When you hear "SeaWorld," do you think of Shamu or Tilikum? Do you envision happy orcas delighted to perform for crowds, or a wild animal tortured into abusing and killing his trainer?
For years, SeaWorld has been caught in a public relations war. The most recent defeat came from the California Coastal Commission (CCC), which approved a huge construction project – a proposed $100-million expansion to the San Diego facility called the Blue World Project – with two key restrictions.
The captive orcas have to be protected from construction noise, and, crucially for the future of SeaWorld, no new orcas can be added to the 11 already on display, whether through capture from the wild or a captive-breeding program.
SeaWorld is now considering its next steps, including suing the state of California. "The Coastal Commission went way beyond its jurisdiction and authority when it banned breeding by killer whales at SeaWorld," said Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.
"It simply defies common sense that a straightforward land-use permit approval would turn into a ban on animal husbandry practices – an area in which the Commissioners have no education, training or expertise," he said.
The decision for the ban came amid charges that SeaWorld breeds its females at an age much younger than they typically choose to mate naturally in the wild, and allegations that isolation and small tanks cause aggressive behavior in its largest orcas, including Tilikum, who was the subject of a popular 2013 documentary called "Blackfish."
The CCC obliquely referred to the publicity in its official ruling: "The [Blue World Project] has received a great deal of attention due to the ongoing debate regarding the captivity and treatment of orcas at exhibit facilities."
In response, John Reilly, president of SeaWorld San Diego, said, "A ban on breeding would sentence these animals to a slow extinction in our care."
If SeaWorld abandons the project as a way to sidestep the breeding ban, warned Humane Society lobbyist Jennifer Fearing, then it risks creating the perception that the bigger tanks were a PR move, and not for the benefit of the park's 11 killer whales.
"It's clear where public opinion is, and the unanimous vote from the California Coastal Commission only added to the barrage over the last couple years," Ms. Fearing told the Associated Press. "The writing is on the wall and it's time for them to stop fighting and evolve."
SeaWorld has not captured any orcas in the wild since the 1980s, when it faced repeated legal battles and growing public opposition.
The Blue World website says the newer, larger tanks and research facilities are part of SeaWorld's efforts to advance "the global understanding of killer whales, educating and inspiring conservation efforts to protect those in the wild."
Over fifty organizations have already signed on to support the project, which SeaWorld hopes to open in 2018.
According to the IUCN, orcas are one of the most wide-ranging species in the world, second only to humans. In the wild, orcas are not considered endangered, although the IUCN acknowledges that threats common to other large whale species, such as habitat disturbance and commercial fishing, do pose a risk.
Jane Goodall, famous primatologist and naturalist, told the Huffington Post that she thinks SeaWorld "should be closed down" and that she hopes humans are gaining a greater sense of empathy for animals.
"It’s not only that [orcas are] really big, highly intelligent and social animals so that the capture and confinement in itself is cruel," she said, but also that "they have emotions like ours."