SeaWorld Ends Its Whale Shows: Will It Consider Offer Of A Whale Sanctuary?

Tilikum, the killer whale, may be swimming his last, but it’s not too late for other captive whales, according to Steven Dunn, CEO of Munchkin, Inc. The baby product company is offering to team up with a group of biologists to build a sanctuary or “sea pen” for captive whales.

Tilikum’s story, as told in the documentary Blackfish, inspired Munchkin, Inc. to discontinue production of their “Bathtub Orca,” because, as Dunn said, “a bathtub isn’t big enough for an orca!”

Late last year, Dunn sent a letter to Joel Manby, the CEO of SeaWorld. He offered Manby a $1 million commitment to build a cold ocean water sanctuary for Tilikum and other captive whales. It would be contained within an enclosed bay in an area designated by top biologists. In an exclusive interview today, Dunn told this reporter that Munchkin, Inc., made the official offer for Tilikum to be the first resident of this sanctuary.

“It was my understanding that Tilikum wasn’t performing anymore, and that he was isolated from other whales. He was only being kept for breeding.”

Dunn said that he was disturbed by what he saw in the film, Blackfish. He had watched the film about a year ago, he said, but he didn’t really do anything about it. But things changed about six months later when he had to have an MRI. He said they wheeled him inside that machine and he had to be removed immediately.

“I couldn’t last in there two seconds. When I was calming down, I was flashing back to Blackfish.”

Dunn said that whales in captivity are like, “you or I living in a closet without any family members.”

At that point, he began doing research about how he could best help the whales. Munchkin, Inc. is committed to donating a million dollars each year as part of its corporate social responsibility.

“Our customers are SeaWorld’s customers. We have moms and dads of toddlers. We make baby products, so I’ve had to rely on biologists to help us.”

Dunn attended the first Sea Sanctuary Workshop last December, which was held during the Society for Marine Mammalogy biennial conference in San Francisco.

Lori Marino co-hosted the conference. Dr. Marino is the executive director of Utah-based Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. She told Discovery News that it was past due time for a whale sanctuary.

“There are sanctuaries for elephants, primates, tigers, lions and other animals, but there is not a single one for dolphins and whales.”

Munchkin, Inc. has become one of the first backers of this project. According to Dunn, the baby product company donated $100,000 for phase one of the project, which is creating a mission by a world-class team. The second phase, he said, would be to find suitable locations via satellite.

Dunn said that once a location is found, it wouldn’t be difficult to get backers to match his company’s donations.

Dr. Marino had initially suggested Vancouver as an ideal locale for a whale sanctuary, but stated that there were other suitable areas as well.

“There are possible sites all along the U.S. West Coast into Canada, and there are some good places along the East Coast too. Much depends upon the needs of the particular species, legal and policy issues, and whether or not there is local public support.”

Dunn said that most of SeaWorld’s research isn’t reviewed by peers or outside biologists, and that most of their research is about breeding whales in captivity. He said that this doesn’t help with whales in the wild.

“SeaWorld’s model is just broken. It’s time they face up to it.”

He suggested that SeaWorld could reinvent itself in the form of a video-based surround theater. He said with the technology available today, they could do some spectacular things to continue to entertain audiences. He added that they could offer a virtual reality that puts the viewer in the water with whales swimming around them.

“It would be a lot more thrilling than the circus act.”

And Tilikum? Dunn’s offer to SeaWorld’s CEO, Joel Manby, has gone unanswered.

UPDATE:

On March 17, SeaWorld announced an official end to their captive killer whale breeding program. The company said there will be no more killer whale shows. This marks a great victory for animal rights activists. But there is still no word on whether any of the whales will be considered for Munchkin’s offer of a sea pen. It may be that Tilikum is too ill to be relocated; but there are about two dozen other adult killer whales in SeaWorld’s care that may benefit from a sanctuary.

The world waits and wonders if SeaWorld will follow through and offer a better life to the longsuffering whales. Or will they spend their last days swimming in a cement pool, marking the end of an era with their circles?

[Image via Yan Ke/Shutterstock]