Soon to be history: The Shamu show at SeaWorld Orlando. (Photo: Jason Cochran)
SeaWorld has announced that it will no longer breed orcas in captivity at its theme parks. At a future date that has not been announced, it will end the classic performance shows featuring killer whales—an essential SeaWorld attraction for half a century—and replace them with attractions that only display the creatures. The generation of killer whales currently on display in its theme parks, many of which have never lived in the wild, will be its last.
"SeaWorld has been listening and we’re changing. Society is changing and we’re changing with it," the company said in a statement posted online. "They will continue to receive the highest-quality care based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science and zoological best practices."
The company has been under relentless public fire since the 2013 CNN airing of the bootstrap documentary Blackfish, a film that leaned heavily in support of the opposing side of the issue of killer whale captivity and performance, but which nonetheless had a devastating effect on the company's fortunes, resulting in a decline in attendance and canceled appearances by major musical acts.
What will the future SeaWorld be like? The Los Angeles Times' editorial board suggested a "new, more natural setting" for its animal interactions, and that seems to be what the company is now building. It's also sinking major funds into new animal-free attractions, such as the hypercoaster Mako, which opens in Orlando this summer and will attract crowds on its own merits.
In California, local authorities had already banned orca shows at SeaWorld's original San Diego park, and legislators were drafting legislation banning the collection of orcas from the wild—although, contrary to the way Blackfish made it look, SeaWorld hadn't done that for decades. Even before that happened, though, SeaWorld began planning major expansions of its killer whale habitats to give the creatures more room, although none of the new tanks has yet been completed.
Who's the man taking SeaWorld in its new direction?
Meet Joel Manby, formerly of Saab and previously at the head of Herschend Family Entertainment (operator of Dollywood and Missouri's Silver Dollar City). He's a Christian businessman who was appointed at SeaWorld's CEO last year—and the minute he arrived, he instantly began remaking the troubled company into something new, green-lighting major projects that would provide an alternative to performances by captive animals without betraying the company's long tradition of aiding conservation.
"I've struggled with this decision more than any other decision I've made in business," Manby told analysts after the orca announcement. He also wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, outlining his thinking and his plans for future changes.
I interviewed Manby at Silver Dollar City a few years ago on AOL after a risky appearance on CBS's popular Undercover Boss. He talked about his values as a businessman, which may be a window into how he intends to continue reshaping SeaWorld's future: