In a hard-won victory for animal rights advocates, SeaWorld in San Diego hosted its final killer whale show on Sunday. It signals the phasing out of the controversial decades-old performances, which have come under intense scrutiny due to the park’s treatment of the captive whales.
SeaWorld CEO and president Joel Manby announced in November 2015 that the performance at the San Diego park would be replaced by Orca Encounter, a new presentation focused on the conservation of killer whales; Manby also said that the park would immediately stop breeding the animals. The decision, however, wasn’t necessarily his to make — he gave the announcement soon after the powerful California Coastal Commission refused to give SeaWorld permission to continue breeding orcas.
Then last March, SeaWorld announced it was immediately halting killer whale breeding at all of its parks and would completely phase out the theatrical orca shows by 2019.
Though the show in San Diego is ending, die-hard orca performance enthusiasts will still be able to enjoy watching whales perform in tanks for people. “You will still see a whale leaping out of the water,” Al Garver, a former orca trainer and vice president of zoological operations at the San Diego park, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We want to be able to demonstrate behaviors people would see in the wild with the killer whales and their abilities as a top predator in the sea.”
Large LED screens and light shows will be replaced by a backdrop of artificial trees, waterfalls, and a depiction of a coastal inlet, according to the Union-Tribune. “An infinity high-definition screen will highlight orca movements in the wild, as well as replays of SeaWorld killer whale maneuvers in the stadium pool.”
The final show at SeaWorld San Diego, known colloquially as the Shamu Show, coincides with the death of a whale known as Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando on Friday. Tilikum, who was linked to three different human deaths, gained notoriety after he was featured in the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” “RIP Tilikum,” PETA declared on Twitter. “Dead after three decades of misery.”
The documentary put a spotlight on the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld and intensified pressure on the amusement parks to phase out the shows, which have been running since the 1960s. But advocates remain skeptical that the new “educational” program will significantly improve life for the animals.
“The trainers aren’t safe, and the whales aren’t happy,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, told CBS News. “They’re still just doing manic circles around concrete swimming pools.”