It's the beginning of the end for captive killer whales at SeaWorld, but that end is still a good five decades away. On Thursday, the entertainment company announced it was ending its orca captive breeding program at all of its parks for good, and because it has long since stopped capturing orcas from the wild, that means the current orcas living at SeaWorld parks will be its last generation of killer whales.
"Times have changed, and we are changing with them," the company wrote in a press release. "We love our whales and so do many of our visitors and this is about doing the best thing for our whales, our guests, our employees and SeaWorld."
Animal welfare proponents have long criticized the practice of keeping and breeding captive sea mammals, and orcas in particular. The massive apex predators swim an average of 75 miles per day in the wild, but are confined to proportionally small enclosures with limited mobility at parks. The 2013 documentary Blackfish, which put SeaWorld's treatment of orcas under the spotlight, reignited public awareness of the cause and the entertainment company has faced increasing pressure to make changes.
Late last year, the company announced it would be changing its orca shows at its San Diego location by 2017 so the animals didn't have to perform tricks and "dance," but could simply show off their natural movements for the crowds (what that looks like, exactly, is yet to be determined). But Thursday's announcement is the most dramatic step towards a captive-orca-free future.
Still, it's bittersweet news when you consider the 23 orcas already living at the company's three parks. The youngest of these whales was born late in 2014 and one female is currently pregnant. Since orcas can live as long as 80 years, it will likely be decades before we see the last of SeaWorld's orcas. Unfortunately, releasing these captive-born creatures into the wild isn't necessarily an option. Keiko, the orca who starred in Free Willy, was transferred to a sea pen in 1998. In 2002, he was released, but was never able to integrate with a pod and died, alone, a year later. There are possible ways to release orcas safely and effectively, but it's not always possible, and it doesn't sound like SeaWorld is even considering the option.
"These orcas have never lived in the wild and could not survive in oceans that include environmental concerns such as pollution and other man-made threats," the press release noted. "The current population of orcas at Seaworld—including one orca, Takara, that became pregnant last year—will live out their lives at the company's park habitats."
It's a definite victory for animal welfare groups and anybody who loves orcas, even if the payoff of this decision probably won't occur for another half a century.