Trained killer whales put on a display at SeaWorld in San Diego. Photograph: Image Broker/Rex Features
Something disquieting happened at SeaWorld marine parks this year. Numbers attending the group’s popular US centres between January and March dropped, from 3.5 million in 2013 to 3.05 million this year, a decline of 13%.
Nor is it hard to guess the cause, say wildlife campaigners. They see a clear link between the attendance slide and the release last year of the documentary Blackfish, which told the story of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau who was killed by Tilikum, a bull orca. The killer whale, it was also revealed, had been involved in the deaths of other individuals while in captivity.
Blackfish focuses on the distress experienced by killer whales who are depicted as complex, highly intelligent creatures which are taken from their families, kept in small pools and given psychotropic drugs to calm them and help them perform tricks that include balancing human trainers on their snouts, rotating in the water to pop music, waving their flippers and tails, and floating on their backs. The film triggered widespread public outrage against marine parks in general and a petition, signed by 1.2 million people, was handed into the California state assembly calling for a ban on killer whale shows. Earlier this month, a bill legalising the ban was put on hold for the next 12 months. Campaigners are still hopeful it will be enacted next year.
It has been an abrupt change in fortune. The cheery family charm of marine parks – institutions that have achieved worldwide popularity and become multimillion dollar industries in recent years – have taken a body blow. For their part, their managers strenuously deny that any of their animals suffer and flatly reject the idea that whales, dolphins and porpoises should no longer be kept captive.
“That argument is not based on credible, peer-reviewed science. It’s based on emotion and a propaganda film,” says John Reilly, the president of SeaWorld San Diego. “We believe strongly there is an inspiration benefit to people seeing [killer whales] in our park.”
This last claim is outdated, campaigners respond. Modern, high-quality natural history programmes, screened on giant plasma TVs in homes, are far more likely to interest young people in wild creatures than marine park shows, they say. “Displays in which killer whales are forced to perform demeaning tricks are anything but inspirational,” added Will Travers, head of the Born Free Foundation.
According to his organisation, more than 2,100 dolphins and whales are being held in captivity at 343 facilities in 63 countries around the world, with the highest numbers concentrated in Japan, China, the US and Mexico. In North America, many of these parks have become the subject of wildlife campaigns. Vancouver Aquarium is currently under intense pressure to phase out its keeping of whales and dolphins, for example, while lawmakers in New York, Texas and Florida are also considering bans on captive killer whales and other cetaceans.
Deaths, drugs, distress: why marine parks are losing their attraction | World news | The Observer.