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SeaWorld San Diego Ends Killer Whale Show

| by Kathryn Schroeder

SeaWorld in San Diego, California, will host its final killer whale performance on Jan. 8,  two days after Tilikum, the whale that killed a park trainer and was the subject of the controversial documentary “Blackfish” that highlighted SeaWorld’s treatment of captive whales, died on Jan. 6.

In 2015, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. President and CEO Joel Manby said the San Diego park would replace its signature theatrical killer whale show with one that focuses on preservation and the natural behavior of orcas, according to Reuters. 

SeaWorld announced, in cooperation with The Humane Society of the United States, in March 2016 that it would no longer breed its orcas in captivity and won’t obtain additional killer whales from other sources, according to A Humane Nation. That decision came months after the California Coastal Commission voted to bar the company from breeding killer whales in the state, Reuters reports.

Tilikum died on Jan. 6 after suffering an on and off again lung infection since March 2016, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The roughly 36-year-old whale had been performing at SeaWorld Orlando until late 2016.

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The whale was well-known for drowning Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at the Orlando park, to death in 2010, and for being at the center of “Blackfish" in 2013.

"While today is a difficult day for the SeaWorld family, it’s important to remember that Tilikum lived a long and enriching life while at SeaWorld and inspired millions of people to care about this amazing species,” SeaWorld said in a statement. “Tilikum's life will always be inextricably connected with the loss of our dear friend and colleague, Dawn Brancheau. While we all experienced profound sadness about that loss, we continued to offer Tilikum the best care possible...”

“Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite offered a different sentiment in a statement to TIME regarding Tilikum’s life, stating he died a “martyr.”

“Tilikum lived a horrible life," she said. "He lived an incredibly tragic life in captivity from the moment he was plucked from the ocean. He experienced horrific pain. He caused unspeakable pain. At least now there’s no more suffering from him.”

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The final show on Jan. 8 will close out the killer whale performances at SeaWorld San Diego that the park has featured since the 1960s. Beginning Jan. 9, the park will feature an educational orca program, with an underwater viewing area where guests will watch a presentation on the animals.

Later in 2017, a larger educational program, Orca Encounter, will debut in San Diego.

“You will still see a whale leaping out of the water,” Al Garver, a former orca trainer and vice president of zoological operations, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “We want to be able to demonstrate behaviors people would see in the wild with the killer whales and their abilities as a top predator in the sea. The vast majority of behaviors people have seen in our shows will be very suitable for demonstrating that.”

SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio will also have the new show by 2019.

Activists, including Cowperthwaite, who want SeaWorld to release the more than 20 orcas it has at its three parks into coastal sanctuaries will not see that happen, Reuters reports. The company contends that since the whales were born or raised in captivity, then they would likely die in the wild.

Sources: Reuters, The San Diego Union-Tribune, TIME, A Humane Nation / Photo credit: John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune

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