Theme Park Insider

No More Baby Shamus at SeaWorld

March 17, 2016, 8:37 AM · SeaWorld announced this morning that it would no longer breed its orcas, meaning that no more "Baby Shamus" will be born in its parks and that its current lineup of killer whales will not expand.

Set aside for the moment any debate over the ethics of captive orca breeding (which, in my opinion, should result in agreement at least that SeaWorld and its trainers have been responsible and sensitive caretakers of their whales), and look at this announcement for what it is — a business decision.

The past decade has shown that SeaWorld's appeal to visitors was built on two things — drinking free beer and seeing trainers launch out of the water on the nose of a killer whale. When SeaWorld lost both of those things, its attendance suffered. In fact, SeaWorld Orlando's attendance has yet to recover to where it was in the days of free beer and flying trainers.

By ending whale breeding, SeaWorld effectively sets an as-yet-undefined end date for visitors to see orcas at its parks. That creates a sense of scarcity that might entice some curious visitors to come see the whales before they're gone. (That SeaWorld's whales live for decades means that it will be a long time before that happens, but from a marketing perspective, I don't think that matters. Marketing ultimately is about the jist of the thing, not the details. Heck, I've talked with people who think that Disney's Season of the Force is the new Star Wars Land.)

Second, by not growing its orca program, SeaWorld frees resources in the long term to devote to attractions that have a greater potential to bring in more visitors. Remember, the current Shamu shows aren't getting that done. By ditching its expensive proposed Blue World project, SeaWorld is conceding that an expanded orca program wouldn't draw enough visitors to justify its expense, either.

Finally, SeaWorld avoids what could have been its worst-case scenario. Battered by competition from a resurgent Universal on one end, and growing Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks on the other, SeaWorld needs to find a fresh approach to attraction development in order to begin growing its attendance across the chain again. But if SeaWorld were to fail to do that — and it were no longer in the position to be able to afford to maintain its orca program — no other organization on Earth would be in the position to take on that responsibility. By effectively placing an end date on its orca problem, SeaWorld has created an exit strategy that doesn't rely on finding someone else to care for its whales.

And here let's note that releasing the whales into the wild was never a responsible decision. As SeaWorld noted in its announcement this morning, no large marine mammal born in captivity — whales or dolphins — has ever survived release in the wild. Activists who called for SeaWorld to "empty the tanks" effectively were calling for the murder of SeaWorld's whales. That's despicable, and SeaWorld is to be commended for ignoring those calls. The whole "sea pen" thing was never anything more than a fantasy dreamed up by PETA to dodge the charge that it was calling for the death of SeaWorld's whales. SeaWorld has created a functioning ecosystem for its whales in its parks. A sea pen would have adversely affected the ecosystem of the ocean — and taken a large part of public oceanfront for private use — for no demonstrated improvement in the lives of SeaWorld's whales.

So where does SeaWorld go from here? The parks need to do a better job of giving theme park fans what they want, even if free beer and flying trainers aren't options. Universal surged ahead of SeaWorld by creating more immersive environments and telling better stories, made possible by developing and licensing beloved characters. That model isn't patented. SeaWorld could do the same — using stories of the natural world beyond our shores to drive those experiences.

Today is about what SeaWorld isn't going to do anymore. But if the company is going to succeed, tomorrow needs to be about what SeaWorld will do, instead.

Keeping with our policy, we will not be publishing anonymous comments on stories about zoology.

Replies (28)

March 17, 2016 at 8:59 AM · Sure I'll get flamed for this, but this makes me really sad. I just keep thinking about that last whale swimming around in its tank all by itself. I don't disagree that making these animals live in a tank is unnatural, but it's also all they have ever known. Something else they have always known is they are able to have babies, and care for them, and love them, and watch them grow. They have always known they are not alone and there are other animals to interact with. Soon, even it it is decades away, there will be one whale left, all alone in their tank. That will be unusual and cruel. PETA thinks it has gotten what it wants, but this story does not have a happy ending. Not by a long shot.
March 17, 2016 at 8:59 AM · SeaWorld is a limited topic park. They announced their dolphins won't be breed or replaced either. The future means no orcas or dolphins. This means sea lions and domestic animal shows only. Last year, they had a "So You Think You Can Dance" show at SeaWorld San Diego. They started selling admission tickets with all day dining. This could be the new enticement.
March 17, 2016 at 9:11 AM · Well said always you're a genius and a heck of a writer with all your articles. I think your article makes perfect sense. I'm saddened over the changes, but the exit strategy is an excellent one. I personally think that once words spreads across the country curiosity will start driving a few more people to the parks and if free beer is what they need to offer to get people in there well then today on St. Patrick's Day...I can honestly say, " I'll drink to that! "

@Rob McCullough... I got you buddy it's a sad thing and you're not alone with your was a matter of time. I'm guessing now they're going to focus on hotels and resorts for income ad hopefully SeaWorld Rescue as I think it's catch and at least here in San Diego....they'll need approval from the coastal commission for a resort...and obviously suing them wasn't going to run in their favor towards permit approvals.

March 17, 2016 at 9:21 AM · I agree with Rob that at some point in the future there is going to be a very lonely animal swimming all alone. But what I was wondering is will this affect Aquatica, yes they do not have Orcas but they do have dolphins. Personally I did not see a need for dolphins at a water park and lets face reality the slide with the clear tube that takes you thru the tank gives you about as much of a chance to see the animal as you flash by as a snowball has in hell.

I can't say that I will miss the Killer Whale show, my wife will, but we should be able to make it there a couple of times before they are gone.

March 17, 2016 at 9:35 AM · Very, very happy for this news. Good points about what will happen when there are just a couple of whales left -- perhaps they will concentrate them at a single park if it works socially for the whales -- but this is a bold, almost game-changing move for SW. As someone who never liked the shows, this makes me eager to visit the new Sea World more than ever. That giant rollercoaster that just laid its last section of track will also help.
March 17, 2016 at 9:41 AM · Be careful what you ask for, sometimes you get it......
March 17, 2016 at 9:46 AM · Excellent article, Robert!

As always with SeaWorld, I have very mixed emotions about this. But overall I agree that it's the best decision for the long run... and now PETA can shut the heck up already....

March 17, 2016 at 10:29 AM · Will they disallow natural breeding or it just doesn't happen?
March 17, 2016 at 11:01 AM · I have enjoyed the Orcas at SeaWorld and I will miss them. I understand life is fluid and you have to change or become obsolete. It will be sad in X-number of years from now when they are down to the last one. I see both side of the story – the good and the bad. In nature a species will always sacrifice a few to save the many.

If it were not for SeaWorld most folks would not care about Orcas. SeaWorld has saved over 27,000 animals and returned them to their natural habitat. They do some great things.

I have been defending SeaWorld on Twitter for a long time from the Trolls who type #Blackfish and #EmptyTheTanks… I often suck them in using their own misbelieving and mistakes. One fella said “Why are they building a coaster, and not making the tanks bigger #EmptyTheTanks” - I replied – Pick one ideology, either make the tanks larger or is it #EmptyTheTanks – Can’t do both those things…

I had another guy so pissed at me yesterday, swearing, calling me an idiot, poor, conceited, ignorant… By the end of the day I got him to admit SeaWorld does some great things… (I will admit it is easy for me to antagonize someone on Twitter) I guess I have a gift for it…

I wish SeaWorld all the Best in the future and keep saving injured animals along with educating us.
We are going to Aquatica 1st week of May...

March 17, 2016 at 11:04 AM · This is something I am on the fence about. I will kind of break it down into sections:

I understand that economically they need to compete with other parks in the area. However, the reason why the other parks are thriving is because of icons. Universal has Harry Potter, Disney has Frozen and Star Wars, Legoland is adding stuff for Ninjago and the Lego Movie. Seaworld doesn't really have that, aside from the Orcas. I feel that if they want to say that this is a business choice, that they need to think long and hard what they are going to do to amp up attendance in relation to icons and new offerings. I'm sorry but those who did not support Seaworld are not just going to magically start coming now. In fact you have some supporters that are upset about the choice, who might have been swayed not to come (I am not one of those).

The choice of ending the shows to me is semi-okay. Like I'm not happy about it, but won't boycott going because there is no show. The only thing I am mostly concerned for is that these shows were a form of enrichment for the orcas. So if they had a contingency plan on keeping up with this level of enrichment to stimulate the orca's psychologically, then I am okay with it. However, just a natural pool where they just swim around might not be enough enrichment. I hope they include this in their future planning of the habitat.

I understand where you are coming from in regards to the care of orcas, and if Seaworld is not there, who would care for them therefore we shouldn't do artificial breeding. I am not positive that they would be in the AZA database for acquistions but I am sure some of them going have moved to different facilities. I know this is a long time away, and they might change their minds. I'm not against this choice, because there are still sea turtles at the parks and aquariums even though it is illegal to have one in captivity unless deemed that they would not survive in the wild. However, the way that they have announced this is going to sensationalize in the media about never having cetaceans again at the parks, which would be incorrect.

I think I am more unhappy with the partnership with the humane society. To me, this doesn't really fix the problem. I don't see, like other supporters, that seaworld has caved into the protests. I am just iffy and skeptical on how this is going to help them in the end.

I just wish this would stop some of the activists and focus on something else, but I know it won't.

What we really need to do is take care and heal our ocean, otherwise there won't even be orcas in the wild anymore...

March 17, 2016 at 9:02 PM · Far as I'm concerned many people are way too into animals these days, even to the point where animals live better lives than some people. Tragic. But for me, the attraction at SeaWorld Orlando has always been the coasters. In fact, SeaWorld has essentially cornered the Orlando market when it comes to adult sized thrills. Therefore, they should continue to move in that direction to cement their lock on that market and stabilize their attendance.

Long and short, I am neither here nor there on the captivity argument, but if getting rid of the Orca breeding program leads to more uber coasters, I am all in.

March 17, 2016 at 12:30 PM ·
March 17, 2016 at 12:33 PM · What I meant to say is i remember many years ago we got to sit in the stadium and watch one of the whales give birth!
March 17, 2016 at 12:54 PM · Free beer helps hipsters forget about supposed animal abuse. Bring back the free beer.
March 17, 2016 at 1:10 PM · The PETA flakes will never shut up. I can just see the next round of complaints.

No whale whoopee? Why that's depriving the orcas and dolphins of normal social interaction!

Whale contraceptives? Why that's unnatural! Who knows what the long term effects of those drugs might be? And if you do give them contraceptives, the males should get them too because to give them only to the females would be sexist!

Move the whales to one location so they won't be so lonely when they start dying off? Why that's just cruel! Picking them up in a sling, putting them in a truck, and throwing them in a tank with strange whales is horrible!

The possibilities, unfortunately, are endless.

Some people are never happy unless they run (ruin) their life and yours too.

March 17, 2016 at 1:25 PM · I'm very split by this decision. On one hand, it does make a lot of sense given the current climate around the issue. Ending the breeding program and allowing the current animals to live the remainder of their lives in captivity is the best possible solution. On the other hand, is this action being done because of social pressure or because it is in the best interest of the animals? Regardless of what the public thinks, every decision needs to be made for the latter, and I strongly hope that this business decision is also something that will improve the animals' well-being.

I honestly think SeaWorld is making one of the biggest gambles in recent theme park history here. For as long as the parks have had Orcas, they have been at the front of their advertising and marketing, and for the general public the animal component is the main draw of SeaWorld. Now, the time of Shamu is effectively over. How do you replace that? What does the chain do now? I'm curious what is going to happen next, because while it may sound overly dramatic it is likely true...what the SeaWorld chain does over the next few years to revise their brand is going to determine whether they survive for the next generation or become nothing but a memory.

March 17, 2016 at 1:38 PM · I'm pretty sad to see the old era of SeaWorld gone. My question is what is the difference when zoos have babies in captivity versus what SeaWorld does?

I agree also that you can't let an animal born in captivity loose into the ocean or wild for that matter. They don't know any better and will die.

Like the few people above, I too wonder what is in the future for SeaWorld.

March 17, 2016 at 1:50 PM · That's the sort of article that I follow Theme Park Insider for. Intelligent, nuanced and well-argued. A superb piece of writing and a perceptive reflection.
March 17, 2016 at 2:42 PM · Anon Mouse- it seems that they will not allow natural breeding; something that was VERY successful (over 25 successful natural births vs 4 via artificial insemination).

Robert this article was very well written and I wish I could express how I feel as well as you did, however I just cannot find the right words. I can only think to say that I feel devastated and betrayed by this news. SeaWorld never responded to that propaganda film correctly, and this simply continues that trend. It amazes me the lies that the general public will believe.

March 17, 2016 at 2:47 PM · So, basically...I called it. Isn't this pretty much exactly what I proposed in Theme Park Apprentice? It really is the most obvious and easiest solution. Very well written article, Robert.
March 17, 2016 at 3:18 PM · I feel like there is a loop hole that SeaWorld isnt telling people. Maybe they cant "breed" these whales anymore but i didnt see anything about them not being able to take in "injured" or whales with "health problems." I could see them bringing in these whales and "curing" them within a year or two then release them and repeat the process. That way they would still have whales to show, but be able to claim their research and veterinarian benefits.
March 17, 2016 at 3:29 PM · Sad to see this go.
March 17, 2016 at 5:08 PM · Blackfish was well made I will admit, but I've always been on SeaWorld's side.
March 17, 2016 at 5:49 PM · SWSD will die. The stopping of Orca breeding shows that SeaWorld is heading in more of a theme park direction than a zoo direction, and SWSD has too many limits on it for it to become a park that people visit for thrills.

I'm predicting that Manta will go to SWO.

March 17, 2016 at 6:36 PM · As a lifelong San Diego native and Sea World fan (I proudly wear my 50 anniversary sea world shirt as often as possible), this is bad news to me. This will hurt my hometown as one of the biggest draws of tourism and the institution that Sea World is.

I am not so much upset that the whales are leaving, so much as why they are leaving. They are leaving because of the extremely one sided documentary that Peta put out, not because Sea World came to this decision on their own. I was never a fan of the circus shows, but animals in captivity (including whales), I am not against. To adopt that position you would have to be willing to reject animals in zoos (as well as all of the research and protection that zoos provide to animals), animals as pets, animals as food, animals as symbiotic relationships as well as 100 thousand years of human history and our reliance on animals for survival. Our entire history of survival has depended on our use of plants and animals, other life forms that we share this planet with. To exempt whales from our use and benefit is an extremely small minded, short sighted, and illogical position in my opinion.

March 17, 2016 at 6:53 PM · Every time I go to SWSD the Shamu Stadium is filled beyond capacity to see the orcas. They have reduced the number of shows to only one on weekdays and 2 on weekends. During the summer there is one added evening show and they are always packed. To say that the orcas aren't drawing crowds is false. While the overall park attendance may have fallen, the attention given to the creatures residing there is exemplary. The makers of Blackfish should be called out on the carpet for the misleading 'documentary" they have pieced together and the public is getting ready to lose a valuable resource in our understanding and compassion for the orcas. I wholeheartedly support Sea World and thank it for all the good it has done throughout the world. Anytime extremists are allowed to have their way, they only get worse in the future. Zoo's and aquariums will be next. it's only a matter of time.
March 18, 2016 at 5:51 AM · I am so torn on this.
My only hope it that the younger generations will have some way of becoming passionate about the world and its animals when they visit. Because that's what SeaWorld gave me, for that I will always be grateful and carry that with me.

And thank you Robert, one of the best pieces I have read on SeaWorld, factual, calm and fair. Bravo.
(I have my own opinions on Peta, which revolve around many of the famous faces who claim to support them making vast amounts of money by advertising cosmetics which are tested on animals. Funny how cash works)

March 18, 2016 at 6:24 AM · In my humble opinion, this sudden move by Seaworld is a PR move, make this announcement to gauge public feedback and see how this plays out. If more people come and see the show before it disappears, they they could always reverse this decision, if attendance at their shows remains flat after this announcement, then they will just go in their new direction with more rides and less shows.

I am too torn on this decision too but maintaining the status quo was not an option

On one hand Seaworld should focus on what makes it special and unique and perhaps ignoring PETA and company and going all in on Blue Horizons

But on the other hand, the preferences and tastes the theme park visitor is changing and parks needs to change and adapt to survive. In this regard, Seaworld has been almost been caught flat footed in this aspect.

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