Activists who for years have railed against SeaWorld to permanently end its captive orca attractions scored a major victory this morning. The marine park, embattled both politically and publicly after the release of the orca documentary "Blackfish" in 2013, has moved to end its orca breeding program, therefore ensuring that the whales currently in its attractions around the country will be the last to suffer in concrete tanks.
Ready for the giant "but ..." attached to that paragraph? I'm 37 years old. By the time the last killer whale at SeaWorld passes away, there is a possibility I'll be pushing 70. This is because orcas have a tremendously long lifespan, with males in the wild averaging 30 years and females capable of living 50-100 years. While there's debate over how well SeaWorld's orcas fare compare to these averages (the consensus is, not well), it's clear that whales will continue to be a part of the park's brochures for years to come.
It's also worth noting that SeaWorld's captive whales currently include one pregnant orca named Takara. Should Takara's baby make it past the crucial first six months, the program's end could be reset by decades. There's also a bit of a grey area over when exactly SeaWorld plans to end its breeding program. While some outlets have reported the move as "immediate," SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby in an op-ed for the L.A. Times was more general, with only a commitment of "this year." In a tweet, PETA noted that wiggle room, calling on the marine park to be more specific about its deadline.
PETA has campaigned hard & today there's a pay off for future generations of orcas. But TODAY is the day to stop breeding NOT later this yr— PETA (@peta) March 17, 2016
Of course, after years of writing about SeaWorld and other marine parks with bathtub-sized orca attractions, it's easy to be cynical about the motives here. Make no mistake, I applaud the move. It's clear that SeaWorld is finally starting to listen to the outrage, and this is a good first step. But let's not forget that there are still 23 orcas in captivity at SeaWorld (and one yet unborn), with several less than 10 years old. The campaign to give these whales a better life than their current glass-and-concrete enclosures is still passionately being pursued by activists. The best-case scenario involves giant sea pens, as described by Newsweek as places where orcas could engage with the wild, but still be monitored by trainers and scientists.
"This is about just bringing it to the next level, so of course we can do this," former SeaWorld orca trainer John Hargrove told Earth Island Journal. "At least they would have a higher quality of life. They would have much larger living spaces, and the orcas would not be swimming in these chemicals that our water is treated with at Shamu Stadium."
So go ahead and celebrate a win for the future of whales in captivity. Just don't expect to see a "closed" sign on SeaWorld's orca attractions anytime soon.