The word “SeaWorld” used to evoke smiles and excited giggles, but that time has long since passed. With public opinion of the theme park going downhill, SeaWorld San Diego has been forced to reconsider its plans and has been adopting multiple changes to its parks in the past two years.
Just last month, on Nov. 9, SeaWorld stated that it will phase out its traditional killer whale show at its San Diego, Calif., park next year and replace it with a new “orca experience.” Moreover, last year, it announced the Blue World Project — a project focused on doubling the size of SeaWorld San Diego’s tank. Corresponding with that project, the California Coastal Commission has approved the project under one condition: SeaWorld San Diego will no longer be able to breed its whales.
And although these actions are a step up from the current living conditions for the whales at SeaWorld San Diego, it is definitely not enough.
SeaWorld’s decision to phase out its popular killer whale theatrical show at its San Diego location followed the tarnished public image and failing finances of SeaWorld and the resignation of SeaWorld’s CEO last December, much of which was attributable to the release of the CNN documentary “Blackfish.”
The documentary, which aired in 2013, depicted SeaWorld employees giving insufficient care to their killer whales and highlighted the negative effects of prolonged captivity. Moreover, the success of this documentary, coupled with the work of animal rights campaigners, effectively led many customers, including celebrities, to boycott the theme park. Also during this time, Southwest Airlines ended its relationship with SeaWorld, a longtime partner, potentially due to the public furor.
Just this month, SeaWorld stated that it will replace its classic Shamu show in San Diego with a new orca experience — one that focuses less on tricks and more on killer whales’ natural behaviors in the wild — in order to focus more on SeaWorld’s conservation efforts rather than its historically poor treatment of killer whales. In the end, although the whales may be performing fewer tricks, they will still be trapped in tanks much too small for them, exclusively for the entertainment of the park’s visitors. The move, then, is not aimed at the betterment of the captive killer whales, but rather at propping up the park’s slipping profits.
SeaWorld’s decision to end the killer whale show in San Diego would not be the first attempt SeaWorld has made to increase profits and improve its reputation. In September 2014, just two days after SeaWorld’s shares dropped 33 percent, it announced the Blue World Project, which will focus on increasing the size of SeaWorld San Diego’s — and later SeaWorld San Antonio’s and SeaWorld Orlando’s — killer whale tank. The new tank is supposed to replicate a “realistic” ocean environment for the whales by featuring varying depths and a fast water current.
These measures are less than inadequate, however. Killer whales in the wild swim long distances, sometimes in straight miles, and killer whales in the Southern Resident pods swim for an average of 75 miles a day. In order for the whales to swim 75 miles in the new tank, which will have a volume of 10 million gallons, maximum depth of 50 feet, surface area of one and a half acres, a height of 40 feet, and a length of over 350 feet, the whales would have to swim over 1,000 laps around the tank. Moreover, according to SeaWorld itself, researchers theorize that killer whales can dive up to 1,483 feet, and thus the tank’s depth of 50 feet — less than the length of two adult whales — will keep the whales neither healthy nor content.
Additionally, killer whales in the wild spend their entire lives in family groups, or pods, and they are deprived of these bonds when they live in captivity. Moreover, killer whales cannot hunt for prey, let alone eat small whales, seals and sharks — the diet of wild killer whales — in little tanks, and thus must stifle their natural behavior to communicate and hunt when in captivity.
Furthermore, it is important to note that SeaWorld plans to stock a greater number of killer whales in its enlarged tanks, resulting in minimal actual improvement (in space) per whale. However, the good news is that a new California law may prevent the park from taking this action.
The California Coastal Commission panel unanimously approved the Blue World Project under a restriction: SeaWorld San Diego will not be permitted to breed the animals while in captivity. This will lead to the decrease in number of captive whales in California, assuming that SeaWorld San Diego does not import whales from other marine entertainment parks.
Currently, SeaWorld San Diego is reconsidering its decision to increase the size of its killer whale tanks and SeaWorld Entertainment is using its many lawyers to fight the ban and sue the California Coastal Commission. The park said in a statement that it was disappointed with the conditions established by the commission. Moreover, it added in defense of breeding that, “Breeding is a natural, fundamental and important part of an animal’s life, and depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane.”
So while SeaWorld’s two decisions — the potential decision to follow through with the Blue World Project and the decision to replace the current Shamu show with a more natural show — will most likely not improve the mental and physical health of SeaWorld San Diego’s current killer whales on a large scale, they will improve the whales’ standard of living at least marginally. Although the ban on breeding will do nothing to improve the current whales’ health, it will have a positive impact in preventing long-term future suffering.
Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that the decision to replace current Shamu shows with a more natural show and the ban on breeding captive killer whales, alongside the decision to potentially follow through with the Blue World Project in California, only applies to the SeaWorld San Diego location. The remaining 13 of SeaWorld’s 24 killer whales will have to continue to suffer and perform for food in their original tanks.Conclusively, while moves are being made to ensure slightly better lives for whales at SeaWorld, they are not enough.According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,“What could save it [SeaWorld] would be the recognition that it needs not to make larger tanks but to turn the orcas out in seaside sanctuaries so that they can feel and experience the ocean again, hear their families, and one day be reunited with them.” Moreover, SeaWorld should focus on improving living conditions for its whales in each of its three locations, and not just its San Diego one. California resident Misako Benso ’19 said, “I think SeaWorld’s treatment of animals needs further improvement, and I agree with PETA in that I believe that captive killer whales should be moved to seaside sanctuaries so that they may experience the ocean once again.”
For Princeton University students and staff, the issue may seem distanced or inconsequential, but given the influence and sway held by the Princeton name, we have an obligation to be the voice for captive social animals, or at least to engage in discussion regarding how the situation can be improved. It is time to foster discussions in order to ultimately improve the lives of the wild animals living in bathtub like tanks at SeaWorld.
Pranaya Anshu is a freshman from San Diego, C.A. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.