6 min read

No, SeaWorld Didn't Just Have Their Last Orca Show

They'll still be performing.

SeaWorld celebrated its last orca show on Sunday - sort of.

Early last year, SeaWorld announced that it was changing its PR strategy in an effort to combat public discomfort over captive orcas - for years, the park has been plagued by fallout from the 2013 film "Blackfish," which sparked a wave of concern about how the marine park was treating both its animals and its employees.

As part of that new strategy, SeaWorld announced last fall that it was ending its theatrical whale shows in early 2017. Many heralded the move as the end of an era. But critics of SeaWorld say that the change is merely a repackaging of the old shows - and that it doesn't nearly go far enough.

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For one, SeaWorld is only ending shows at its San Diego park for now, meaning many of the 11 orcas at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio will still be forced to perform.

It's also still unclear what "ending" the shows means. SeaWorld has implied that the theatrical shows will merely be replaced with similar displays, but with a more naturalistic backdrop and narrative.

"The fountains, the style of music, the style of theatrics from our trainers, that's all moving away," Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park experience design for SeaWorld, told CBS.

A mock-up of the backdrop for the new orca shows | SeaWorld

Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld, hinted last November that the whales would still be performing, saying that the new shows "will be focused on ... the natural behavior of the whales."

But while that might give visitors a new experience, it doesn't change much for the orcas. They will still be expected to perform tricks on command - even if SeaWorld will be packaging them as "natural behaviors."

The move is especially poignant considering the recent death of Tilikum, SeaWorld's most famous orca and the focus of "Blackfish," who passed away on Friday. Tilikum was captured as a 2-year-old calf from his family in Iceland in 1983, and spent 33 years in a tank.

He exhibited many distressing behaviors over the years, including floating for hours on end - though orcas are never motionless in the wild - and destroying his own teeth by chewing on his tank out of frustration. He was also responsible for the death of three people, including two of his trainers in 1991 and 2010, though there has never been a recorded incident of a wild orca killing a human.

SeaWorld staffers attend to Tilikum's - instead of pointed, they were worn down and, often, drilled out | YouTube/SeaWorld® Parks & Entertainment

And with his sad life at a close, critics of SeaWorld are calling on the park to make more than just cosmetic changes to how it treats its animals - and send them to a sea sanctuary instead of, once again, forcing them to perform in artificial orca shows.

"Tilikum lived longer than almost any other captive male orca has, but his life was one of deprivation and difficulty," Naomi Rose, a marine biologist and orca researcher with the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement. "Forcing these large, intelligent, socially complex animals to live out their sometimes decades-long lives in barren concrete tanks must end."

If you'd like to help create a sanctuary where SeaWorld's orcas could one day retire, you can make a donation to The Whale Sanctuary Project, a team of former SeaWorld trainers and biologists who are working to open the world's first-ever sanctuary for whales and dolphins.