Protesters along Sea World Drive (images by Lindsay Bullis)
  • Protesters along Sea World Drive (images by Lindsay Bullis)
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Animal-rights activists staged a demonstration at the entrance to SeaWorld on Saturday afternoon, January 11.

Approximately 50 activists brandished picket signs and formed a line along Sea World Drive on both sides of South Shores Road, the primary point of access to the amusement park's parking lot. A number of the signs urged passing motorists — including many park attendees — to boycott the park. Several other signs referred to the movie Blackfish, a 2013 documentary examining the death of a trainer working with an orca at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010.

Many of the protesters said the film's depiction of the so-called killer whales in captivity played a large part in their decisions to picket SeaWorld. They cited ethical concerns with keeping the large open-sea creatures in the relatively close confines of the parks' seven-million-gallon habitats (adults weigh up to six tons). They also referred to the film's allegations that orcas in captivity experience significantly shorter lifespans, a contention that SeaWorld has repeatedly refuted.

SeaWorld San Diego is home to ten orcas, as well as forty dolphins, three pilot whales, and nearly 10,000 other aquatic species. Many of the large mammals are trained to perform in regularly scheduled shows, and the orcas in particular seem to be immensely popular, their images prevalent in SeaWorld marketing campaigns.

The release of Blackfish and its subsequent broadcast on CNN has created a persisting public-relations problem for the SeaWorld brand. Media scrutiny of park policies toward the animals has been exacerbated by several high-profile music artists recently canceling scheduled appearances at SeaWorld parks. Performers — including country artist Willie Nelson and rock band Heart — have backed out of concerts amid the Blackfish backlash, citing ethical concerns.

A spokesperson for SeaWorld San Diego called the protesters’ claims "without merit," adding, "There is no organization more passionately committed to the physical, mental and social care and well-being of animals than SeaWorld."

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which owns the San Diego property and ten others nationwide, ran a full-page ad in several major city newspapers last month, responding to this backlash. In it, the company touted its conservation and advocacy efforts, claiming to have "rescued more than 23,000 animals with the goal of treating and returning them to the wild" during its half-century in operation.

However, both sides acknowledge that, at least in most cases, returning captive orcas to the wild is not a viable option, nor in the best interests of the animals. To that end, demonstrators held mixed views on how to address the issues they raised, ranging from establishing large sea pens as reserves for captive orcas and calling for an end to captive breeding.

Organizers Marisa Ohanian and Dana Kaiser Henry said they have been advocating for animal rights for several years, and while this demonstration had social-networking support from large animal-rights entities including PETA, the protest included mostly non-affiliated individuals. Ohanian indicated the current publicity brought about by the film impacted the timing of this and other recent demonstrations.

"With Blackfish putting pressure on SeaWorld," she said, "now is the time to keep the pressure on."

Most professed their biggest goal Saturday was to raise awareness about the documentary, which they felt would turn more people to their cause, putting social and economic pressure on SeaWorld to alter its practices. Whether they were effective remains to be seen.

A number of drivers passing by honked in approval, while few expressed opposing views with derisive shouts or gestures. For the most part, the publicity in the wake of the film does not seem to have put a dent in SeaWorld's bottom line. Monday, January 13, the company issued a press release announcing record profits in 2013, "fueled by record fourth-quarter attendance" in their parks.

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