SeaWorld to end ‘cruel’ San Diego Shamu Show

Whale of a time? SeaWorld holds 24 orcas at three marine parks in the US © SeaWorld

SeaWorld has promised to phase out its controversial Shamu Shows at its park in California, in favour of ‘more natural’ displays. But activists say this does not go far enough. Why?

The audience gasps. As music blares, a killer whale leaps from the water at SeaWorld. Another does a backflip in the centre of the pool. SeaWorld is famous for its spectacular ‘Shamu Shows’. But this week, CEO Joel Manby said he will begin phasing out the displays at the San Diego park in California in favour of a ‘more natural’ setting.

It comes after years of campaigning against the company. In 2013 the documentary Blackfish detailed the ‘cruel treatment’ of orcas, as killer whales are also known, in captivity. It accused the company of separating calves from their mothers, and keeping the mammals in cramped conditions. The orcas, said the filmmakers, had become ‘psychologically traumatised’ by their lives in captivity.

The film then focused on the death of Dawn Brancheau, an expert trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando who was drowned and ‘dismembered’ by a five-tonne orca, Tilikum. Caught in the wild and abused by his fellow whales, Tilikum has now been involved in three deaths.

Since Blackfish was released, SeaWorld’s visitor numbers have dropped dramatically. Former trainers, politicians, and even One Direction’s Harry Styles have all spoken out against the parks.

Orcas are incredibly social and intelligent creatures. They are the largest mammals in the dolphin family, and can live to be 60 years old — often never leaving their mother’s side. Scientists say that the ‘culture’ of various groups has a huge effect on their behaviour. It influences their ‘language’, what they do for fun, and the foods they eat.

It is unclear whether SeaWorld’s plans involve new, larger habitats for the creatures, or whether the new shows will still involve a performance. ‘This is bailing water out of a sinking ship,’ said Dr Naomi Rose, a scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, ‘instead of actually fixing the leak.’

Fish out of water

SeaWorld insists that it treats its orcas with the utmost care, and that the allegations by Blackfish are false. Keeping a few mammals in captivity benefits the whole species, it says, as scientists can research vocal patterns and reproductive behaviour, which helps conservation efforts. What is more, seeing killer whales up close can inspire children to grow up and care for animals themselves.

But activists argue that SeaWorld is merely protecting its own interests. Watching orcas perform for entertainment teaches children to view animals as objects to be used for human pleasure. But they are so much more — they are complex, emotional creatures that deserve the freedom of the ocean. Keeping them in small enclosures and separating them from their families is cruel and dangerous. It should have been banned years ago.

You Decide

  1. If you were in Orlando or San Diego, would you go to a SeaWorld show?
  2. Is it always wrong to keep animals in captivity?


  1. Try writing 100 words form the perspective of a killer whale, either in the wild or in captivity.
  2. Produce a factfile about killer whales, including three unusual facts which set them apart from other animals. Use the Become An Expert links to help you.

Some People Say...

“Training animals to perform for humans is nothing more than slavery.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are there killer whales in the UK?
If you travel up to the Shetland and Orkney islands in Scotland, you might be able to spot a few — but you will not find any in captivity. However, they can be still found within the EU, in France and Tenerife. In the wild, killer whales can be found in every ocean, making them the most widespread animal (besides humans and possibly brown rats).
Can they be released?
It has been done — most famously after the film Free Willy sparked a campaign to release Keiko, the orca which played its central character. For killer whales born in captivity, it could be more difficult to start a new life in the wild. Campaigners have instead suggested creating a natural enclosure in a bay or cove, where they can live out the remainder of their lives with human care.

Word Watch

The show is named after SeaWorld’s first killer whale, Shamu, who performed at San Diego from the mid 1960s until she died in 1971.
The west-coast US state has cracked down on SeaWorld since the release of Blackfish, and in October this year it banned the park from breeding more orcas in captivity.
SeaWorld says that it only separates calves from their mothers when they are no longer dependent, or if they are disrupting the social group. In the wild, orcas stay with their mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers, in matrilineal ‘pods’.
Three deaths
A trainer called Keltie Byrne was killed after being dragged into the pool by Tilikum and two other orcas at his previous park, Sealand, in 1991. In 1999, Daniel Dukes sneaked into the park at night, and was found dead in Tilikum’s pool.
Different ‘communities’ of orcas have been known to have very distinctive calls, and never communicate with each other — as though they are speaking a different language entirely. Killer whales in captivity are also capable of ‘learning’ the language of dolphins.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.