Updated: May 7
SeaWorld, a place where you can see aquatic animals and enjoy roller casters and other theme park rides. It's great fun for humans, however, the animals aren't always having such a good time. Seaworld is a theme park that has three different locations in the USA. As well as having rides, gift shops and places to eat, like other parks, they also have aquatic mammals, including orcas (killer whales), sea lions and dolphins, all of which are trained to perform in choreographed shows up to eight times a day.
SeaWorld was founded in 1964 by Milton C. Shedd, Ken Norris, David Demott and George Millay. They had originally planned an underwater restaurant and marine life show, but this couldn't be achieved so they decided to build a park instead. SeaWorld was opened on 21st March 1964, with only a few dolphins, sea lions and 6 attractions but it became a success, with more than 400,000 people visiting in the first 12 months.
Nobody should see an orca like this
In the beginning people though that SeaWorld was great; it was loads of fun and there were many people that were seeing the aquatic animals up close for the first time. They got to experience these incredible animals and to see how large they are, it can be a shock. But there were some that started to look more closely. They noticed the tiny enclosures, the way the animals were performing for food, they didn't want to put these shows on, they were hungry and knew that this was the only way to get something to eat. They also saw the injuries to the animals. These were wild animals that had been captured, taken away from their families and transported across the world to be put in, what amounted to, a big fish tank. They were stressed, they became frustrated, bored, angry and they would attack each other.
One of these animals was Tilikum. Tilikum was an orca that was captured, illegally, on the 9th of November 1983 from Iceland. He was 2 years old when he was taken from his mother, still a baby in orca terms. He was first taken to Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia to perform in shows, but was sold to SeaWorld in 1992 after he killed a trainer. SeaWorld put Tilikum in shows, much like the ones he performed in while he was at Sealand. During this time he was known to lunge at trainers, sometimes grabbing them and pulling them around, he would become difficult to work with when he knew that the trainers were running out of food.
On the 6th of July 1999, Tilikum killed a second person. A homeless man, named Daniel P. Dukes hid in the park after closing and appears to have wanted to swim with the orca. He was found the next morning, draped over Tilikum's back, naked and covered in injuries, some parts of his body had been eaten. In spite of the enclosure being well covered by security cameras SeaWorld stated that the attack had not been captured on film.
Tilikum killed a third person, Dawn Brancheau on the 24th of February 2010. She was dragged into the pool by her arm after many had noticed that Tilikum seemed to be out of sorts, not performing as he should and sometimes ignoring commands. His mood became worse when Dawn Brancheau had asked him to perform a wave around the pool, he didn't hear her ask him to stop and so continued waving. When he was finished he waited to get some fish but instead was told off. He got angry. As the show continued Dawn Brancheau was pulled into the pool by her arm, she died from drowning and impact injuries. Following this the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) changed the rules around working with orca, people were no longer allowed to be in the pool with them, it was completely hands off. During his life Tilikum was also used as part of the breeding program that SeaWorld ran and became the father of 21 calves. He died on the 6th of January, 2017, he was 35; in the wild orcas live as long as humans, with males living to around 60 and females living to roughly 90.
In 2016, SeaWorld announced that they would end their in-park orca breeding program and eventually phase out their theatrical orca shows altogether (due to state legislation in California that banned shows using orcas) starting in San Diego. It was announced later in the same year, that SeaWorld would build their first park without killer whales and outside of the United States in Abu Dhabi.
Over the years there have been many attempts to get SeaWorld to change their practices. This has resulted in a lot of negative publicity and a fall in the number of people visiting the parks. This was made worse by the decision by OSHA that having people in direct contact with the orcas was dangerous. There was no more petting of the whales, it had been a part of the show that children would sit on the whale's backs, that was ended, along with trainers swimming with the whales, cuddling them and performing stunts with them.
There have been many incidents at SeaWorld that have lead to injury or death of staff and visitors. These range from a staff member being hit by lightning while trying to move visitors to safety during a storm, to people having heart attacks on the rides, to someone being shot in the shoulder after celebratory gunshots were fired on the 4th of July 2018. The bullet was shot into the air, but came down with enough speed to shoot the man. OSHA fined SeaWorld $75,000 for safety violations. In 2012 SeaWorld were taken to court by PETA, who argued that orcas were being treated as slaves and should be released to a more suitable living space. They lost the case as the court decided that the law cited was only to be applied to humans. However, it was the release of the film Blackfish in 2013 that made the tide really turn on SeaWorld. The film focuses on the story of Tilikum with interviews from former trainers. After the film aired ticket sales fell by 50%.
SeaWorld parks have many different animals, but most people that visit to see the animals are interested in the orcas. In the wild, orcas live with their families, they have friends, they work together to find food, they can travel up to 140 miles of ocean every day. The orcas at SeaWorld are kept in too small tanks, often on their own, for months. A lot suffer from stress-induced injuries and illnesses, they become mentally unwell, stressed, frustrated and bored from lack of company and stimulation. Many travel companies have even stopped selling tickets to SeaWorld parks, with stories of trainer deaths, dolphins dying after giving birth to stillborn young, animals being illegally captured to fill SeaWorld's tanks, wild sharks, captured and taken to SeaWorld dying after swimming straight into the wall of a tank. The companies, including British Airways Holidays, Virgin Holidays, Premier Holidays, Booking.com, and Tripadvisor – that have stopped promoting SeaWorld.
"SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year... SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research."
SeaWorld promote themselves as being good for marine animals, if this were the case they would not make money from animals being made to perform in shows. If this were purely about education and conservation the animals would be kept in suitable conditions, if they could not be returned to the wild, like seaside sanctuaries, a more natural environment. They would be kept where they could be in the water that their bodies are made for, not chlorine, there would be no lights and screaming crowds, they could feed on their natural food. In 2016 SeaWorld said they were ending their orca breeding program and would phase out the performances, however, this is because of a change in the law, not SeaWorld wanting to do the right thing and they continue to breed dolphins, with the young often being used in future shows.
Currently SeaWorld, like many theme parks, has suffered a massive drop in income due to closures and restrictions caused by the pandemic, people aren't visiting theme parks in general. But, what does the future hold for SeaWorld? With the SARS-CoV-2 still infecting millions of people the future is unsure for the world, not just theme parks. Hopefully SeaWorld will change their direction, ending animal shows, increasing rides to entertain people, rather than using live creatures.