By Dave Schwab
The ongoing debate over keeping orcas in captivity and using them in commercial shows intensified as SeaWorld and supporters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) squared off at a Jan. 6 meeting of the Mission Bay Park Committee in Mission Beach.
SeaWorld San Diego spokesman Jerry Howes gave a brief, informational presentation to the parks committee detailing plans for the “Blue World Project,” which will nearly double the size of the marine park’s killer whale habitat by early 2018.
“The project is a master-planned expansion of the killer whale environment we have in the park right now to replace the existing pool in the same place making it 50 feet deep and 350 feet across,” said Howes, adding the park’s expansion plans will be presented to the California Coastal Commission for review later this year.
Prior to the park committee meeting, SeaWorld and PETA representatives answered questions from broadcasters outside the Santa Clara Recreation Center. Spokespersons for both groups talked about the evolving controversy over the ethics of keeping killer whales captive and profiting from their alleged commercial exploitation in public shows, brought to a flashpoint by the critical 2014 documentary “Blackfish.”
Mike Scarpuzzi, SeaWorld’s vice president of zoological operations, defended expansion plans, labeling them as “the best thing for the animals,” while dismissing PETA opposition, characterizing them as “radicals with an extreme point of view that we don’t accept.”
Asked about the timing of the orca habitat expansion, coming in the wake of public blowback from “Blackfish” and declining profits from SeaWorld’s three U.S. marine parks, Scarpuzzi said it was “more coincidental than anything.”
“I’ve been here almost 40 years and there’s always ebbs and flows in any business,” said Scarpuzzi. “There’s no doubt in my mind that SeaWorld is going to be strong and we’re going to continue.”
Scarpuzzi added this is the fourth expansion of SeaWorld’s orca habitat. He pointed out development of large-scale projects like Blue Ocean “take time,” adding “we’ve been talking about this expansion for many years.”
Matt Bruce, a PETA campaigner, saw the situation differently.
“[The expansion] is fluff for visitors and does nothing for the orcas who are still confined to small, barren concrete tanks that they have to swim in in circles with chemically treated water,” said Bruce. “Doubling the size of the tanks — even if you make the prison bigger it’s still a prison.”
Bruce said killer whales dive up to 1,000 feet deep in the wild and swim up to 100 miles a day.
“They would have to swim 1,500 laps in their expanded tanks to approximate what they would swim in the wild,” Bruce said. “So this isn’t anything to do with making lives better for these animals.”
SeaWorld’s Scarpuzzi said the successful breeding of orcas — now in its fourth generation with the birth of a baby just over a month ago — shows the animals are not suffering.
“Killer whales don’t breed if they’re unhappy,” Scarpuzzi said. “These animals were born and raised here, and now they have their families here.”
Asked his impression of “Blackfish,” Scarpuzzi said, “They surrounded one truth with a lot of misconceptions and lies. Yes, somebody died, but all the rest … is a lot of misrepresentations and frankly, a lot of lies.”
Scarpuzzi said the marine park’s main concern is “about our animals and giving them the best environment we possibly can.”
Asked about SeaWorld’s description of them as “radical,” PETA’s Bruce said, “There’s nothing radical about caring for these animals, wanting them to be left in the wild to live their lives as nature intended. What is radical is capturing these animals in the wild, artificially inseminating them and forcing them to live in small tanks that are the human equivalent of a bathtub, then forcing them to do tricks for crowds of screaming people.”
Bruce said what PETA ought to be doing, if it really cares about its killer whales, is to “fund creation of coastal sanctuaries” where whales can have “a semblance of a natural life.”
—Dave Schwab is a freelance writer in San Diego.