Human Journey

California bans orca breeding and entertainment, SeaWorld feels the bite of public opinion

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Orca off Davenport, California. Credit: Carl Safina
Orcas off Davenport, California. Credit: Carl Safina

When Governor Jerry Brown signed new legislation last week banning orca breeding and theatrical performances in California, effective June 2017, he did something huge: he put an official beginning to the end of using captive killer whales for entertainment in his state.

And wildlife advocates say he’s possibly done something even bigger. He may have sparked the end to the practice of holding orcas and other cetaceans in captivity across the country.

California Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) wrote the bill, which was co-sponsored by the Animal Welfare Institute, Samantha Berg, Carol Ray and John Hargrove. Besides outlawing orca breeding and theatrical performances, the so-called Orca Protection Act also bans the transportation of orcas to entertainment facilities in other states and foreign countries.

Shamu performing at SeaWorld San Diego, 2009. Credit: Yathin S. Krishnappa (Wikimedia Commons)
Shamu performing at SeaWorld San Diego, 2009. Credit: Yathin S. Krishnappa (Wikimedia Commons)

As a result of the law, only the 11 orcas now kept at SeaWorld in San Diego will remain in captivity. SeaWorld will no longer be able to use the orcas at their San Diego facility for entertainment purposes, but will be permitted to continue orca shows if they are educational in nature. This comes on top of SeaWorld’s announcement earlier this year that it would end its captive orca-breeding program, declaring the generation of orcas currently in its facilities across the U.S. its last.

Nonprofits the Whale Sanctuary Project and Animal Welfare Institute are now currently pushing to move captive orcas and other cetaceans to seaside sanctuaries where they could live in a more natural habitat and have more autonomy to live out lives as the wild animals they are. These sanctuaries would be closed-off coves and inlets where the formerly captive creatures can live out their lives without being exposed to potential dangers—such as boats and other wild animals—to which they have not ever been exposed.

“An important feature of [the Orca Protection Act] is that it does permit the transport of orcas to other facilities in North America,” said Dr. Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project, an organization working to place now-captive orcas in seaside sanctuaries. “This will facilitate ongoing efforts to develop seaside sanctuaries for these animals as an alternative to living in tanks.”

Trua, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando, in his tank. Credit: Gordon2448 (Wikimedia Commons)

Currently the Whale Sanctuary Project is evaluating potential orca sanctuary sites in Nova Scotia, Maine, Washington and British Columbia. According to Carl Safina, an ecologist and author of Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, a book about animal sentience and emotion, support for these sanctuaries and legislation aimed at protecting orcas currently in captivity—and preventing future generations from becoming captive—reflects a major shift in public opinion about animal welfare.

“SeaWorld is certainly feeling the bite of public opinion,” says Safina. “Though they could carry on elsewhere with breeding and trans-shipping, they’d be wise to emphasize other aspects of their entertainment. In the U.S and most of the West, we’ve learned from 40 years of captive whales why there should be no whale captives. I am concerned about places like China and Russia, for whom animals are just commodities like they were in the U.S in the 1960s, ‘70s. But we will work on that awareness, too. Persistence is important now.”

Carl Safina is author of seven books, including Song for the Blue Ocean, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View From Lazy Point. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. A winner of the 2012 Orion Award and a MacArthur Prize, among others, his work has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN.com and The Huffington Post, and he hosts “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. The paperback version of Safina's seventh book, "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," is available in stores July 12, 2016.
  • copyedit

    “he put an officially beginning to the end of using captive killer whales for entertainment in his state.” Typo?

  • Kirk

    Trua is a boy. It says “In her tank” in the caption

  • Jocye Parks

    This has been needed since the first capture. Many of these whales have died because of captivity, families torn apart, and food withheld till they performed properly. Yea for CA legislators, AWI and Whale Sanctuary for preparing for marine animals to have a place to live out the remain of their psychologically changed lives.

  • Craig Shapiro

    This legislation sets a historic precedent, but SeaWorld still doesn’t get why it is feeling the bite of public opinion. No one wants to see captive orca–those who are being held now could spend decades in their concrete prisons–or see orca shows no matter how they’re peddled. There’s nothing educational about them. That’s why visitors are staying away from the park, and they won’t return until SeaWorld takes its eyes off the bottom line and releases the orcas to coastal sanctuaries.

  • Craig Shapiro

    This legislation sets a historic precedent, but SeaWorld still doesn’t get why it is feeling the bite of public opinion. People are sick of seeing captive orcas–those who are being held now could spend decades in their concrete cells–and they don’t want to see orca shows, no matter how they’re peddled. There is noting educational about them. Visitors will continue to stay away until SeaWorld takes its eyes off the bottom line and releases the orcas to coastal sanctuaries,

  • amydonovan

    This is a huge victory that has been a long time coming, but we can’t lose sight of the remaining orcas, otters, bottle nose dolphins, Beluga whales and more, who are still being held captive. All of these marine mammals deserve to be retired to seaside sanctuaries and SeaWorld needs to permanently shutter it’s parks.

  • amydonovan

    This is a HUGE victory, but we cannot lose sight of the remaining sea mammals who are still being held captive. They need to be retired to seaside sanctuaries and SeaWorld needs to permanently close all of it’s parks.

  • KimMarie

    I think it’s sad that SeaWorld doesn’t get that if they retired their marine animals to reputable coastal sanctuaries and employed cutting-edge technology to teach the public about marine animals they could keep their business and do some good in the world.

  • FashionFan

    Another nail in the coffin. Let’s shut this hellhole down.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media