A sinking SeaWorld ship

30 July 2018 | Lloyd Hughes

SeaWorld Orlando used to be the go to destination for UK holidays to Florida when I was a child.

I went (*bows head in shame*), and so did plenty of my friends.

But back when I was a nipper, in the late nineties (sadly, I’m not as young as I look), SeaWorld’s reputation was far different to what it is now.

It seemed like the trainers had a real bond with their animals, and from SeaWorld promotional material, they looked like they were having a whale of a time (excuse the pun…no actually, don’t) when putting on performances.

Considering zoos have been part and parcel of society for hundreds of years, aquatic ‘safari parks’ didn’t seem that bad, especially when – to human eyes at least – the water tanks looked absolutely massive and weren’t as obviously cages as, well…cages.

Of course, when you compare them against the ocean though, they’re mere bathtubs. However, given the fact that the killer whales and dolphins at the parks seemed to have such an entertaining time, seemingly enjoying doing tricks and performing acrobatics for rewards, they appeared more ethical than zoos, where animals mostly spent comparatively miserable days lounging around in cages (although the curator of mammals at Paignton Zoo did once point out to me the huge level of conservation facilitated by zoos).

Since then though, SeaWorld’s reputation has plummeted. The biggest factor in this was the film Blackfish, which looked at an orca called Tilikum that had killed three people – including two trainers – while in captivity. The reason for Tilikum’s aggression, was pretty much his treatment in captivity – far from the enjoyable experience portrayed by the live shows. To be fair, if I was kept in a bath for 25 years, I’m pretty sure I’d end up somewhat psychotic too…as well as incredibly wrinkled.

With orcas no longer being captured, and now no longer being actively bred in SeaWorld parks, this latest round of killer whales is set to be the last in captivity (other than injured/orphaned ones) and the parks’ focus is now on ‘education’ rather than entertainment – according to them at least. SeaWorld is also set to expand the size of the orcas’ tanks to give them more room, although, again, and obviously, these will still be considerably smaller than the actual ocean.

The youngest orca in captivity (at SeaWorld San Diego according to the SeaWorld website) is two…and with orcas living up to 60 years (and some reportedly reaching 100), the park could still be housing orcas for a long while yet.

But not with the support of Thomas Cook. Previously the travel firm had sold tickets to both SeaWorld and Loro Parque in Tenerife, as part of its packages, but it’s now taken the decision not to for ethical reasons. According to feedback, 90% of Thomas Cook’s customers felt it was important that the firm took animal welfare seriously, and this move takes that into consideration, as well as having listened to input from animal welfare experts.

Partnering with parks that keep captive orcas is fast becoming a huge PR no-no, so it was only a matter of time for Thomas Cook to make this move. But it’s yet another blow for SeaWorld, which is becoming ever more isolated. Even with a tank expansion at the park, it feels like, much like the big tobacco companies, SeaWorld is slowly heading off a cliff as brands avoid it at all costs.

Having watched Blackfish, and despite having loved visiting SeaWorld as a child, I can’t say that’s too disappointing a prospect. Orcas, after all, belong in the ocean…no matter how entertaining and awe-inspiring they might be up close. If you want to see them first hand, go whale watching at sea.