SeaWorld to replace Shamu show with new orca attraction

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SAN DIEGO -- Faced with mounting public and regulatory pressure over its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld officials announced Monday they plan to phase out the popular Shamu shows at its San Diego park.

SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby made the announcement during a webcast for investors, saying the shows will be replaced with a conservation- oriented orca exhibit beginning in 2017. The new exhibit will be built partially with funds that had been earmarked for a $100 million "Blue World'' expansion of the park's orca tanks.

The theatrical whale show in San Diego will be phased out next year, and the new "orca experience'' will have a "conservation message inspiring people to act.''

"In 2017, we will launch an all-new orca experience,'' Manby said. "It's going to be focused more on the natural setting, natural environment and also the natural behaviors of the whale. It'll have a strong conservation message. And that means that 2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience called One Ocean.''

SeaWorld has suffered dipping attendance since the release of the documentary film "Blackfish,'' which focused on the treatment of orcas at the park.

"We are listening to our guests we are evolving as a company we’re always changing," said Manby.

The San Diego theme park took another hit last month when the California Coastal Commission approved the "Blue World'' expansion of its killer whale exhibit but ordered an end to the breeding of captive orcas at the park. That ban would also eventually phase out the Shamu exhibit.

SeaWorld officials said they plan to challenging the commission's ruling.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who has been vocal about banning orcas at SeaWorld, said today's announcement by SeaWorld officials contradicts their earlier contention that the company could not be profitable without the Shamu shows.

"The public pressure on SeaWorld to stop the Shamu shows became the exact reason why the company's profitability was at risk,'' she said. "Clearly, SeaWorld can move away from being a giant circus that harms animal life and still have a viable business model.''

On Friday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, announced plans to introduce legislation that would ban the captivity of orcas.

Jill Kermes, senior corporate affairs officers for SeaWorld Entertainment, said the proposed legislation is misguided, saying SeaWorld and other science-based groups "are part of the solution, not the problem.''

"Killer whales at SeaWorld are healthy and thriving and through conservation and rescue efforts as well as significant work to advance the scientific understanding of orcas and other marine mammals, SeaWorld is a leader in protecting and preserving these species,'' Kermes said.

"We have not captured a whale in the wild in 35 years -- and we will not do so,'' Kermes said. "Through our work with scientists, conservation leaders and the government, SeaWorld is ensuring that all animals in human care are treated with the dignity and respect they require and deserve.''

Schiff said SeaWorld's announcement today is 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. "The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist.''

Jared Goodman, director of animal law for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said stopping the shows is a necessary step, but ending captivity is ultimate goal.

"This move is like no longer whipping lions in a circus but keeping them locked inside cages for life or no longer beating dogs but never letting them out of crates,'' Goodman said. " ... That's why PETA is calling on SeaWorld to stop breeding orcas and start building sea sanctuaries where they can experience an actual natural setting and finally thrive.''

Sea World San Diego executives were scheduled to address the media regarding the new attraction Monday afternoon, but cancelled at the last minute.

"I just have all the happy memories of all the kids watching the show," said Mary Jane Cabrera.

The Cabreras are visiting Sea World San Diego this week, daughter Jocyelyn said she was looking forward to seeing One Ocean.

"It's just magical," said Jocelyn.  "I'm glad I get to see it again, but I do wish more kids could get that experience."

The Cabreras said they will miss the show, but what's most important is Sea World continue its work in conservation.

"I'm always proud of what Sea World does in nature and how many animals it rescues," said Mary Jane.

Jocelyn said even if the Orcas don't have a stage, she's sure they'll be making a splash in a whole new way.

"Maybe it's for the better, because if they're going to do more enrichment things, I could see that going a good place," said Jocelyn.

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