But SeaWorld will still have orcas for years to come
ORLANDO, Florida; SAN DIEGO, California; PENN COVE, Washington–– Acceding to the apparent inevitable, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. president and chief executive officer Joel Manby on March 17, 2016 announced an end to 32 years of SeaWorld efforts to breed orca whales.
“Times have changed, and we are changing with them,” said Manby. “The killer whales currently in our care will be the last generation of killer whales at SeaWorld. The company will end all orca breeding as of today.”
Since orcas from the current SeaWorld population may live for another 20 to 40 years, and SeaWorld will therefore still have orcas on exhibit for as long as they do live, Manby was not pressed to discuss the future of the trademarked “Shamu” marketing theme that has characterized SeaWorld operations for 50 years.
In November 2015, however, Manby announced that SeaWorld would end the choreographed “Shamu” shows for which the SeaWorld parks have been known since 1965, and would instead “spend $100 million to expand its killer whale enclosure at SeaWorld San Diego,” reported Hugo Martin of the Los Angeles Times.
The SeaWorld orca tanks at Orlando, Florida and San Antonio, Texas were also to have expanded.
Coastal Commission nixed breeding
“The California Coastal Commission, which has authority over construction along the coast, approved the project,” Martin summarized, “but added the condition that SeaWorld end its breeding program and import no new orcas.”
The longterm future of orca exhibition in the U.S. had appeared to depend on the SeaWorld captive breeding program. An internationally protected endangered species in the wild, orcas have not been captured in U.S. waters since 1976, and have not been imported into the U.S. from other captive venues since 2001.
SeaWorld currently has 24 orcas, including eight males and 16 females. Eleven orcas are at SeaWorld San Diego, eight at SeaWorld Orlando, and five at SeaWorld San Antonio. The only other orca in the U.S., Lolita, has been at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.
400 million viewers
“SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals,” Manby told media. “We’ve helped make orcas among the most beloved marine mammals on the planet. “As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it. By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will experience these beautiful animals,” Manby said, “we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.”
Partnership with HSUS
In addition to announcing an end to the 32-year-old SeaWorld captive breeding program for orcas, SeaWorld said that it and the Humane Society of the U.S. “will actively partner in efforts against the commercial killing of whales, seals and other marine mammals as well as ending shark finning.”
Said Manby, “To that end, SeaWorld has committed $50 million over the next five years to be the world’s leading marine animal rescue organization, to advocate for an end to the commercial killing of whales and seals and an end to shark finning.”
SeaWorld added in a prepared statement that it and the Humane Society of the U.S. would “partner on efforts to protect coral reefs and the marine species that inhabit them from the commercial collection of wild-caught ornamental fish.”
In addition, SeaWorld pledged that “Seafood served in the park will be sustainable. The company will carry other food offerings that reflect an awareness of animal welfare, such as crate-free pork, cage-free eggs and more vegetarian options.”
No orcas to be released
While the Humane Society of the U.S. funded the final phase of the five-year effort to rehabilitate the most famous captive orca ever, Keiko, for eventual release, Manby said none of the SeaWorld orcas would be released.
“The vast majority of our orcas were born under human care,” Manby explained. “These orcas have never lived in the wild and could not survive in oceans that include environmental concerns such as pollution and other man-made threats.
“The current population of orcas at SeaWorld – including one orca, Takara, who became pregnant last year – will live out their lives at the company’s park habitats,” Manby said. “The best place for them is at SeaWorld. No whale born under human care has been released successfully.”
Keiko, captured off Iceland in 1979, spent two years at Marineland of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Sold to the El Reino Aventura aquarium in Mexico City, he starred in the films Free Willy! and two sequels.
Filmmakers Richard and Lauren Donner invested their profits from the “Willy” films, small donors gave as much as $5 million, and telecommunications billionaire Craig McCaw reportedly kicked in as much as $15 million over the next eight years to buy Keiko, move him to a specially built tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in January 1996, and then move him again in September 1998 to a sea pen at Klettsvik Bay, Iceland.
HSUS inherited the project
Initially hoping to release Keiko in late 2000, and planning for a post-Keiko existence, the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation merged with the Jean Cousteau Foundation to become the advocacy group Ocean Futures.
But Keiko couldn’t learn to feed himself. The media spotlight swung away. Donations fell off. Craig McCaw lost much of his fortune in the 2000-2001 high tech stock market shakeout, and cancelled his support.
The Humane Society of the U.S. inherited the rehabilitation project in 2002. Abruptly changing the whole staff, HSUS just a month later, in July 2002, seemed to have released Keiko successfully.
But Keiko preferred human company
Swimming up to 100 miles a day with pods of 40 to 80 wild orcas, managing somehow to feed himself enough to keep going, Keiko dodged storms and ships and on September 1, 2002, swam into Skaalvik Fjord, Norway, 250 miles northwest of Oslo.
Keiko made his way to the nearest children and began to entertain them, as he had entertained children in captivity. Thereafter, Keiko cavorted with humans and begged for fish treats whenever he could, until he died suddenly on December 12, 2003 from apparent acute pneumonia.
Death at Sea World & Blackfish
Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle did not mention Keiko in welcoming the SeaWorld decision to abandon trying to breed orcas in captivity, but praised the 2012 book Death at Sea World, by David Kirby, and the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, for decisively turning public opinion against orca exhibition.
Both Death at Sea World and Blackfish focused on the February 24, 2010 death of SeaWorld Orlando orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed in front of an audience by Tilikum, the oldest of the SeaWorld male orcas, and the most successful breeder.
Reportedly now gravely ill with a bacterial respiratory infection, Tilikum had in 1991 drowned trainer Keltie Byrne, 20, before a crowd at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.
Transferred to the SeaWorld park in San Antonio, Texas, after Sealand closed in 1992, Tilikum killed a night intruder in 1999.
The release of Blackfish immediately preceded a year-long SeaWorld attendance slide, during which SeaWorld stock value fell by two-thirds.
Manby became SeaWorld Entertainment president and chief executive in March 2015.
His predecessor, Jim Atchison, exited in December 2014, following a 28% dive in third quarter profits. Just 24 hours later SeaWorld laid off 311 staff.
The release of Blackfish also coincided with an increasingly aggressive campaign against SeaWorld by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which in January 2016 specifically targeted the SeaWorld orca breeding program.
San Diego Union Tribune reporter Lori Weisberg on January 27, 2016 described PETA efforts to find a billboard company willing to display an ad “featuring an apparently naked man atop a toy orca below the message: ‘SeaWorld: Where grown men perform sex acts on orcas.’” Three billboard companies had already refused to accept the ad.
Sexually assaulting male orcas?
“The latest attention-getting PETA tactic is designed to shine a light on what the group claims are abusive captive breeding practices by the marine park,” wrote Weisberg.
“Specifically, PETA asserts that SeaWorld relies on park trainers to masturbate male orcas to obtain their sperm and then insert tubes of semen into the female killer whales to impregnate them.”
Said PETA campaign specialist Ashley Byrne, “If people get a real understanding of what SeaWorld is doing, that their business model relies on sexually assaulting male orcas and forcibly impregnating unwilling females, that’s what they are going to find off-putting, not the billboard.”
The original Shamu at SeaWorld, a young female, was the first orca deliberately captured alive, the first captured in U.S. waters, and only the fourth ever taken into captivity.
The very first captive orca, Wanda, was netted in November 1961 in Newport Harbor, British Columbia, by a collecting crew from Marineland of the Pacific, a marine park that operated in Los Angeles from 1954 to 1987, when SeaWorld bought and closed it to obtain a male orca named Orky and a female named Corky. Corky, captured at Pender Harbor off the British Columbia coast in 1969, is still at SeaWorld San Diego, and has lived longer in captivity than any other orca.
Wanda, however, died after just 42 hours in the Marineland of the Pacific tank.
The second captive orca, Moby Doll, was both harpooned and shot near East Point, Saturna Island, British Columbia, in 1964, intended to become the dead model for the orca sculpture displayed outside the Vancouver Aquarium. Before he died, however, Moby Doll was displayed for three months at the Burrard Drydocks near the aquarium.
The third captive orca, Namu, was accidentally netted by salmon fisher William Lechkobit in June 1965 near Namu, British Columbia. Sold to Ted Griffin, the entrepreneur who had founded the Seattle Marine Aquarium on Elliot Bay in 1962, Namu was exhibited in a sea pen for just over a year before his death on July 9, 1966. Namu was the first orca to appear with human performers, beginning with Griffin himself.
Shamu & Namu
Seeking a female companion for Namu, Griffin in October 1965 captured Shamu in Puget Sound. But she and Namu did not become friends, despite her name, said to have meant “friend of Namu.” In November 1965 Griffin sold Shamu to SeaWorld, a then struggling San Diego theme park opened in March 1964. Shamu became a crowd-pleasing performer whose success may have saved SeaWorld from a quick collapse. Shamu was retired from performing in April 1971, however, after biting the legs and hips of SeaWorld employee Anne Eckis, who as a publicity stunt had been asked to ride Shamu while wearing a bikini.
Shamu died in August 1971, still in adolescence, but SeaWorld has continued to use her name and image ever since.
Griffin & Goldsberry
Discovering that he could make more money from capturing and selling orcas than from exhibiting them himself, Griffin and partner Don Goldsberry hauled in and sold about 30 orcas after Shamu, more than half of the 58 Puget Sound orcas known to have been sold into captivity.
Most notoriously, Griffin and Goldsberry on August 9, 1970 netted most of all three pods of the Southern Resident orca population at Penn Cove, between San de Fuca and Coupeville, Washington.
At least four young orcas plus one adult were snagged in the nets and drowned. Griffin and Goldsberry blamed the drownings on activists who allegedly tried to cut the nets; other sources say observers tried to free orcas who were already snagged and drowning.
Whatever happened, Wikipedia recounts, “Griffin and Goldsberry attempted to conceal the deaths by weighting and sinking the bodies, but months later the carcasses washed up.”
Lolita & Winston
Among the orcas caught in the August 1970 roundup were Lolita, the sole survivor from the Penn Cove captures, kept at the Miami Seaquarium ever since, and Winston, originally called Ramu. Sold first to the Windsor Safari Park, which operated from 1969 to 1992 in Berkshire, England, Winston was later transferred to SeaWorld San Diego.
There, in 1984, Winston founded the SeaWorld captive breeding program by impregnating Katina, an orca captured off Iceland. While Winston died in 1986, Katina is still alive, with six living children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Kalina, called Baby Shamu in performances, birthed four young before her death at age 25 in October 2010.
The end of orca capture
After Washington state law and the impending Marine Mammal Protection Act ended orca captures on Puget Sound, Griffin sold his interest in the Seattle Marine Aquarium to Goldsberry, who then flipped it to SeaWorld.
This was the first of at least four marine parks that SeaWorld would buy and close to obtain orcas already in captivity, instead of taking more orcas from the wild.
Goldsberry, who died at age 78 in early 2014, later served as SeaWorld director of collection, in charge of animal acquisition.