Visitors are greeted by an Orca killer whale as they attend a show featuring the whales during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, Calif. in this March 19, 2014 file photo.
Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters/Corbis

SeaWorld says it will end orca shows in San Diego by 2017

SAN DIEGO – SeaWorld will end its orca shows at its San Diego park by 2017, its top executive said Monday, saying customers at the location have made clear they prefer killer whales acting more naturally rather than doing tricks.

CEO Joel Manby told investors that the park - where the iconic shows of killer whales doing flips and other stunts debuted decades ago - will offer a different kind of orca experience focusing on the animal’s natural setting and its behaviors, starting in 2017.

Animal rights activists called the move a marketing gimmick and want the company to phase out holding whales in captivity at all.

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The Orlando, Florida-based company has seen revenue drop since the 2013 release of the documentary “Blackfish” that examined how orcas respond to captivity, particularly in the case of Tilikum, a killer whale that caused trainer Dawn Brancheau’s 2010 death by pulling her into a pool at SeaWorld Orlando.

Attendance has dropped the most at its San Diego location, and the decision to end such shows would be limited for now to that park, the original home of Shamu. Shows at its other parks, including in San Antonio and Orlando, will continue.

“The theatrical production of the show in that market is what they wanted to see less of,” Manby said of San Diego’s customers. “But it’s not universal across our properties.”

Manby told investors that the new killer whale attraction will “have a strong conservation message.”

“They want the orca experience to be activities the whales do in the wild,” Manby said of California customers. “Things they perceive as tricks, they don’t like as well.”

The Shamu stadium that hosted its killer whale shows were the park’s main draw in the 1970s and helped build SeaWorld as a top attraction. Trainers would ride the whales in the giant pool before getting out and signaling for the orca to slap its tail in the water to splash spectators in a “splash zone.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the move does not go far enough and urged investment in whale sanctuaries.

“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’s Jared Goodman said. “This move is like no longer whipping lions in a circus act but keeping them locked inside cages for life.”

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The news came days after SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. reported that its third-quarter earnings missed Wall Street expectations.

SeaWorld earlier this year announced plans for a $100 million expansion of the San Diego park’s killer whale tanks to boost attendance, but Manby indicated to investors it may shelve that project now.

The California Coastal Commission endorsed the plans last month on the condition SeaWorld agree to stop breeding orcas in captivity and not transfer or sell them.

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The company has said it plans to challenge that decision in court. Manby said Monday that the company had no other choice because the ruling set a “bad precedent” for not only SeaWorld but all zoos, aquariums and other animal parks.

“We certainly know with the regulatory environment out there that happened with orcas, and some of what happened in California, with the reputation out there, I think we would be foolish if we didn’t look at other options, in case that happens,” Manby said.

He added that SeaWorld may be able to achieve its objective, which he did not specify, without proceeding with the tank expansion project, called “Blue World.”

Manby also announced that the company is considering adding hotels at several of its locations to attract overnight visitors, starting with San Diego. SeaWorld has reached an agreement with a San Diego-based hotelier to look at building a theme resort on its park property, though they are just in the exploratory phase.

Animal Rights and California

SeaWorld says it will end orca shows in San Diego by 2017