National Geographic News
Photo of whales jumping during a whale show at SeaWorld in San Diego, California.

Two orcas perform at a whale show at SeaWorld in San Diego, California.

Photograph by SeaWorld San Diego, AP

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published December 20, 2013

This has been a rough week for SeaWorld.

The aquatic parks company is facing a rising backlash and controversy over the recent documentary film Blackfish, a critical look at SeaWorld's treatment of its animals. This week, a California school canceled a long-standing field trip to SeaWorld after a student was upset by Blackfish.

For years, fifth-graders at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School in Malibu, California, have taken an overnight trip to SeaWorld San Diego. But this year, a 10-year-old named Kirra Kotler reportedly told her parents and teachers that she didn't want to go, after seeing how the film depicted the park's treatment of whales.

"She's very passionate about animals," the girl's father told the media.

The trip cancellation comes on the heels of announcements by several prominent musicians that they are pulling out of upcoming gigs at SeaWorld parks. Those acts include the Barenaked Ladies, Martina McBride, Heart, Cheap Trick, Trisha Yearwood, Willie Nelson, and REO Speedwagon.

Willie Nelson said of his decision: "What they do at SeaWorld is not OK."

On December 7, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson tweeted, "Heart has chosen to decline their forthcoming performance at SeaWorld on 2/9/14 due to the controversial documentary film 'Black Fish.'" Nancy tweeted, "The SeaWorld show was planned long ago as an Orlando show. Had we known, we'd have said no then. We said no today. Love you all."

Tweets and Stocks

A pair of petitions currently targets two musicians who still have shows planned at SeaWorld Orlando in March, Justin Moore and Scotty McCreery.

On December 11, rocker Joan Jett wrote a letter to SeaWorld president Jim Atchison, objecting to the fact that her song "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was being used as opening music "for its cruel and abusive 'Shamu Rocks' show."

"I'm among the millions who saw Blackfish and am sickened that my music was blasted without my permission at sound-sensitive marine mammals," Jett wrote. "These intelligent and feeling creatures communicate by sonar and are driven crazy in the tiny tanks in which they are confined."

In response to the controversy, Dave Koontz, SeaWorld's communications director, told National Geographic via email that Blackfish is "inaccurate, misleading, and paints a distorted picture of SeaWorld and our animal care program."

Koontz said he is not aware of any other school cancellations in response to Blackfish. He called the Malibu school's decision "disappointing," and wrote that "each year at SeaWorld San Diego, more than 15,000 school children participate in our camp and sleepover programs; nearly 100,000 students participate in our in-park educational field trips; more than 40,000 visitors take advantage of our behind-the-scenes public educational tours, and tens of thousands of guests participate in our animal interaction programs—each leaving the park with experiences that would be difficult or impossible to replicate with video or in books."

Surveys show that those visitors are more likely to care about protecting animals, Koontz said.

SeaWorld Response

In response to the band cancellations, SeaWorld spokesperson Nick Gollattscheck told National Geographic, "While we're disappointed a small group of misinformed individuals was able to deny fans what would have been great concerts at SeaWorld, we respect the bands' decisions."

Gollattscheck added, "The bands and artists have a standing invitation to visit any of our parks to see firsthand or to speak to any of our animal experts to learn for themselves how we care for animals and how little truth there is to the allegations made by animal extremist groups opposed to the zoological display of marine mammals."

Gollattscheck said his company has seen "no impact on attendance" from Blackfish.

Leilani Munter, a race car driver and environmental and animal advocate, tweeted on December 19 that the Blackstone Group sold a large number of shares in SeaWorld on the day before: specifically, 19,500,000 shares worth $563,062,516.

Munter tweeted:


Building on Protests

In November, the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protested the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade because it included a SeaWorld-themed float. Backed by a petition with more than 50,000 signatures, PETA said in a statement then, "The float, which depicts free orcas frolicking in the ocean, is in stark contrast to the 35 orcas who have died in SeaWorld's cramped tanks. The parade has always been about enjoyment and awe, so Macy's shouldn't be celebrating the lives and deaths of the animals imprisoned at SeaWorld."

In August, Kenneth Brower wrote an opinion piece for National Geographic about Blackfish. He praised SeaWorld for some of its conservation and rehab work but criticized it for its keeping of orcas, especially Tilikum, the whale that "crushed, dismembered, and partially swallowed" SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. (Tilikum had already been implicated in two other accidents with human beings.)

Brower called Blackfish "an indictment of SeaWorld, its safety practices, its animal husbandry, its mendacity, and its whole reason for being."


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June Stoyer
June Stoyer

Many thanks to the folks who produced Blackfish for helping people to understand the horrors caused by marine parks that exploit these beings for profit.

Henry Robberson
Henry Robberson

Will never view Seaworld the same due to their treatment of Orcas. Would encourage everyone to watch Blackfish, currently on Netflix and form your own opinion.

Bob Bintliff
Bob Bintliff

There will be big protest demonstrations at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego on Sunday, December 22, 2013 starting at 10:00 AM.  Please join us if you can.

Teresa Wagner
Teresa Wagner

The children and their families and teachers have spoken, the musicians have spoken, their biggest stock holder has spoken by dumping 19.5 million SeaWorld shares, and the activists who value and honor animals will *never* stop speaking until the whales and dolphins are freed from captivity.  SeaWorld, it is time to join us and make plans for rehab and release to sea pens. When you do, we will embrace you and support you and help you. Until you do, we will work relentlessly to empty your seats. 

Thank you for the report National Geographic!

Lynne St. John
Lynne St. John

I find Sea World's treatment of its killer whales inordinately sad, immoral and, certainly not in the best interests of the animals. Why can we not simply enjoy all animals simply because they are on earth and not to entertain us, much let alone exist in a captive environment. Sea World needs to shut down all of its whale shows and return the whales to their native environments.

Mike Makuyi
Mike Makuyi

They are, on the contrary, well-informed at last.

Growing up encountering wild dolphin species in the ocean,, as children in the 1960s we were shocked that anyone would capture and imprison animals with brains up to 5 times the size of human brains.

Do not let biased paid shills misinform you:

large brains are social and communicative organs, and many dolphins understand more of us than we do them.

Ric O'Barry, a dolphin trainer of the 1960s will fill you in on the cruelty involved in this industry. Right now, I believe he is involved with Save Japan Dolphins, where activists attempt to show the world the slaughter , the terror, the pathos of taking animals from their world for entertainment.

Just one orca, Loleta - named by the cruel Seaquarium owners, was taped after over 30 years of captivity, and the recording was played to her family pod. They showed eager excitement in response to hearing it, unlike their responses to unfamiliar orcas. They obviously remembered her, stolen from her birthright as a child, and now ill in a tiny cement cell, from which her captors still refuse to release her.

Perhaps this should happen to those who feel this is acceptable - to be taken at 6, put in isolation except for a few other species, food withheld until she does the bidding of her enslavers. 

I do not favor those who excuse this cruelty as "educational", or useful, just as I do not favor a species who kills purely because it has the technological power to do so. You who think you are big and bad because you kill safely from afar with bullets or poison, you are weaklings without souls, so apart from real nature that you will never in your miserable disgusting lifetimes, experience life, except as some sort of sociopathic game, quivering in fear should you have no weapon in a world which others inhabit in confidence and beauty.

Rodmy Montero
Rodmy Montero

I'm amazed how high too many people have to pay even with their own life and also the suffering, hunt, depreciation of this poor whales encased in a few cubic feet of not enough space to swim and jump just to fill the pockets of a few. What kind of animals we are. 

To be human needs to become in something different that this non sense  business.

Fred Bogusheimer
Fred Bogusheimer

I have long thought that keeping large marine mammals such as killer whales, beluga whales, dolphins and porpoises it tanks for our entertainment is not justifiable.  It's true, they do have educational value, but these animals are intelligent and used to having the freedom of the oceans.  Also their history suggests that such large marine mammals don't really do all that well in captivity.

R. McDonald
R. McDonald

I'm encouraged by the support of all who have done what they can to make sure that the abuse of these beautiful creatures at SeaWorld ends. 

Felix Castro
Felix Castro

@Fred Bogusheimer , There is nothing to learn from them in an artificial environment. After so many years of whales and dolphins in captivity there is nothing left to learn if them in that state. There is no educational value there, just cruel entertainment and most of all money.


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