SeaWorld to End Killer Whale Shows

The company said it will replace the controversial orca performances in San Diego with a presentation focused on the marine mammal’s natural environment.
(Photo: Brigitte Hiss/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Nov 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.

Shamu is going to stop performing tricks at SeaWorld San Diego.

“Two thousand sixteen will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience in San Diego,” Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld Entertainment, said Monday during a company presentation to investors. “In 2017, we will launch an all-new orca experience focused on natural environment.”

“We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company. We are always changing,” Manby added.

It appears that the Shamu shows will continue at the company’s venues in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio.

A presentation posted on SeaWorld’s investors website said the company will phase out the “theatrical killer whale show” and replace it with something that is “informative and [in a] more natural setting,” with a “conservation message inspiring people to act.”

Manby said SeaWorld will partner with public schools to bring conservation education to some 50 million students over the next five years.

“People love companies that have a purpose, even for-profit companies,” Manby said during the webcast. “Just look at Whole Foods.… I don’t see any reason why SeaWorld can’t be one of those brands.”

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Manby said the decision was not driven by growing opposition to orca captivity. “Frankly, the activists aren’t going to be pleased with anything we do,” he said.

The move is part of SeaWorld’s ongoing efforts to rescue its sagging reputation by focusing more on killer whale education and conservation than on entertainment. Since the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which criticized SeaWorld’s treatment of its orcas, the company has lost half its market value.

Attendance at SeaWorld’s 11 parks fell by 4.2 percent during 2014, though it only declined by 0.4 percent in the latest quarter.

On Friday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., introduced federal legislation to phase out orca shows in the United States, and last month the California Coastal Commission approved SeaWorld’s proposal for a $100 million new orca habitat, but with two major caveats: the company must stop breeding killer whales and cannot add any more orcas caught in captivity.

“The decision by SeaWorld to phase out killer whale shows in San Diego is a welcome step along the path toward ending the captivity of these magnificent creatures,” Schiff said in a statement. “Much more needs to be done, however, and I would urge the company to curtail the breeding of their orcas and partner in the creation of ocean sanctuaries. The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist.”

Last Thursday, Manby told investors on a conference call that the San Diego location would add new attractions to boost its flagging attendance, but few observers anticipated such a surprising announcement.

“I thought it was going to be a new roller coaster,” said Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute and a leading orca captivity opponent.

“It sounds like they are trying to be responsive to what they’ve been hearing from the public, but the question is, are they phasing out the shows or just repackaging them to make them less circus-like?” Rose stated.

Rose said she suspects that SeaWorld might intend to do something like it did last year in Orlando with the "Up Close With Shamu" show when the main performance pool was closed for renovation.

“They did a more informational presentation: no loud music, no dancing, no stadium seating. People could stay at poolside all day if they wanted, watching how the trainers did veterinary sampling, trained the animals to do new tricks, and so on,” she said.

Rose commented that though a new “informational” presentation might be more educational for visitors, “it won’t improve the welfare of the whales. That can’t be improved by repackaging the show.”

Like many activists, Rose said SeaWorld should end its captive orca-breeding program if it wants to be known as an organization genuinely dedicated to conservation.

“They have to stop breeding these animals,” she insisted. “If that is not included in this retooling, then it’s not enough.”