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Richard Branson cuts off SeaWorld as debate rages over captive whales and dolphins

(Gerardo Mora/Getty; Washington Post illustration)

Six years after a critical documentary sparked a global conversation over the ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity, chips are still falling.

Virgin Holidays is now out of the business of bringing tourists to see whales and dolphins that are confined in attractions, ending partnerships with SeaWorld theme parks in Orlando and San Diego; Discovery Cove (in Orlando), a SeaWorld-owned park that offers swimming with dolphins; and Atlantis the Palm (Dubai) and Atlantis Paradise Island (the Bahamas), resorts that sell close-up experiences with dolphins. The company had previously stopped booking 19 other attractions in Jamaica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Florida, most of which offered interactions with dolphins.

“For all of us at Virgin, the announcement marks the most significant milestone yet on a five-year journey to drive positive change in the tourism industry,” Virgin Group founder Richard Branson wrote in a blog post.

In a statement, SeaWorld chief zoological officer Chris Dold decried the decision: “It is disappointing to see Virgin Holidays succumb to pressure from animal activists who mislead and manipulate marine mammal science to advance their agendas.”

Dolphins perform at Discovery Cove in Florida. (Dave Penman/Shutterstock)

With its announcement, Virgin Holidays became the latest tour operator to distance itself from attractions that make creatures like whales and dolphins their bread and butter, as the larger travel industry reckons with when it’s acceptable for animals to be part of a tourist’s experience.

A year ago, Thomas Cook Group CEO Peter Fankhauser said the U.K.-based tour company would “no longer sell any animal attractions that keep orcas in captivity.” That policy goes into effect this summer.

“We have actively engaged with a range of animal welfare specialists in the last 18 months, and taken account of the scientific evidence they have provided,” Fankhauser said in a blog post last year. “We have also taken feedback from our customers, more than 90% of whom told us that it was important that their holiday company takes animal welfare seriously.”

Online travel company Expedia said in 2017 that it would no longer allow “activities involving certain wildlife animal interactions” to be booked on its sites, including Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. And in 2016, TripAdvisor announced that “specific tourism experiences where travelers come into physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species, including but not limited to elephant rides, petting tigers, and swim with dolphin attractions,” would no longer be bookable on its site, its tours or its activities-booking subsidiary, Viator.

In this 2011 photo, killer whale Tilikum watches as SeaWorld trainers take a break during a training session at the theme park's Shamu Stadium in Orlando. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP File)

Canada passed legislation last month — dubbed the “Free Willy” bill by some — that bans the practice of keeping whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity. Only two attractions in the country are affected; they are allowed to keep the mammals they have but not breed more.

Virgin’s road to banning activities with captive cetaceans started in 2014, when the company said it would only work with suppliers that didn’t take the creatures from the wild. A few years later, Virgin Holidays said it would not add attractions to its portfolio if they featured whales and dolphins in captivity.

“We felt strongly this was the right thing to do and we knew most of our customers support it, too,” Branson wrote. “Many no longer consider whale and dolphin shows and ‘swim withs’ to be appropriate, and most would rather enjoy these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has battled SeaWorld for years, cheered the company’s move.

“Hats off to Virgin Holidays, which has made a big splash by scrapping tours to any facility that imprisons sensitive whales and dolphins, denying them any semblance of a natural life,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said in a statement. “The tide is turning against marine abusement parks, and PETA is now calling on AAA to join Virgin by rejecting SeaWorld promotions.”

The announcement from Virgin comes as SeaWorld is finally seeing its business improve years after the release of “Blackfish,” a damaging 2013 documentary that examined the killing of a SeaWorld trainer by one of the company’s orcas and the practice of keeping killer whales captive.

The company said it would stop breeding orcas in 2016 and pledged to change its killer whale shows to be more educational and less entertainment-driven.

Last year, its attendance rose by 8.6 percent year-over-year to 22.6 million visitors, and revenue rose by 8.6 percent to $1.37 billion. The company, which has 12 theme parks across the country, has focused more on its rides and continues to emphasize its rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

“With more than 35,000 animal rescues and decades of meaningful scientific contributions, we are proud to be a recognized global leader in marine mammal science, education and, in particular, providing preeminent care to all of our marine mammals,” Dold, SeaWorld’s chief zoological officer, said in a statement this week. “With rising threats to our oceans and their inhabitants, supporting independently accredited zoological facilities is more important than ever. No company does more to protect marine mammals and advance cetacean research, rescue and conservation than SeaWorld.”

Read more:

How to find a real animal sanctuary

Florida issues rabies alert for part of Walt Disney World

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