The iconic orca shows at SeaWorld San Diego's park will soon be no more.
Amid ongoing public criticism and regulatory pressure, the amusement park company announced that it will phase out its "theatrical" killer whale show in 2016, and debut a "new orca experience" the following year, one that promises a more "natural" setting
"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," CEO Joel Manby told investors Monday, the San Diego Tribune reported. "... But it’s not universal across our properties."
SeaWorld owns and operates 11 parks across the United States, including ones in San Antonio, Texas and Orlando, which also have captive killer whales. Only the San Diego park will see the departure of orca shows, which are also called Shamu shows and feature music, tricks and plenty of human-giant dolphin interaction. (Yes, orcas are toothed whales, which are actually dolphins.)
SeaWorld has come under intense scrutiny over its treatment of animals and specifically the Shamu shows since the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," a highly critical look at how the park keeps orcas in captivity and potential dangers posed to employees. The former CEO resigned in December after months of declining revenue and attendance.
Activists and now lawmakers have stepped up the pressure as well, particularly in California, where a state commission ruled last month that SeaWorld could expand its killer whale habitat, but the company couldn't breed captive animals.
Ending captive orca breeding — a decision the company plans to challenge in court — could eventually phase out orcas in the park altogether.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced last week that he will introduce federal legislation to end the display of captive orcas. “The evidence is very strong that the psychological and physical harm done to these magnificent animals far outweighs any benefits reaped from their display,” Schiff said in a statement.
SeaWorld officials have been quick to push back against accusations that it mistreats animals. "Through our work with scientists, conservation leaders, and the government, SeaWorld is ensuring that all animals in human care are treated with the dignity and respect they require and deserve," SeaWorld Entertainment spokeswoman Kermes told the Los Angeles Times.
The company launched public relations campaigns to combat the building narrative that has hurt its bottom line. Kermes told the Associated Press in March that "there has been a lot of misinformation" and "it has been a one-sided conversation."
Monday's announcement, while welcomed from critics, did not do much to silence them. Schiff renewed his call to end orca captivity. And PETA said it wasn't enough.
"An end to SeaWorld’s tawdry circus-style shows is inevitable and necessary, but it’s captivity that denies these far-ranging orcas everything that is natural and important to them," PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman said in a statement. "This move is like no longer whipping lions in a circus act but keeping them locked inside cages for life or no longer beating dogs but never letting them out of crates. "