California Tells SeaWorld to Stop Breeding Killer Whales

The state’s coastal commission will only allow the company to expand its San Diego park if it ends its orca program.
(Photo: David Peevers/Getty Images)
Oct 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

SeaWorld has won the battle but lost the war in its bid to enlarge its killer whale enclosure in San Diego.

On Thursday evening, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to approve the company’s $100 million “Blue World Project” but with devastating conditions for SeaWorld: It can proceed with the expansion but only if it stops breeding 11 killer whales in San Diego.

The company also would not be allowed to transfer captive whales into or out of San Diego, though it could add up to four orcas if the animals are stranded and rescued from the wild.

Orcas “don’t belong in captivity,” said Commissioner Dayna Bochco.

Anti-captivity activists, who crammed the commission meeting at the Long Beach Convention Center, hailed the decision as the beginning of the end of orca captivity in San Diego.

“I actually didn’t even think of this as a potential outcome, and I’m happier with it than if they had said no,” Kimberly Ventre, an activist and marketing consultant from San Francisco who testified against the expansion, said in an email.

About 650 people—including activists, company officials, actor Pamela Anderson, and concerned citizens on both sides of the controversial project—attended the hearing, with an overflow crowd waiting outside.

“This is a major victory,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute. Rose was one of two orca scientists to testify against the project. The other was Ingrid Visser, founder of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust.

“As a scientist, I believe it’s important that we separate the business rhetoric from the facts,” Visser told the commissioners. “This new tank does not meet even [the most] basic requirements,” she said. “No tank ever will.”

SeaWorld now finds itself in a marine-mammal pickle. Company executives testified during the nearly nine-hour hearing that they would never abandon their captive breeding program because it is essential for the whales’ well-being to reproduce. SeaWorld has been hit with declining revenues and attendance since the release of Blackfish, a 2013 documentary about mistreatment of marine mammals at its entertainment parks.

“They are thriving because they are reproducing,” testified Hendrik Nollens, senior staff veterinarian at SeaWorld San Diego. “It’s a sign that the animal is living in a socially compatible group and in good health.”

What happens next is not clear. SeaWorld could still build Blue World and abandon its San Diego breeding program, or it could continue breeding and abandon the facility.

“Depriving these social animals of the natural and fundamental right to reproduce is inhumane, and we do not support this condition,” SeaWorld chief executive Joel Manby said in a statement. The company added that “it will review its options.”

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Last month, coastal commission staff recommended approval of the project but attached nine conditions, including requirements not to house any orcas taken from the wild after February 2014 and not to significantly increase the park’s captive population.

Blue World would nearly double the park’s orca habitat, with a 9.6-million-gallon pool and a 450,000-gallon tank featuring giant underwater viewing windows, a “treadmill” of moving water against which the orcas can swim, and “rubbing beaches” where they can frolic in shallow water.

SeaWorld officials said the new facility would improve the lives of its orcas, greatly enhance the scientific study of killer whales, and attract tourists from around the world.

“We could not be more excited about this project,” SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly told the commissioners. “Blue World is going to be a great enhancement to our habitat for whales but also for researchers and guests.”

The proposed tank, Reilly said, “is naturalistic and sweeping, with new areas to explore. It’s unlike any other, giving more access than ever before for world-class health care and research that will help killer whales at SeaWorld and in the wild.”

Opponents, however, are adamant that Blue World was designed to enhance profits rather than research or animal well-being.

“SeaWorld’s motives are clear and can be seen from the fact that the project was announced two days after its stock dropped more than 30 percent and long before an application was submitted,” Jared Goodman, animal law director for PETA Foundation, said in an interview.

“The new tank is 350 feet long and 50 feet at its deepest point,” Goodman said. “Orcas in the wild swim over 100 miles per day—that would be 1,500 laps in the new tank. And they dive up to 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The new tank is only 15 feet deeper than the current tank. That’s not even a body length.”

Goodman predicted that SeaWorld will abandon Blue Ocean but said that “we will have to see.”

“These could be the last 11 orcas in San Diego,” he added.