SeaWorld announced Thursday morning that it will ends its program breeding killer whales in captivity. The news comes about a week after the park admitted that Tilikum, the orca depicted in the documentary Blackfish, is in failing health.

SeaWorld has insisted loudly for years that their breeding program is “groundbreaking,” and, moreover, that nobody can tell them to stop. The California Coastal Commission voted last year to ban SeaWorld from breeding killer whales, and the theme park went to court to argue they had no legal authority to do so. The argument held up the expansion of their park in San Diego, on which the company planned to spend $100 million, mainly on building out the orca habitat, Blue World.

Advertisement

Now, though, in a pretty major signal that the makers of Blackfish were probably on to something, the park says they’ll stop captive breeding and focus on animal rescue, not just in San Diego but also at their parks in San Antonio and Orlando.

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby wrote a careful op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, one that didn’t admit there might be anything wrong with keeping orcas in captivity. Instead, he noted that American attitudes about the practice “have changed dramatically”:

We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world’s largest marine mammals. Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create — which is why SeaWorld is announcing several historic changes. This year we will end all orca breeding programs — and because SeaWorld hasn’t collected an orca from the wild in almost four decades, this will be the last generation of orcas in SeaWorld’s care. We are also phasing out our theatrical orca whale shows.

He added that none of the orcas are going to be set free:

Some critics want us to go even further; they want us to “set free” the orcas currently in our care. But that’s not a wise option.

Most of our orcas were born at SeaWorld, and those that were born in the wild have been in our parks for the majority of their lives. If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die. In fact, no orca or dolphin born under human care has ever survived release into the wild. Even the attempt to return the whale from “Free Willy,” Keiko, who was born in the wild, was a failure.

Sea World has long claimed that their orcas live just as long as those in the wild, which is not really true.

Advertisement

The announcement from SeaWorld was made in partnership with the Humane Society, which called the move a “dramatic shift” in company’s business model:

“These two organizations have been long-time adversaries, but we’re excited now to see the company transforming its operations for the better on animal welfare,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS. “Today’s announcement signals that the era of captive display of orcas will end and that SeaWorld will redouble its work around rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals in crisis and partner with us to tackle global threats to marine creatures.”

SeaWorld is also promising to introduce “new, inspiring” natural orca encounters, which, coming from them, still makes us a little nervous.


SeaWorld trainer Ryan Faulkner, left, with killer whale Melia and Michelle Shoemaker, right, with killer whale Kayla work on a routine for a show at the theme park, in Orlando, Fla, April 2014. Image via AP.