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Photo Credit: Gina Vercesi, Unplugged Traveling Mom

My youngest daughter and I recently had the opportunity for a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings and animal conservation efforts at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. I was initially skeptical about our visit considering all of the hype and negative press that had been beleaguering SeaWorld since the release of the controversial film Blackfish in January 2013. I wasn’t sure about promoting a destination whose practices were the targets of so much moral scrutiny.

On the other hand, SeaWorld has been lauded for its work rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing a variety of marine creatures along the coastlines of California, Texas and Florida including, but not limited to, sea lions, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees and several species of aquatic birds. Given that SeaWorld and other aquariums are fantastic unplugged family destinations, I decided I needed to see for myself whether the park was walking the walk or just talking the talk when it came to caring for their animals.

Because it is considered a theme park, I expected there to be a greater emphasis on the traditional theme park attractions with the animals taking an ancillary role. I was surprised to discover that SeaWorld felt much more like a high caliber aquarium than I’d expected, with the animals and their care being the primary focus. Our visit to the park was designed to highlight SeaWorld’s role in animal conservation, but I think that if you tour the park with the goal of maximizing your animal encounters you will have a similar experience.

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Photo Credit: Gina Vercesi, Unplugged Traveling Mom

SeaWorld’s work is defined by 5 overarching tenets – Rescue, Recovery, Release, Innovate and Conserve. Let’s take a look at the ways the marine park takes action in each of these areas.

Rescue

Our day began with a tour of SeaWorld’s North Support animal rescue area where we met with Brandt Gabriel, an Animal Care Specialist who has worked with SeaWorld’s animals for 20-years. Brandt talked to us about the park’s work with Florida Fish and Wildlife and other national marine fisheries and conservation organizations to rescue injured and abandoned dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and other sea creatures. We had the chance to watch the bottle-feeding of a 6-week old manatee that had been rescued near the Indian River only a couple of weeks earlier. Whenever baby animals are found, they are watched for several hours and sometimes days to ensure that the mother has abandoned it before the animal is rescued. Last year 8 manatee babies were rescued by SeaWorld Orlando where they would be cared for until they reached 600 lbs—the minimum required weight for safe release back into the wild.

Recovery

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Photo Credit: Gina Vercesi, Unplugged Traveling Mom

Every rescued animal comes to SeaWorld for different reasons. Throughout our day at the park we met sea turtles who’d arrived with cracked shells, dolphins who’d been found tangled in fishing line and Mila, the baby sloth who’d been found abandoned in Panama when she was about 12-days old. Each animal’s rehabilitation is unique and while most recover fully and can be reintroduced to their natural habitat, others, like the sea turtle whose rear flippers were paralyzed, are given permanent homes at the park. According to SeaWorld educators, these animals serve as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild. SeaWorld’s animal ambassadors teach visitors about conservation and about the many everyday actions we can take as stewards of their natural habitats.

Release

Ultimately, the goal is to return all rescued animals to their homes in nature. SeaWorld works in conjunction with the state department, whose responsibility it is to make the final determination regarding an animal’s viability for release. There are strict parameters to be followed to ensure an animal’s ability to survive in the wild. Animals need to be eating well and maintain a healthy weight, must be strong enough to escape their predators and be able to search for food on their own. SeaWorld’s Animal Care Specialists work closely with rescued animals, especially the babies, to provide them with the skills they will need to be successfully returned to their habitats.

Innovate

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Photo Credit: Gina Vercesi, Unplugged Traveling Mom

One of the areas of SeaWorld where I saw the most in the way of innovation was in Antarctica, the new penguin habitat that is home to 4 of the 18 species of penguins found around the world. We had the opportunity to meet with T.J. and Kelly, two of SeaWorld’s aviculturalists as well as having an amazing encounter with Leon, one of the park’s king penguins. T.J. and Kelly were full of knowledge about the seabirds they care for. Kelly explained in depth about their penguin identification system and the breeding practices they used. The goal in breeding, Kelly told us, is to create strong genetic diversity among the birds in order to help perpetuate the species and build a healthy colony.

Conserve

This is perhaps the tenet that is the most prevalent throughout SeaWorld’s animal exhibits and was something that every educator we encountered spoke about in their presentations and in our discussions with them. In my own parenting life I have emphasized the theme “an ounce of prevention” with my own kids. In a similar vein, SeaWorld has adopted the concept of becoming an “Everyday Hero,” which focuses on all of the small ways we can make a huge difference in the protection and preservation of marine animals and their habitats.

This leads to the final aspect about SeaWorld that should not be overlooked—the educators.

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Photo Credit: Gina Vercesi, Unplugged Traveling Mom

When visiting the park, please take advantage of these amazing resources. SeaWorld’s educators can be found in every animal exhibit around the park and love having visitors ask them questions and listen to their presentations. I see far too many people strolling through zoos and aquariums with nary a glance at the incredible creatures around them. Take your time—talk to the educators about the animals, ask questions, engage in discussion. Kat and Kaylin, the educators we toured with throughout the day, could not emphasize this point enough. You will get far more out of your experience if you do.

I set off for SeaWorld with relatively low expectations and was honestly surprised to have had such a positive experience. I’m sure that SeaWorld’s critics would find ways to take me to task for some of the information I’ve presented here. The issue of orca captivity is one that I consider extremely complicated and begs the larger question about whether animals should be kept in aquariums or zoological facilities at all. I’m not an opponent of zoos and aquariums and have visited many with my kids through the years. In this vein, I believe that quality institutions can provide wonderful educational opportunities for their visitors, encourage people to think about their impact on the environment, and inspire us to support animal conservation efforts worldwide. And that’s just what I saw SeaWorld doing.