Yesterday, SeaWorld made the announcement that it was halting all breeding programs at all of its parks, effective immediately. While SeaWorld has confirmed that it is not releasing any its 29 killer whales into the wild, the current generation of whales (which includes the pregnant Takara) will indeed be the last at SeaWorld parks.
In addition, it was confirmed that the current "theatrical" whale show performed at each park will be discontinued beginning next year at San Diego, and in 2019 at SeaWorld San Antonio and SeaWorld Orlando. Once the show closes, the existing show pools and viewing areas will be redesigned into a more "naturalistic" setting. Though details are scarce, SeaWorld has said that they'll continue to present the whales at scheduled times before a guest audience with programs that will focus on orca enrichment, exercise and overall health.
While the announcement that SeaWorld is ending its breeding program and phasing out orcas in captivity might have come as a shock to some, this new development actually makes a lot of sense for those who have been paying attention to some of SeaWorld’s most recent actions. Setting aside the ethical arguments over keeping orcas (and other marine animals) in captivity, let's look at the business reasons why this decision was inevitable.
1. SeaWorld’s $100 Million dollar problem
While those who advocate for the end of killer whale captivity may count this recent development as a win in their column, make no mistake that there’s a strong financial component to this decision. A $100 million dollar one.
Back in 2014, SeaWorld announced the Blue World project, which would bring expanded, more “natural”-looking tanks to all of its parks. While the program was certainly ambitious in scale, SeaWorld had hoped to begin construction on an expanded tank to SeaWorld San Diego in 2015. And unfortunately, that’s where the trouble started.
Late last year the Blue World project in San Diego got held up in what became an unexpectedly lengthy permitting process with the local government in California. Still, after much deliberation, the Blue World construction project was approved on October 8, 2015, but with the caveat that SeaWorld could not bring new whales to the park (either via breeding or park transfer).
Obviously, it wouldn’t make much sense to build a tank for a single generation of whales, and while SeaWorld never formally cancelled the project when it was stalled in San Diego, it has now been confirmed with today's announcement that Blue World will never come to fruition at any SeaWorld park, and the $100 million dollars originally allocated for this project will be reinvested in "new experiences".
2. An ongoing move away from animal experiences
While the phasing out of captive orcas at SeaWorld is certainly dramatic, this isn’t the first time that SeaWorld has announced that it is phasing out an animal attraction. In fact just a few weeks ago SeaWorld confirmed that it is phasing out the Commerson’s Dolphins exhibit at Aquatica, and will be letting the few dolphins that remain in this exhibit die out in captivity.
Now while the situation with the dolphins was a little different (there aren’t enough of these rare dolphins in captivity to breed without losing genetic diversity) the underlying idea of simply letting guests enjoy a group of animals over the remainder of their lifespans isn’t a new one, though admittedly it has never been tried with an animal as iconic as the orca.