Did SeaWorld Sell Out To HSUS?

SeaWorld may be ending its orca theatrical shows and breeding program, but time in the “cement pond” isn’t over for the two dozen or so killer whales in the company’s possession.

SeaWorld’s orcas, most of whom were captive-bred, will remain in the parks where they live currently. Instead of doing the theatrical shows, the whales will be part of “new, natural, inspiring encounters.” In a website entitled “SeaWorld Cares,” the company says that the new programs will “focus on orca enrichment, exercise and overall health.

“Our existing show pools and viewing areas will be redesigned into a more naturalistic setting and we will continue to present the whales at scheduled times before a guest audience. This exciting transformation will start in our San Diego park next year, followed by San Antonio and then Orlando in 2019.”

The decision was made to change-up the whale program, and to stop the captive breeding, after an October 2015 ruling by the California Coastal Commission. CNN reported that the Commission unanimously approved the park’s request to double the size of the whale habitat, but only on the condition that it stop breeding whales. This was despite pleas by humane groups to set the whales free, part of the blowback of the controversial documentary film, Blackfish.

SeaWorld has shifted its strategy, announcing a new partnership with the Humane Society of the United States. An article by the Examiner said that Wayne Pacelle, President of the HSUS, was excited about the possibilities.

“Today we turn a corner, working together to achieve solutions on a wide set of animal issues including sunsetting the use of orcas at existing facilities, maximizing SeaWorld’s focus on rescue, rehabilitation and advocacy for marine mammals in the wild and sourcing food for animals and customers from humane and sustainable sources, including cage-free eggs and crate-free pork.”

In a letter to the LA Times, SeaWorld’s CEO Joel Manby acknowledged that critics wanted the whales set free, but that it would not be a wise option.

“Most of our orcas were born at SeaWorld, and those that were born in the wild have been in our parks for the majority of their lives. If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die. In fact, no orca or dolphin born under human care has ever survived release into the wild.”

He didn’t say whether release of a captive-born whale had ever been attempted. National Geographic related the story of a killer whale named Springer, who was reintroduced to her native pod in Canada after she was found orphaned and alone, about 300 miles south of there. She had been hanging around boats near Seattle, lost and looking for company. She was in poor health. John Ford, head of the Cetacean Research Program with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said that scientists were able to match her vocalizations with the “language” of a pod in British Columbia.

“We were then able to make a match with photographs to this little tiny whale that had lost its mother back in 2001.”

Springer lived in a sea pen for several months while she was nursed back to health. She was moved by catamaran back to her native waters, where she was eventually released. In 2013, she was identified with a calf by her side.

In his letter to the LA Times, Manby threw up the example of the Free Willy whale, a captured orca named Keiko.

“Even the attempt to return the whale from Free Willy, Keiko, who was born in the wild, was a failure.”

There are scientists who would argue that point. One Green Planet tells how in 1995, Keiko began his rehabilitation, learning to capture and eat live fish again. In 1998, Keiko was deemed in excellent health and ready to go back to his native Iceland. He was kept in a sea pen there, and let out for “walks” with his handlers, swimming freely in the wake of their boats. Eventually, in 2001, his sea pen was left open. He came and went as he pleased. In 2002, he was seen in the company of other whales. He traveled 1,000 miles up into Norway. He contracted pneumonia and died in December 2003. In short, his rehabilitation was considered a success. He was free for essentially the last two years of his life, and died of natural causes.

The Inquisitr mentioned in an article about SeaWorld’s whale, Tilikum, that Munchkin, Inc. had offered a down payment of a million dollars for a sea pen for captive whales. Munchkin’s CEO, Steven Dunn, said that once a location was found, it wouldn’t be difficult to get the funding to help move and support the whales.

Even if the whales couldn’t be released, scientists maintain that life in a sea pen is infinitely more natural, and acoustically humane, than life in a tank.

Will having the HSUS on board help with SeaWorld’s sinking reputation? Can continued public pressure get them to consider a sea pen? Will the new orca enrichment program make a difference? Or are the whales doomed to the same bathtub, just with different wallpaper?

[Image via Underworld/Shutterstock]