This country embraces orca shows even after the 'Blackfish' outrage
SeaWorld is winding down its killer whale shows and breeding programs in the United States, earning resounding applause from animal welfare groups. But as marine parks wither in America, they're flourishing in China, sparking fresh concerns about captive orcas in Asia.
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, the largest aquarium in China, recently debuted killer whales at the facility in Zhuhai, a city known as "China's Orlando." Trainers there swim with the black-and-white whales, while beluga whales put on dramatic shows.
Chimelong is one of 44 ocean theme parks operating throughout China, with 18 more scheduled to open soon — a 20 percent jump in just two years, USA Today reported on Sunday.
Even SeaWorld might grab a piece of China's action, though the company says it won't rejoin the orca game.
Last week, a Chinese investment group bought a 21-percent stake in the Orlando entertainment company, giving SeaWorld access to the growing Chinese tourism market, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Just as the "Shamu" show once captivated millions of U.S. audiences, sea creature performances are a major tourist draw in China. But the rapid expansion of the marine parks industry has resulted in overcrowded tanks, poor quality and other serious concerns, according to news reports.
It seems the harrowing mistakes made in the U.S. — and unveiled by the 2013 documentary Blackfish — may be repeated again in China, marine mammal experts have warned.
"They are going through a learning curve that is not necessary and completely outdated — and they're taking an enormous risk," Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., told USA Today.
"A trainer will be injured or killed sooner or later. It'd be sad because it's totally avoidable," said Rose, who recently visited China's largest marine parks.
At SeaWorld Orlando, trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in 2010 when the 12,000-pound orca Tilikum pulled her underwater in front of a horrified crowd. Tilikum, who died earlier this year, had already killed two other trainers by the time Brancheau drowned during a "Shamu" show.
After Blackfish thrust this tragedy into the spotlight, SeaWorld's ticket sales and stock price plunged year after year. In 2016, the entertainment company said it would no longer take orcas from the wild or breed killer whales in captivity.
SeaWorld also ended its long-running orca show at its San Diego park in January. Parks in Orlando and San Antonio will end their shows by 2019.
The company said it wouldn't embrace captive breeding or orca shows at any other SeaWorld location — in the United States, China or anywhere else, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
SeaWorld doesn't have imminent plans to build its own theme park within China. But its new financial arrangement with Chinese firm Zhonghong Group will open up new licensing and consulting deals within the world's most populous country. It's still unclear whether orcas and other marine mammals would be part of that expansion.
Whatever SeaWorld does in China, the company for now seems immune to the kind of post-Blackfish pressures mounting in the United States.
Dennis Speigel, president of the International Theme Park Services, a trade group, offered this good-for-business, sad-for-whales message: "The baggage that comes with the PETA and the animal activists really hasn't really rooted in China," he told the Orlando Sentinel.