SeaWorld has announced that it will start phasing out its long-running theatrical killer whale performances, which are known as the 'Shamu shows', next year and will instead replace them with an educational orca experience.
The move comes after months of criticism over how the amusement park treats its orcas and declining attendance. As of 2017, the San Diego SeaWorld will showcase the killer whales in a more natural setting, and without the theatrical tricks that the animals currently have to perform, SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby announced on Monday.
"We start everything by listening to our guests and evolving our shows to what we're hearing, and so far that's what we've been hearing in California, they want experiences that are more natural and experiences that look more natural in the environment," Manby said over a webcast announcing the change, as reported by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
However, he explained that the change would not be made across SeaWorld's other parks, including Orlando and San Antonio.
Over the past year, SeaWorld parks – in particular San Diego – have suffered from a drop in attendance, partly as a result of people becoming more aware about the realities of capturing orcas, and keeping and breeding them in captivity.
Much of that awareness has been driven by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which has been screened repeatedly by CNN over the past 12 months.
The film involves interviews with former trainers, and shows the dark side of SeaWorld's work with orcas, alleging that the park separates young calves from their mothers and interferes with the species' social structure, driving them to antisocial and dangerous behaviours.
Animal rights activists have also criticised the park for breeding female killer whales younger than would naturally occur in the wild.
The park has defended itself by saying that their breeding programs allow the animals to interact with each other, and claimed they haven't used wild orcas in their shows for 30 years.
But that hasn't stopped activists and the public from criticising the park. And last week Californian representative Adam Schiff announced plans to introduce federal legislation that would ban the breeding of captive orcas, end the capture of wild orcas, and stop the import and export of killer whales.
It's in response to that threat that SeaWorld San Diego has finally agreed to make a change. Manby also announced that they had put a halt on a US$100 million tank expansion, which was being created in order to support future orca breeding programs. But he did hint that there would be a new attraction coming in 2017 in place of the Shamu show.
We can only hope that this new attraction will explain and embrace the natural habitats and behaviours of sea creatures, rather than forcing them to perform tricks, and that the public keeps the pressure on the parks in Orlando and San Antonio.
Because the world needs more education, conservation, and real science – not showmanship – when it comes to our oceans and the species that inhabit it.
"The decision by SeaWorld to phase out killer whale shows in San Diego is a welcome step along the path towards ending the captivity of these magnificent creatures," Schiff told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
"Much more needs to be done, however, and I would urge the company to curtail the breeding of their orcas and partner in the creation of ocean sanctuaries. The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist."