The news that Tilikum, SeaWorld’s most famous orca and the star of “Blackfish,” passed away both saddened and emboldened people across the world. The death of this whale signified the end of an era of suffering, not just for one orca, but for the many others that are still being held in captivity. On Sunday, January 8th, 2017, SeaWorld San Diego officially ended their “One Ocean” orca performance, marking the last time a captive whale would be forced to perform mindless tricks in front of audiences at the park.
As of now, SeaWorld San Diego is the only location that will be ending the orca shows, but it is expected that Orlando and San Antonio will stop performances by 2019. Although orca shows will no longer be held at the San Diego park, SeaWorld’s CEO Joel Manby has stated that the whales will remain captive and on display in the facility. There are plans in place to expand the orca habitat and showcase a different sort of exhibit called “Orca Encounter” at the park which aims to replicate the whale’s natural environment and behaviors. Granted, this means that all of the eleven orcas who reside in SeaWorld San Diego will continue to be deprived of the life they could have had free, in the wild, but the waves created by the splash of “Blackfish” are proving to be effective.
The lessons that millions of people learned from Tilikum’s story have undoubtedly changed the course of marine captivity forever. When Producer and Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite turned her lens to focus on the sordid life of Tilikum and made his history of dangerous (and in three cases, fatal) behavior and gave a voice to this suffering, miserable whale, she empowered every single person who watched or heard about the film with the knowledge they needed to see past the lies SeaWorld sold us all. SeaWorld shows went from being viewed as playful and educational displays that whales were happy to participate in, to cruel displays of torture, masked by smiling trainers and loud music. In the months and years that followed the release of the documentary, things began to change for captive marine animals – a phenomenon nicknamed the “Blackfish Effect.” SeaWorld saw a sharp drop in attendance and many marine parks across the U.S. announced that they would be ending their whale and dolphin programs. In 2014, The National Aquarium in Baltimore even announced that it’s eight bottlenose dolphins were being considered for retirement into coastal sea sanctuaries.
When people discovered that they weren’t just paying for their own entertainment in purchasing a SeaWorld ticket, but were paying to continue abuse and exploitation of animals, they decided to make a better choice. As SeaWorld’s profits began to dip, the park was left with no choice but to make changes. Their CEO stepped down and Joel Manby took over, anchoring in the company’s decision to end performances and stop breeding in San Diego. It might have taken years for this change to come about, but the end of San Diego’s shows marks the beginning of a positive trajectory that will one day lead to the end of marine captivity altogether.
It seems fitting that Tilikum passed away just days before the last show, closing out one of the most revealing and horrific chapters in the history of captivity. The fact is, we know how complex and emotional these animals are, yet we have perpetuated the idea that they are more valuable in tanks, jumping through hoops on command then they are in their natural ecosystem. Surely, we are not so self-centered as to assume that removing a keystone species from the wild all for “a little fun,” won’t have downstream impacts that negatively impact us in the end. Well, if there was a time this was the case, we can only hope that this new era for SeaWorld is a sign that this view is fading away.
It’s up to every single one of us to ensure that the “Blackfish Effect” continues and we reach a day where no animals are held captive for our sake. It’s time we took action to #EmptyTheTanks, we simply cannot let Tilikum’s legacy be forgotten.
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