The number of people going to SeaWorld has declined almost 15 percent this quarter. This may be linked to the rise in popularity of the documentary Blackfish, which depicts orcas and other marine creatures as ill-treated and suffering in small pools for the purpose of entertaining large crowds. Is the age of sea parks now over?
Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, centers around a killer whale called Tilikum who was captured as a 2-year-old and has been performing at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida for most of his life. According to the documentary, Tilikum vented his frustration at remaining in captivity by causing the deaths of visitors and trainers on three separate occasions.
Cowperthwaite began working on the documentary after the third death, which involved Tilikum’s trainer Dawn Brancheau. SeaWorld claimed that the trainer was pulled into the water because her hair was in a ponytail, but the director thought there might be more to the story. The documentary consists of interviews with former SeaWorld employees and trainers, footage of the capture of Tilikum and expert testimonies.
Since its release there have been a number of online petitions demanding an end to aquatic animal shows. A ban on all orca shows has been put forward in California and there are demands that the US joins other nations like India, Hungary and Chile, all of which have banned or severely restricted the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity.
SeaWorld is fighting the backlash caused by Blackfish with an advertising campaign entitled the “Truth Team” which seeks to reveal flaws in the documentary. However, the company has a hard road ahead of them as they have been revealed to be doping their orcas. In addition, captivity in general is shown to have extremely negative effects on the animals. While they may hope to counter the effects of the documentary with this campaign, the declining numbers may be a sign that the link to animal cruelty is too great.
SeaWorld shows feature the whales working with trainers to balance them on their snouts and do tricks such as waving to the crowd. In San Diego, the president of the park reportedly said that he believed the orca shows to be “inspirational” to the public. He dismissed the documentary as one-sided and based on emotions rather than scientific fact.
However, Will Travers, head of the Born Free foundation has countered this saying that watching the animals performing tricks is “demeaning” and “anything but inspirational.” The organization campaigns to end cetacean captivity, stating that there are over 2,100 whales and dolphins currently captive in 343 locations around the world. They have also said that while they cannot fault the parks on their veterinary care, the animals suffer immensely when kept in such small pools. This tends to lead to stress-related illnesses and other health problems.
Whales and dolphins are used to travelling vast distances to search for food. When they are kept in aquatic parks, there is no need for this. In addition, the animals have sophisticated social hierarchies and complex social lives which are disrupted when they are trapped and isolated.
All of these factors are put forward in Blackfish, which may be why numbers are declining at SeaWorld. If this link is the case, then it can be taken as a point scored by environmental groups who have been campaigning to put an end to aquatic shows worldwide.
By Sara Watson