The World’s Most Famous Surfer Turns Up the Heat on SeaWorld

When Kelly Slater couldn’t ask SeaWorld directly when it would free its captive killer whales, he took the question to his millions of fans instead.

(Photos: Daniel Smorigo/Getty Images; Mike Blake/Reuters)

Jun 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Champion surfer Kelly Slater had a question for SeaWorld about how it treats its killer whales. But the company didn’t answer.

On Wednesday, SeaWorld held its annual meeting in an online forum that allowed shareholders to submit questions for Joel Manby, the company’s new CEO, and other board members.

The nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which owns stock in SeaWorld, recruited Slater to ask when the company would retire its captive killer whales to coastal sanctuaries. Slater is an 11-time World Surf League Champion and arguably the most famous surfer in the world.

“He has seen firsthand the beauty, intelligence, and personalities of these animals,” said PETA’s Stephanie Shaw, “and he’s profoundly touched by their imprisonment at SeaWorld.”

Slater waited patiently for his question about retiring the company’s killer whales to be posted to the online forum. It never happened.

“We tried several ways to send the question in, but they never responded,” Shaw said. SeaWorld officials countered to Forbes magazine that they never received Slater’s question.

SeaWorld did not respond to TakePart’s requests to access the online meeting or for comment on Slater’s question.

SeaWorld prevented PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) from submitting this question on my behalf at...

Posted by Kelly Slater on Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Whether intentional or not, SeaWorld’s failure to address Slater’s question during the meeting may have only increased public attention on the firm and its killer whale practices, because later that day the surfer took it directly to his 1.5 million Facebook followers.

“The veil has been lifted on SeaWorld,” he wrote. “All the ads in the world won’t change what the public now knows to be true: that the company imprisons highly intelligent, emotionally complex, social animals in tiny, barren concrete tanks, which leads to aggression and disease.”

Slater noted SeaWorld’s declining attendance and revenue and mentioned that companies such as Southwest Airlines, Panama Jack, and Mattel recently severed their corporate ties with SeaWorld.

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“Please, tell us, when will SeaWorld allow the animals it holds captive to return to their home—the ocean—by retiring them to a seaside sanctuary?” Slater asked on Facebook. “And wouldn’t this at least be viewed, if nothing else, as a public relations win for you?”

Slater joins dozens of celebrities who have attacked SeaWorld for its controversial killer whale captivity program.

Someone else at the annual meeting did ask whether SeaWorld would send its whales to seaside sanctuaries, and the answer generated a lot of media heat.

“SeaWorld’s new chairman and chief executive insists that its captive orcas…would get sick and die if released into ocean sanctuaries,” the New York Post reported.

“More than 80 percent of our whales were born in our care, and sea pens would be a poor choice for them,” Manby told shareholders, according to the Post. “Uncontrollable exposure to pollution, ocean debris and life-threatening pathogens in ocean waters are just a few of the factors that make sea pens an unhealthy living environment for any of our animals.”

A few marine mammals have been successfully relocated to the sea from captivity, although such projects can be costly and have involved animals originally captured in the wild. Keiko, the whale featured in the hit 1993 movie Free Willy, spent several years in a sea pen and one year back in the wild before he died in 2003.

A recent report on the successful rehabilitation and release of two long-captive wild dolphins named Tom and Misha suggested that with careful attention to their health, a marine mammals can transition from captivity to an ocean pen, which is what Slater and PETA hoped to ask SeaWorld to do.

PETA said in a statement that it may take legal action “over SeaWorld’s lock-out of dissenting voices who speak for the animals they hold prisoner.”