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Opened in San Diego in 1964, SeaWorld became one of California’s most popular theme parks. Visitors shuttle between aquatic-themed rides, animal encounters and exhibits. However, the park’s best-known attractions are also its most controversial: live shows featuring trained dolphins, sea lions and killer whales. Since the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, SeaWorld’s treatment of its captive orcas has come under intense scrutiny and the company has been hit by falling visitor numbers and a catalogue of negative PR.
The film is a damning portrayal of the effects of keeping killer whales in captivity and charts the life of Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando that was involved in the deaths of three people, including one of its trainers during a live show. Since the release of Blackfish many animal-welfare groups have come out in support of the film, arguing that it is harmful and stressful to keep such sensitive, complex creatures inside an enclosed tank. SeaWorld issued a statement accusing the film makers of giving false and misleading information and made plans to double the size of its orca tanks. These plans are no longer going ahead; instead the park is in the process of investing $100 million in new attractions like Ocean Explorer, which will mix aquariums with digital technology, and promoting the park’s conservation efforts. As of 2017, SeaWorld has stopped breeding the whales in captivity and has said it will phase out theatrical orca shows. Whether this effort stems the tide of public criticism is yet to be seen.
Other animal enclosures inside SeaWorld include Penguin Encounter where several penguin species share a habitat that simulates Antarctic living conditions. The Wild Arctic attraction includes polar-bear, walrus and beluga-whale enclosures, and the Shark Encounter offers the chance to see different species of shark as you walk through a 57ft acrylic tunnel. There are also amusement-park-style rides available like the cable-car Bayside Skyride and the damp Shipwreck Rapids.