SeaWorld San Diego's New Orca Encounter: How Different Is It?
Changes are afoot (or is it afin?) at SeaWorld, with much talk about a whole new chapter in the park's sea mammal program. We headed down to San Diego recently to see the new Orca Encounter for ourselves—to find out how big the changes are and whether they are improving life for the marine residents of SeaWorld.
There is no question that SeaWorld is a super fun destination for kids and an easy one for families to navigate. The distances between attractions are not as exhausting as Disneyland, or even as spread out as Legoland; SeaWorld is a park that can be strolled at an easy pace, with the only driving force being the schedule of the shows. The setting is lovely; there are fascinating sea animals at every turn, and even the thrill rides include marine themed educational displays. There is plenty to love about SeaWorld.
That said, some people do not love SeaWorld, out of concern for animal well-being. The park's former practices, most notably with regard to capturing and confining whales, have come heavily under fire and in some cases led to news coverage and boycotts. The good news is that SeaWorld has responded with action. The park announced major changes to its orca program earlier this year, and I came away from our recent visit with a strong sense of a protest success story: people spoke, and SeaWorld listened.
For starters, SeaWorld has not captured any sea mammals from the wild for roughly 25 years: 85% of its current orca population was born and bred at SeaWorld. Animal activists have expressed concern about the practice of breeding orcas, too, though, so SeaWorld has gone farther and announced that as of 2016 it is no longer breeding orcas either. The current orca generation, a population of 11 at SeaWorld San Diego, is the last at the park. The whales range in age from 2 to 53, so they will presumably be part of the park's population for decades to come, but there will be no new additions.
Two whales demonstrate a breech together.
The next big change is the park's focus and style of the orca presentation. The recently debuted Orca Encounter is entirely educational in nature, yet no less thrilling than the old show. An enormous screen surrounded by a waterfall displays a documentary about the orca, while one of the resident whales demonstrates salient points. Rather than jumping through hoops or propelling animal trainers around, the orca presents dramatic jumps that are in fact behaviors in the wild, while the film offers context for each move. What is a breach and why does the whale do it? The film answers the question while the orca demonstrates. When she leaps out of the water and lies on the edge, it is to line herself up next to an image of a blue whale for size comparison. And when she comes to the trainers, it is to demonstrate how the staff is able to monitor her health and well-being. Presenters also explain how the things we learn from SeaWorld's resident orcas help conservationists to better protect the population in the wild.
The show is quite different from what we had seen there years ago, and we left not only having learned quite a bit, but also feeling that SeaWorld is indeed turning over a new leaf and making a statement about its relationship with sea mammals and conservationists. The park's audience is huge and likely to remain so, and it seems to be using that platform to spread a message of environmental stewardship and responsible behavior. We thoroughly enjoyed the new show, but for extra perspective we invited friends along who have boycotted the park in the past. Our friends also enjoyed the show, were very pleasantly surprised by the changes, and came away with a new appreciation for SeaWorld.
The sea lions have something to say to everyone. Photo by the author
In between all of the educational moments in the day, we also enjoyed some great thrill rides, like the Manta and Journey to Atlantis, a good splashing on Shipwreck Rapids, and a chance to hang out watching penguins or sea lions for as long we wanted. Many of the sea lions are rescues—animals who have been stranded on SoCal shores for health reasons been deemed unsuitable for return to the wild by the National Marine Fisheries Service. SeaWorld gives these guys a new life, honking at tourists all day.
In addition to the orca show, other new features this summer are Ocean Encounter, an underwater educational ride great for families with younger kids, and Electric Ocean, a nighttime lights experience that gives the park the glow of the bioluminescent ocean. Harry Potter World isn't the only place with a new fireworks-alternative light show for SoCal families this summer.
Of course, if you and you kids were looking for something different—or additional—to do in San Diego, we could help you out with 50 other ideas of things to do there, too.
Photos by Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld San Diego unless otherwise noted