse Gas than Germany, Britain, or France

Livestock companies with large emissions receive billions of dollars in funding, campaigners say.

Sophie Kevany The Guardian

My Extreme World.  And (Un)Welcome to It.

We’re no longer just reading about the climate crisis. We’re living it in a startling fashion.

Tom Engelhardt