I wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid.
My fascination with sea life began at age 7, when my parents took me to see “Jaws” (1975). The film left a deep mark/scar on me, and I became fascinated with creatures of the deep. I checked armloads of shark books out of the local library, and begged my parents to take me to see whatever “Jaws” rip-off was playing at the local movie theater.
One of those awful rip-offs was a stinker called “Orca” (1977), starring a regretful Richard Harris and a confused Bo Derek. Even at the tender age of 9, I recognized the movie was a far-fetched turd. Every book I’d read said orcas were smarter than sharks; they didn’t mistake humans for food. The name is a misnomer; a killer whale won’t attack a human.
Unless it’s held in captivity.
When I was 12, my parents took me to SeaWorld, during the height of Shamu fever. As much as I was fascinated by the dolphin and killer whale shows, there was something sad about seeing these majestic, intelligent creatures held in tanks and swimming pools. My trip to SeaWorld didn’t kill my dreams of studying marine biology, but it dampened them.
(What finally killed my marine biology dream was my inability to pass Biology 101 in college, though, in my defense, the class was only offered really, really early on Friday mornings.)
Childhood visits to SeaWorld also had a deep impact on Gabriela Cowperthwaite and the rest of the crew behind the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish.” The documentary looks at the detrimental impact of keeping killer whales in captivity, and follows the story of “Tillikum,” an orca responsible for three human deaths.
“Blackfish” was an arrow through the heart of SeaWorld. Attendance at the park dropped off after the release of the documentary. SeaWorld officials called “Blackfish,” “inaccurate and misleading,” but the public — and the park’s shareholders — felt otherwise. By August 2014, SeaWorld stock dropped 44%, and by December the company’s CEO resigned.
In November 2015, SeaWorld announced plans to phase out killer whale performances at its San Diego park, and in March of this year, SeaWorld announced it would end its orca breeding program and phase out orca performances at all of its parks.
Detractors believe SeaWorld still isn’t doing enough. Even if SeaWorld stops breeding orcas today, some whales currently in captivity may live another 30 to 50 years. SeaWorld says it has no plans to release its 29 orcas back into the wild or into semi-wild sea pens. Phasing out the orca program at SeaWorld may take a while.
The evolution of SeaWorld hopefully reflects an overall change in the way mankind treats animals. Many of us have nostalgic memories of visiting SeaWorld as kids (and cheering elephants at the circus). But antiquated and inhumane institutions like zoos, aquariums, and circuses have no place in 21st century society. Imprisoning and abusing animals for human amusement must end.