SeaWorld writes a new chapter with the first killer whale-free park

After years of pressure from animal activists, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is seeking to rebrand itself as a company geared toward education and ocean conservancy. The company's new park in Abu Dhabi is a step in that direction.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP/File
Orca whale Tilikum (r.) watches as SeaWorld Orlando trainers take a break during a training session at the theme park's Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla., March 7, 2011. SeaWorld announced Tuesday that it will build its first park without orcas in Abu Dhabi.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announced on Tuesday that it will open its first park without its iconic orca show, as well as the first franchise outside the United States, in Abu Dhabi in 2022.

The new park will open on Yas Island, a manmade island in the United Arab Emirates that is quickly becoming the tourism hub of the Arabian peninsula. The project has been in the works since 2011 and will be funded by UAE government-backed Miral Asset Management, but for SeaWorld this is more than a chance to expand its business abroad. It will be an important step away from its controversial captive breeding orca program.

"This gives us a chance to position the new SeaWorld in a very strong way, repositioning it from a company that's only about certain species to a company that is focused on ocean health," Joel Manby, the chief executive for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, told the Associated Press.

In addition to the amusement park, the SeaWorld in Abu Dhabi will also include a research, animal rescue, and rehabilitation center, which will open prior to the exhibits for the public. The park itself will have ocean-themed rides and aquarium tanks, but will also focus on educating visitors about marine biology and ocean conservation through virtual-reality exhibits that will explore the world below the surface.

SeaWorld began phasing out its orca program in October 2015, when it approved an expansion of the facilities for captive orcas in its San Diego theme park with one caveat: that it would not bring new orcas into the park, either from the wild or breeding. In March, the park announced that it would end its controversial captive orca breeding program entirely, adding that it would stop collecting orcas from the wild as well.

“The announcement today is the humane economy at work, where businesses … realize that doing right by animals is going to eliminate risk and provide economic opportunity,” Wayne Pacelle, the executive director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a former critic that has partnered with SeaWorld in the theme park’s new initiative, told The Christian Science Monitor in March. “At the root of it is an emerging consciousness among consumers/voters,” he adds. “They’re demanding more from decision makers and wanting companies to do better on animal welfare.”

The decision came after years of pressure from animals rights activists, which led to declining attendance at SeaWorld’s US parks. The backlash grew particularly strong after the release of the documentary “Blackfish,” which told the story of Tilikum, an orca that killed a SeaWorld trainer during a performance in 2010. The documentary implied that orca whales are more aggressive when kept in captivity, and led to a shake-up of SeaWorld management.

The controversy hit SeaWorld hard, and ensuing cost-cutting efforts eliminated 320 jobs across its 12 US parks. But if the company does follow through on its new ocean conservation focus, it has the potential to repair the brand’s damaged image.

"It really positions SeaWorld for the future in the right way," Manby told the Associated Press, speaking of the new park in Abu Dhabi. "This is the right time to do it as we are pivoting the brand in a new direction."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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