Updated at 1:35 p.m. Nov. 9, 2015
Bowing to pressure from animal-rights groups that has hurt attendance, SeaWorld Entertainment plans to phase out its iconic killer whale show in San Diego and replace it with a conservation-oriented whale exhibit.
The Orlando-based company announced the change in strategy on Monday during a webcast for securities analysts.
SeaWorld’s stock rose 2 percent to nearly $19 after the first report of the phaseout.
Joel Manby, president and CEO, outlined a five-point plan to “stabilize and grow the company” that involves focusing on conservation, education and exploration.
“I see a company that’s focused on protecting wild animals and wild places,” he told the analysts.
As part of the change, the killer whale show that features Shamu and has been central to the San Diego park’s identity for decades will come to an end in 2016. The show will be replaced in 2017 with an “all-new orca experience” in a more natural setting that will have a “conservation message inspiring people to act.”
“We’re not limited to any one animal, to any one show, to any one attraction,” he said at the beginning of the presentation.
Last month the California Coastal Commission approved the $100 million Blue World plan to expand the killer whale tanks, but said the park could not breed the whales in captivity, a restriction that would gradually bring the shows to an end.
Manby said a third to a half of the investment planned for Blue World project would now be diverted to other uses as a result of the change to a conservation-oriented exhibit.
Manby said that over its 50-year history, SeaWorld had rescued 27,000 animals — a record he said was unequaled in the world.
“This is a very good business in a very stable industry,” he said, though “clearly we’ve had challenges the last couple of years.”
SeaWorld critics were not impressed.
Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation director of animal law, said “an end to SeaWorld’s tawdry circus-style shows is inevitable and necessary, but it’s captivity that denies these far-ranging orcas everything that is natural and important to them.”
John Hargrove, the former San Diegan who trained killer whales but later became a whistle-blower in the movie “Blackfish,” told Times of San Diego: “This is clearly nothing more than a band-aid the company was forced to use to try and win back some public support.”
Hargrove, who also wrote the critical book “Beneath the Surface,” called the proposed display “a smoke screen so they can continue to go against public outcry and legislative action and continue to unnaturally breed their orcas.”
Sara Wan, a former chairwoman of the California Coastal Commission, said: “It is difficult to know what this new ‘show’ means? Without knowing what their ‘conservation’ concept is and without knowing what the new show involves, we do not know if this is anything meaningful.”
And Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said she suspects SeaWorld might be replicating an Orlando show last year when the performance pool was closed for renovation.
“They did a more ‘informational’ presentation — no loud music, no dancing, no stadium seating – people could stay at poolside all day if they wanted, watching how the trainers did veterinary sampling, trained the animals to do new behaviors (tricks), and so on,” Rose said.
“But still – if they mean to keep breeding the whales, then what they are proposing is simply repackaging the show to something less circus-like. They aren’t really changing anything and they are, in fact, going to confuse their visitors.”
Rep. Adam Schiff on Friday announced he would introduce the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act to phase out orca captivity.
On Monday, the Burbank Democrat called SeaWorld’s decision a welcome step.
“Much more needs to be done, however, and I would urge the company to curtail the breeding of their orcas and partner in the creation of ocean sanctuaries,” Schiff said in a statement.
“The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist.”
— Ken Stone contributed to this report.
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: