SeaWorld’s doomed orca whale breeding programme: a history of the controversy

Critics have demanded SeaWorld to end its orca breeding program since the documentary Blackfish was released in 2013

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The Independent Online

SeaWorld is to end its controversial orca breeding programme following continued criticism from animal rights activists.

The 24 killer whales currently at the company's theme parks in California, Texas and Florida will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld.

“By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter,” Joel Manby, president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Entertainment, said in a statement.

The announcement will put an end to a long line of controversies for the company which has been locked in a battle with animal right protesters for the way that it treats its killer whales in captivity since the documentary Blackfish was released in 2013.

January 2013: Blackfish



SeaWorld has been in the headlines since the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Gabriela Cowperwaite’s film sparked international public outrage, as it claimed its treatment of orca whales provoked violent behaviour contributing to the deaths of three people. It depicted the whales as intelligent creatures with complex social structures that have been taken from their families, and claimed they are kept calm in small pools with psychotropic drugs.

According to SeaWorld, Blackfish among other things employs “false and emotionally manipulative sequences” concerning the collection and separation of killer whales. The company said the film relied on “animal activists masquerading as scientists”.

August 2013: Anchorman gets dragged in


The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for all the scenes shot at San Diego's SeaWorld involving dolphins to be removed from the movie Anchorman 2: The Legend continues, starring Will Ferrell.

August 2014: SeaWorld applies to expand its killer whale tank

SeaWorld announced plans to expand its killer whale tank in August 2014, two days after posting poor quarterly earnings that sent its stock plunging more than 30 per cent. Those plans were shot down by regulators in October 2015, when they said the tank could be expanded, but only if SeaWorld agreed not to breed the animals in captivity.

January 2015: PETA protests

PETA members protested against the San Diego theme park’s $100 million project to double the size of the killer whale tanks and launched an online petition.

March 2015: Meet the animals campaign




SeaWorld launched a $10m nationwide ‘Meet the Animals’ campaign to combat animal right activist claims that captive orcas die at a younger age than the ones living in the wilderness, among other things. The campaign introduced individual animals giving  a look into sea life.

But it was again criticised as a marketing push by animal activists, who said it was a “desperate bid to win back visitors disillusioned with the company's terrible treatment of animals”.

April 2015: 'Beneath the Surface' published


In “Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond 'Blackfish'” ex-SeaWorld killer whale trainer John Hargrove tells a harshly critical tale of the theme park’s treatment of animals. The book was published in April this year.

July 2015: SeaWorld accused of infiltrating animal rights protests


SeaWorld was accused of sending an employee to infiltrate animal rights protests against the company’s controversial treatment of killer whales. According to PETA, the SeaWorld employee took part in numerous PETA protests against SeaWorld, including one at the 2014 Rose Parade in Pasadena when he was arrested along with other activists.

July 2015: Harry Styles calls for a boycott

One Direction frontman Harry Styles told his fans not to visit SeaWorld. He made the plea whilst on stage at a concert in San Diego this summer. His comments were captured in a clip uploaded to Twitter by animal rights campaign group PETA.

August 2015: Bad press takes its toll on results


SeaWorld Entertainment faced an 84 per cent drop in net second-quarter income, from $37.4 million in 2014 to $5.8 million in 2015, in the second quarter. Revenue fell from $405.1 million to $391.6 million, a drop of 3 per cent, in the second quarter of 2015 when compared to 2014.

The park saw 100,000 fewer visitors than it did at the same time in 2014, a decrease of 2 per cent.

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby admitted the company was still struggling. “We realize we have much work ahead of us to recover more of our attendance base, increase revenue and improve our performance as returning to historical performance levels will take time and investment,” he said.

September 2015: #AskSeaWorld backfires


SeaWorld’s social media campaign to encourage people to ask question about the care of killer whales backfired when animal rights campaigners took the #AskSeaWorld hashtag. Alongside the questions about the care of orcas, a host of other comments were also directed at the marine parks, criticising decisions to keep animals in captivity.

October 2015: Steve-O sentenced


Jackass star Steve-O was sentenced to 30 days in jail for climbing a crane in a protest against SeaWorld. An emergency crew turned out to rescue the actor, whose real name is Stephen Glover, from a 100ft high crane on a building site on Sunset Boulevard.

He was also sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to reimburse the city of Los Angeles nearly $14,000 (£9,100) for the police and fire response.

“If your goal is to make a statement about captivity, you may as well get yourself locked up,” he said.

March 2016: SeaWorld to end controversial orca breeding programme


"SeaWorld has been listening and we're changing," the company said in a statement.

The 24 killer whales currently at the company's theme parks in California, Texas and Florida will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld.

Seaworld has promised to introduce “natural orca encounters” instead of circus-like theatrical shows. 

Mimi Bekhechi, PETA director said the association campaigned hard and now there is a “payoff” for future generations of orcas but has asked SeaWorld open its tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive.

"Today is the day to stop breeding, not sometime later this year. SeaWorld must open its tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive to have some semblance of a life outside these prison tanks," she said in response to SeaWorld’s announcement.

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said setting the orcas free is “not a wise option”.

“Most of our orcas were born at SeaWorld, and those that were born in the wild have been in our parks for the majority of their lives. If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die," he said.