A Shamu-less SeaWorld

Even since I was a little girl, orcas have been my favorite animal. I had stuffed animals, posters and the works about orcas. One of the greatest days of my life was when I got to pet an orca at a marine life theme park in California. I remember being amazed by the size, grace and beauty of this awe-inspiring animal. In other words, I was SeaWorld’s target customer: young, in love with orcas and willing to do anything (begging parents included) to see them up close. However, in 2013, my world of ignorant bliss was swiftly brought to an end. I watched “Blackfish,” the eye-opening, depression-inducing documentary on the mistreatment of orca in captivity and, specifically, at SeaWorld. If you haven’t seen this movie, and if you care about animals even a little bit, I highly recommend that you do. It’s worth all 83 minutes. Do it.

I digress. This movie changed the way that thousands, if not millions, of people look at the orca exhibits at SeaWorld’s various locations. Bloomberg Business Week reported that SeaWorld suffered a $15.9 million loss in the following year. Attendance dipped. Partners and investors backed away slowly…SeaWorld was in deep s***, but they fought back hard, hoping to keep their brand as “The Home of Shamu.” A series of open letters rebutting the claims were released and SeaWorld even changed their website, adding a “The Truth about Blackfish” page that critiqued the movie. A few months later there was a polling scandal in an Orlando newspaper, in which 53 percent of votes answering the question “Did ‘Blackfish’ change the way you see SeaWorld?” were answered by a single SeaWorld-hosted IP address. Three years later, the consequences from the movie failed to blow over. As profits and stock prices continued to decline, the executives at SeaWorld decided the pressure was too much and they started to make changes.

One week ago, USA Today published an article interviewing SeaWorld’s newest “captain,” Joel K. Manby, the man brought in to help SeaWorld rebuild a good reputation. He talked about how last March, SeaWorld announced that they would stop their orca breeding program. Despite this new step, this past September, California governor Jerry Brown signed a new law called “The Orca Protection Act”, forbidding the breeding of orcas for entertainment as well as the transportation of orcas to other states and foreign countries for the purpose of entertainment. This legislation is a major step in the protection of captive orcas, but nonprofits like the Whale Sanctuary Project, the Animal Welfare Institute and PETA are now working towards ensuring a world in which there are absolutely no orcas in captivity. Even as SeaWorld is planning newer, bigger tanks for the orcas that they have, PETA and others are protesting, proposing that the whales be moved to protected bays off the coast of British Columbia. This drive to rid SeaWorld of all of their orca whales is now focusing on Corky, the longest held captive orca in the world—she was captured in 1969.

To me, I find all of this news heartbreaking. I feel guilty for buying into the whole “Shamu” brand and for only realizing the injustices suffered by these intelligent, emotional and family-oriented animals. Part of me, I’m ashamed to admit, wants to be able to see these orcas up close, see them jump out of the water and turn and do tricks. But I’m willing to give this up. I’m glad to see that “Blackfish” has inspired so many to pressure SeaWorld into changing its ways, but I don’t think the fight is over. Even though steps have been made, they’re not enough, and as the years go by, it is imperative that we do not let this issue drop and allow these orcas to live in small concrete tanks for decades more. It saddens me to know I will probably never touch another orca again, but I am willing to get myself a sea kayak, strap on a helmet and see my favorite animals where they’re supposed to be: in the wild.