SeaWorld, no matter your stance on hot-topic issues that have swirled around the parks for the last few years, was the inspiration for the dreams of kids like me, children of the 1980s. I can honestly say that my aspirations of becoming a marine biologist stemmed from Shamu. Now we might attribute those dreams to Finding Nemo and Disney, but for many of us, it was the mighty killer whale show in Orlando, San Diego, or San Antonio that got us started. Changes are on the horizon for the three U.S. based marine life theme parks according to the announcement on the SeaWorld company website.
The End of an Era
For many years, crowds flocked to the SeaWorld theme parks to see the killer whales entertain and amaze children and adults with their feats in and out of the water. I remember sitting on cement stairs (at least that is what the decades-old memory has the seats made of) near the front rows proximal to the show tanks, hoping and praying to get drenched by spray and splashes from the majestic mammals as they cruised by. Later on, at the hotel pool, my younger brother and I would take turns being the trainer and the whale, putting on a show for our family in the wake of our time in the park.
I was a child enthralled by Free Willy and shows on Saturday mornings featuring Jack Hanna and other wildlife experts. Once in a while these programs would showcase orcas. I couldn’t wait to get into the big blue and strut my mental stuff as a marine biologist when I grew up.
Back then there were no enterprising filmmakers exposing a darker side of marine mammals in captivity as there are today. With the wildly viral popularity of the recent documentary Blackfish, the public began to get glimpse of the cost of captivity on the animals. I avoided the film for a long time. Not only do I have less time for watching television than ever before in my life with two small kids and a household to run, but a part of me didn’t want to tarnish those memories from my childhood. You see, though a snorkeling trip when I was a tween taught me that I really didn’t care to be up close and personal with marine life on their
turf surf, I did want to work with animals, fight for the natural world, and become a biologist. So become I did. From a professional stand point I knew where I stood and it was at odds with the childhood me who thought oceanography might be a viable career too. SeaWorld was a part of the American Dream for my generation, no matter our thoughts about captive marine mammals and breeding programs and animal welfare today. Many families made fond memories that will shine forever thanks to that behemoth black and white whale.
I also have had the good fortune and the great memory of living on the shores of the Pacific, watching pods of killer whales race through narrows and sounds as I walked to and from the grocery store or to work. I will say I do prefer the natural experience to that of fighting crowds, jockeying for seating, and seeing whales in holding tanks made to perform. But I’m an adult now and somewhere between learning to tie your shoes and learning to do your taxes, a lot of things lose their sparkle when you’re made aware of reality!
The Future of SeaWorld
The orcas that are in the parks now will be the last ever, according to officials at SeaWorld, which made this announcement on their website today. These are relatively long-lived creatures, so you have plenty of time to get to one (or all) of the three parks to see them before the the killer whale captivity program comes to a close.
It’s a great indicator that the company is listening to patrons and advocates of animal rights alike. What I see is a vision from the company that aligns with the dreams of my childhood – taking steps to better protect and educate about creatures from the wild blue depths. I couldn’t be happier about these changes. No matter how small the steps, they are in the right direction for the future. The announcement means the end of orca breeding in captivity for SeaWorld. Since they do not “collect” specimen for the parks from the wild, it means that there won’t be a guaranteed incoming cohort of whales in the future. That’s okay.
Let’s not forget – it’s been half a century since the beginning of SeaWorld! I’m sure other popular American brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike have went through changes and had to shift their vision and mission statement a few times too. The shift is reportedly threefold according to SeaWorld CEO, which will better provide for the whales, guests, AND SeaWorld employees.
Perhaps the most inspiring change that I think will rise up yet another generation of awe-inspired kiddos is that SeaWorld is shifting the focus from encounters in theaters to a more natural, educational experience. I have high hopes for this change. Good luck, SeaWorld! I think we’re all watching and hoping that this is the start of something fantastic for everyone involved!