SeaWorld continues to face a wave of backlash more than a year after a controversial documentary that criticizes its treatment of killer whales.

SeaWorld claims “Blackfish” and the ensuing fallout hasn’t hurt its bottom line at its three marine mammal parks. The numbers appear to bear that out – but that doesn’t mean some residents haven’t begun to think deeply about whether they want to keep visiting.

I’ve heard from several current SeaWorld fans and some former ones who’ve given up their annual passes.

I asked many of them to explain whether they’d changed their habits after seeing “Blackfish” and quickly discovered that many SeaWorld opponents decided to stop going years ago.

I also found another trend: Some parents of young children admitted they found “Blackfish” disturbing but decided SeaWorld’s educational offerings still make visits worthwhile.

Here’s what those current and former SeaWorld enthusiasts had to say.


‘”Blackfish” Simplifies the Animal Rights Debate’

As a college freshman, my university took us to various San Diego landmarks, and of course, SeaWorld was the most popular destination. I insisted on sitting in the Splash Zone, and nothing would keep me from seeing Shamu up close. “Blackfish” hasn’t altered my fervor, and many fellow Democrats pillory my support for an organization they feel goes against the natural order. What I find to be incredibly unnatural is the ability of some to ignore the most pressing animal and environmental rights issue before us — factory farming on a horrifying scale. I find the sensationalism driving the recent state Assembly bill, AB 2140, hypocritical. How can we ignore factory farming, which affects millions of people and expend energy on orca captivity? “Blackfish” pulls at our heartstrings with few recent facts, and has captivated our attention. I wish issues that affect our everyday life, like our food and water supply, drew the attention “Blackfish” has.

I will continue to support SeaWorld, and enjoy my front-row seats in the Splash Zone. “Blackfish” simplifies the animal rights debate into a digestible form — if only we eliminate orca captivity we won’t have to face the glaring hypocrisy in our everyday shopping. Our choices are far from clear-cut, and while I acknowledge “Blackfish” has valid points, I just can’t get on board with addressing them until we face the elephant in the room. In my opinion, my dollars are well spent at SeaWorld (and hey, that includes those $5 to feed the sea lions).

– Ashley Harrington, Scripps Ranch


‘He Told Me He Never Wanted to Go Back’

I have been going to SeaWorld since its opening. I loved it so as a child that I spent the summer 1982 working there as a sales clerk. I spent my breaks watching Shamu in his pool in between shows. I remember feeling sorry for him being in such a small pool.

Fast-forward to Oct. 27, 2013. I am at home alone, while my husband and tweener son are out and about. While channel surfing, I came across “Blackfish” on CNN, quite by accident.

“Blackfish” brought back to me in a sad, painful way all the nagging feelings I had as a teenager while observing the killer whales when I worked at SeaWorld. It occurred to me while watching “Blackfish” that my 18-year-old self could not admit to myself in 1983 that killer whales did not belong in captivity, but my 49-year-old self certainly could. I had a horrible case of the guilts.

A few days later, my 12-year-old son watched “Blackfish.” Before it ended, he told me he never wanted to go back to SeaWorld. Ever. Later that night, we both cut up our SeaWorld Fun Cards and tossed them in the trash.

I have never been a rabid animal rights person. “Blackfish” made me realize that orcas (and dolphins and smaller whales) do not belong in captivity. My financial support of SeaWorld had enabled the park to continue this practice, solely for human entertainment.

No more.

– Cindy McNary, Coronado


‘An Obligation to Preserve and Protect’

I have been taking my boys to SeaWorld for several years and will continue to do so, even after watching the documentary “Blackfish.” It was difficult to watch the stories of how they captured the killer whale. Out of frustration, I wanted to turn the show off when one gentleman says, “This is the worst thing I have ever done.”

I have two boys, 8 and 5 years old, and they love seeing and learning about animals. We watch David Attenborough documentaries at home, read books about animals and dinosaurs and have annual passes to the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld.

I want my children to continue to learn about animals and nature. I want them to have empathy toward them  – and I think that an important way to do that is through attending SeaWorld. The more they learn about the world around them, the more enriched their lives will be – and the more exposure they have to animals from around the world the more likely they are to feel an obligation to preserve and protect animals and nature.

My sons know more about Megalodon, Mako sharks and stingrays than I do. They are not afraid of these animals, they don’t want to see them extinct, mistreated or in soups. But, they need to have access and experiences with the animals to create empathy and to feel a connection with them. So, I will continue to take them to SeaWorld.

– David Fuhriman, Rancho Bernardo


‘I Want the Company to Make Changes’

I’ve lived in San Diego since 2003 and was a SeaWorld season pass holder until about 2008 when I realized that something was not right.

These beautiful orcas and dolphins (who are sentinels of the sea and highly intelligent) and other marine mammals at the park do not deserve to be treated like “circus animals.” It is not ethical to force them to do tricks for human entertainment and to be confined to such small enclosures.  We live next to the Pacific Ocean – where we can see a variety of whales, dolphins and sea lions in their natural environment!  I would consider bringing my niece and nephew back to an “evolved” SeaWorld.

SeaWorld, I ask you to stop the breeding of marine mammals, stop making them perform unnatural ‘tricks’ to loud music and loud crowds of people, and make improvements to the enclosures.  I don’t want SeaWorld to close its doors – I want the company to make changes – for those animals that are not able to be returned to the wild, create a natural reserve/habitat/sanctuary for them to retire in dignity. It’s time for a change!

– Leslie Rapp, Torrey Highlands


‘Ninety-Nine Percent Propaganda’

I have always supported SeaWorld, before and especially after “Blackfish.”  I grew up in San Diego and have been visiting the park since I was a kid. My wife and I have been season pass holders for four years and we go about six times a year.

I believe that they are and have been world leaders in marine education and conservation efforts. They are also one of the most active institutions for rescue, rehabilitation and research of many endangered sea life and marine habitats.

I believe that “Blackfish” is a movie and just that. Not a documentary. Ninety-nine percent propaganda. I don’t understand why they would even make such a film. Money? Attention?

Do I think that such large animals being kept in small tanks is cruel? Not really, but I can see how others would think it is. I do think that SeaWorld does more good than harm though. All animals are cared for greatly and we all learn more about them because of their efforts.

Do your own research and don’t fall for the heart strings that “Blackfish” pulls on.

– Dave Villagomez, Chula Vista


‘A Drawn-Out, Soul-Crushing Ordeal’

As a child growing up in and around San Diego, SeaWorld was always a destination that just sort of happened every year.

Of course we would never miss the orca show, and I never gave too much thought to the fact that these gorgeous and truly impressive animals, which – as I would learn later – in the wild traverse 40 or 50 miles per day; were being kept in what I could only compare as a large tub for 30-plus years.  During my last visit about five years ago, I began noticing my fellow crowd members at these shows. The crowd seemed mostly comprised of tourists, who I would venture to guess were not there for the science but, of course, the spectacle.

I also noticed the dialogue, which was being recited by the trainers as a series of “facts,” which always described how lucky the whales were to play and entertain the crowd for however many shows the corporation could fit in a day. It felt like I was going to see a gladiator event, except there were no quick deaths for the participants, instead, a drawn-out, soul-crushing ordeal. I’m no marine biologist, so I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the intelligence or self-awareness of these mammals, but if they are even remotely as intelligent as some scientists say, I didn’t want to continue directly funding a corporation with this business model at its heart.

– Marco Miramontes, North Park


‘The Truth Probably Lies Somewhere In Between’

I choose to still go to SeaWorld and take my 9-year-old son in spite of the “Blackfish” controversy for many reasons.

Orcas and the Shamu Show are only a tiny part of what SeaWorld does. I also believe a vast majority of “Blackfish” is propaganda created by animal-rights groups. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the squeaky clean image SeaWorld says they have and the movie.

Regardless, there is a lot of what SeaWorld does that is good; such as the countless sea lions they have rescued, rehabilitated and released back to the wild right here in San Diego.  It is also the simple things I see them do that help the environment, such as the fact they use paper straws instead of plastic because they are biodegradable and better for the environment; a practice they had in place long before “Blackfish” was created.  It seems to me “Blackfish” was created to strike right at the heart of the SeaWorld image.  I have to ask: What about the rest of the park animals? They have beluga whales, pilot whales, bottle-nose dolphins, walruses, polar bears and sea lions. What about all of those animals? If their treatment of orcas is so horrible, wouldn’t they be treating the rest just the same? Why didn’t “Blackfish” or any other documentary look at the park as a whole instead of the small portion that is Shamu?

 – Chrystal Smart, Escondido


‘There Is No Pool Large Enough to Mimic the Ocean’

I have been to SeaWorld almost every summer since childhood. I had misgivings about SeaWorld after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. I hadn’t heard of “Blackfish” until I saw it on CNN. It compelled me to research the validity of the information presented in the film, and I was surprised to discover, with little effort, that I could verify those facts.

I will never contribute to the injustice of keeping these magnificent animals in captivity again. Park guests are not privy to the inner workings of SeaWorld, such as the mother/calf separations, artificial insemination and whale aggression toward trainers, and each other.

Once you familiarize yourself with wild orca behavior, it is unconscionable that SeaWorld isolates and separates these whales for their own financial gain. Many of the whales are medicated for gastrointestinal problems, their teeth break from gnawing on metal bars or the surface of the tanks and [orcas’ teeth] are drilled and flushed regularly. These are not issues that wild orcas face.

One reoccurring argument I’ve heard is children wouldn’t love these animals if not for seeing them at SeaWorld. My children love dinosaurs, and they’ve never seen one up close. I’ve heard the argument that zoos should then be forced to close as well. Zoos provide the animals in their care with habitats as natural as possible, and they do not perform tricks for the audience. There is no pool large enough to mimic the ocean. These animals do not belong in a bathtub.

– Patty Collar, Phoenix

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – Why Some SeaWorld Opponents Still Love the Zoo – and the next in our series — What SeaWorld Can Build.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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