Twenty-three years ago, as the Humane Society of the United States launched a campaign to protect captive marine mammals, SeaWorld invited the organization to visit its Orlando theme park. Dr. Naomi Rose, the newly appointed head of the HSUS campaign, and her colleagues went to the park for a behind-the-scenes tour of the outdoor theater where crowds watched choreographed orcas leap in the air. What the group saw—large, intelligent creatures swimming in small concrete tanks—confirmed Rose’s fears. She knew how the trapped, bored orcas must suffer, especially those confined alone. So began more than two decades of protests, research and public education to stop SeaWorld from bringing more killer whales into captivity.
“They tried to schmooze us, to see if they could get us off this,” says Rose. “We said, ‘Thanks for the tour, we’ll see you on the battlefield.’ ”
This March, the fight ended. For those not privy to confidential negotiations between HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle and SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby, their joint announcement was stunning: SeaWorld will no longer breed orcas in captivity. Because SeaWorld had long ago stopped capturing orcas from the wild, that means the more than two dozen orcas at its U.S. and international theme parks will be the last. SeaWorld also pledged not to introduce orcas at any new parks it opens and promised to transform its signature orca shows into displays that are less theatrical and more natural, such as watching orcas exercise.
“It’s really momentous,” says Pacelle. “We have a long history of criticizing SeaWorld. At the same time, we want companies and individuals to change: Better to get your business model aligned and do the right thing.”
Because orcas generally live no more than 35 years in captivity, by 2050 orcas at SeaWorld likely will be a thing of the past. As the theme park giant phases out these displays, smaller companies overseas with captive orcas will have a successful business model to follow, says HSUS marine issues field director Sharon Young.
“Because SeaWorld is such a well-known symbol of orcas in captivity, and they’ve said publicly, ‘It’s not right,’ they may be setting a precedent,” Young says.
SeaWorld has also pledged to spend $50 million over the next five years to expand its rescue and rehabilitation efforts, which have already saved 27,000 lives. It will provide care for injured and stranded marine animals like dolphins and advocate with the HSUS for an end to commercial whaling, the commercial seal hunt, shark finning and removing wild fish from coral reefs for the aquarium trade. And SeaWorld will switch to serving its 23 million annual visitors cage-free eggs, gestation crate-free pork, more vegetarian options and sustainable seafood.
The HSUS is encouraged to find agreement with SeaWorld on the issue of captive orcas, which has been the most controversial, and will continue to discuss other animal welfare issues with the company, says Nicole Paquette, HSUS vice president for wildlife protection.
Pacelle says Manby, who started at SeaWorld in 2014, is “a guy who’s willing to take bold steps.” He has to be. The company’s profits plummeted 84 percent as attendance, especially at its flagship San Diego park, fell after the 2013 documentary Blackfish. The film chronicled the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was attacked by a male orca named Tilikum. Ad and online campaigns could not turn the numbers around. Then the California Coastal Commission ordered the San Diego SeaWorld to stop breeding orcas.
The chain of events forced the company to listen to what the HSUS and fellow advocates have been saying for years, says Rose, who now works with the Animal Welfare Institute. “For a long time, SeaWorld had the podium; we were on the outskirts. It took a very tragic event to bring about this tectonic shift.”
In the two days following the announcement, SeaWorld’s stock rose more than 16 percent.
The "Blackfish" Facebook page thanked supporters: “They heard your voice!” An astounded public posted comments all over the Internet, most congratulatory. Rose savored the moment, one she had once wondered whether she’d see in her lifetime. “All things are possible!” she tweeted.