SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium find themselves at a crossroads at the beginning of 2015. Public opinion has been swayed in the past couple years against the parks, or any park, holding orcas in captivity.
The downward spiral started in 2012 with the publication of David Kirby's book Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.
Kirby has continued to write about the ongoing SeaWorld saga on his own Death at SeaWorld page for TakePart.
By the beginning of 2013, Blackfish, the documentary film telling the story of Tilikum and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, was making the rounds in the film festival circuit. In October, it was shown repeatedly on CNN as part of the CNN Films series. The momentum hasn't let up since.
By the end of the year, eight bands had cancelled their performances at SeaWorld Orlando's Bands, Brew and BBQ, an annual event featuring live concerts and local BBQ from Central Florida smokehouses. Trace Adkins was act number nine, cancelling his performance in January. SeaWorld was forced to scramble to re-book fresh acts, announcing them only a week in advance of the event.
In February, Southwest Airlines received quiet pressure from Kim Ventre and an online petition from Change.org requesting an end to their longstanding SeaWorld partnership. By July, Southwest Airlines terminated this relationship, issuing a statement with SeaWorld that cited "shifting priorities" as the reason for the split.
In April, California Assembly member Richard Bloom introduced the Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB2140). If passed, the bill would make it illegal to hold or breed any orca in captivity for entertainment purposes. The bill was not voted on in committee in the end but was referred for interim study until the 2015 legislative session. Ultimately the proposal would make the continued use of the current collection illegal, which suggests retirement to sea pens. The bill received an incredible amount of support by members of the public from all over the globe. Those opposed were smaller in number, most employed in the tourism industry. Moving forward, it is important to understand that the bill does not propose shutting SeaWorld down, but merely to retire their current killer whale collection and phase out the shows. The optimal answer would be to move those in captivity to an open sea pen to live out their lives in the open ocean, yet still under human care. According to Animal Welfare Institute's Naomi Rose, this would be a Win-Win situation for the whales and for SeaWorld.
SeaWorld experienced continued pressure throughout the remainder of 2014, coming to a head after their dismal 3rd quarter earnings report in November.
In what seems like an effort to appease stockholders, SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison announced he would be stepping down in January. This was followed by over 300 layoffs in the parks, just weeks before Christmas.
SeaWorld has not been the only marine park in the news for their holding of orcas in captivity. Miami Seaquarium is also making waves this year.
On January 24, 2014, NOAA proposed a rule to include Lolita, the Southern Resident Killer Whale housed at Miami Seaquarium, under the endangered listing of the population. This rule would remove the exclusion of captive members of the SRKW population. Public comment was accepted through March and a final determination is set to be made by January 24, 2015.
To further complicate matters, the Seaquarium was sold to Palace Entertainment, an American amusement and entertainment company owned by Parques Reunidos, in July. Parques Reunidos is a European entertainment operation that owns Marineland Antibes in France, which houses several orcas. Under this new ownership, Lolita's future is once again up in the air, as some are speculating that Lolita could also be sent overseas, possibly to France.
Lolita the Orca performing at the Miami Seaquarium
On May 30, 2014 Orca Network sent the new owners a letter with their proposed plan stating in part:
There are literally millions of people on several continents who are eager to see Lolita retired in the waters of her birth. If and when it happens with the support of Palace Entertainment, your company will reap immeasurable international acclaim by media, politicians, celebrities, universities, schools, activists, children, and in face the general public, for contributing to her retirement.
Conversely, should Palace Entertainment choose to keep Lolita in Miami indefinitely or move her to another park, widespread and often emotional disfavor will likely follow, and negative media and protest demonstrations may become even more active on a recurring basis at whatever facility is holding her. By example, the often clumsy rejection by many marine parks of the growing public awareness that holding whales and dolphins captive amounts to a kind of animal abuse, has led to the industry's dramatic loss of credibility and stature in just the past year.
Public opinion has shifted away from accepting cetaceans in captivity for our entertainment. These protests are no longer just a few activist groups, they are large crowds of the consuming public - your market.
Lolita continues to be housed at Miami Seaquarium for now, but a range of scenarios are possible. The potential remains for her to be moved to one of the other parks managed by Palace Entertainment, including a park outside the US. This would be devastating not only for Lolita's future, but her overall health and well-being.
SeaWorld has also announced plans to extend their brand overseas. In May, the Orlando Sentinel reported that SeaWorld had struck a tentative deal for a Middle Eastern park. After their dismal 3rd quarter earnings report, Atchison told Orlando Business Journal that those plans were still in the works, with the first phase to open by 2020.
Meanwhile, China opened the world's largest aquarium in April of 2014. By June, reports stated that China had purchased two, and possibly three, wild-captured orcas from Russia. While these captures are deeply disturbing, skeptics are doubtful that China has finished putting their collection together. Will SeaWorld have a mass exodus of their killer whale collection to China in 2015?
Financial analyst Barton Crockett reported Friday on Bloomberg.com that if public sentiment against orca captivity continued in the US, SeaWorld could sell the whales for $10 million each listing Russians and Chinese specifically as potential buyers. See video of this interview below (statement about selling whales comes in at 4min 24sec into the video):
AWI's Naomi Rose told Ocean Advocate News that she feels "the potential for exports is high, especially if SeaWorld is going to focus more on expanding its brand abroad than shoring up its brand at home." As for the future of SeaWorld, Miami Seaquarium and others, Rose states, "I think their days are numbered (at least in the US and Europe), based on the financials. I think animal acts in general are losing their luster (especially for young kids growing up on CGI) and the circus-like orca and dolphin shows in particular don’t stand up to scrutiny."
SeaWorld educators recently told Ocean Advocate News that SeaWorld does not have any current plans for an export, stating that they are still weighing their options but no deals have been made.
Ocean Advocate News will continue to follow Lolita and potential exports of SeaWorld whales in the upcoming year and will report updates as they are available.