The news broke yesterday and for a moment, the headlines trumpeted something animal activists have been after for years. "SeaWorld to end theatrical killer whale show," reported the San Diego Tribune. "SeaWorld to replace 'Shamu' killer whale show in San Diego," echoed Reuters. Hooray! The whales are free! "Blackfish" won!
Alas. After reviewing firsthand accounts of the investor relations call that followed these hopeful headlines, it's clear that it's business as usual for SeaWorld. The whales may perform fewer jumps through hoops, but it's all likely going to take place in the same concrete tanks.
Now that the balloons have all been popped, here's what we know regarding SeaWorld's plans for its orcas and their not-so-bright future.
1. The show will go on.
Yes, SeaWorld is phasing out its traditional "whales doing stupid tricks" show in San Diego in favor of something more in tune with "conservation" and the whales' "natural environment." What that means exactly wasn't elaborated, but what it does not indicate is some kind of coastal ocean sanctuary long championed by animal activists. Nope, we're still going to see whales swimming around in tanks akin to an underwater jail cell. But this time, it will be more "natural."
2. SeaWorld's natural shift is all about the bottom line.
According to Slate, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said in a conference call to investors this afternoon that whatever capital expenditures are made to improve the tanks will be "minimal." It's also worth noting that these changes only apply to the company's San Diego park, and not to its additional killer whale shows in Texas and Florida.
“They want experiences that are more natural," Manby said. "And experiences that look more natural in the environment. It’s not universal across our properties.”
3. The company refuses to acknowledge the true problem.
According to Manby, public opinion of the company will improve if the presentation of the captive whales is changed. "They want the orca experience to be activities the whales do in the wild," Manby said of San Diego customers. "Things they perceive as tricks, they don't like as well."
Did you notice words such as "freedom" or "small tanks" or "captive breeding" in there? Me neither. These underlying issues instead are discarded in favor of something that can be fixed with marketing, minimal capital expenditures, and a feel-good conservation theme.
4. SeaWorld is still fighting a ruling against captive breeding of orcas.
Early last month, the California Coastal Commission granted SeaWorld permission to expand its planned $100 million killer whale attraction — but only if it agreed to stop any further forced breeding of its captive whales. SeaWorld balked and hired a law firm to fight the ruling and they're still determined to win. Clearly, this is not a company that is ready to change its business model of using whales as entertainment.
In the end, legislation may ultimately end up triggering the kind of celebrations activists had in mind. On Nov. 6, California Rep. Adam Schiff introduced a federal bill, the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act, that would end forced breeding and ultimately phase out killer whales in captivity.
“The evidence is very strong that the psychological and physical harm done to these magnificent animals far outweighs any benefits reaped from their display,” Schiff said during a news conference. “We cannot be responsible stewards of our natural environment and propagate messages about the importance of animal welfare when our behaviors do not reflect our principles. The ORCA Act ensures that this will be the last generation of orcas who live in captivity, and we will appreciate these incredible creatures where they belong — in the wild.”