The announcement was rolled out to the world as a pledge. A promise.
In March 2016 SeaWorld declared it would end killer whale breeding, making the orcas in its care in the United States and abroad its last generation to live in captivity.
Later that year, California passed a law solidifying that change, banning breeding, performing and introduction of any new orcas into captivity in the state. Now advocates in Florida, home of SeaWorld's global headquarters, are pushing for the same legal protection, fearful that "corporate policy can always change," said Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Lindsay Larris.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, drafted the Florida Orca Protection Act ahead of the 2018 Legislative session but said he is still debating whether it will be one of the six bills he is limited to filing.
With SeaWorld in rebuild mode after years of decline and plummeting attendance, Larris said there's an urgency to protect orcas in Florida amid the unpredictably of a struggling, publicly held company.
But in a recent transaction that occurred across the Atlantic, done with no public announcement or fanfare, it appears SeaWorld has already acted against its own policy, the Tampa Bay Times has found.
On the Spanish island of Tenerife, SeaWorld last month surrendered six killer whales that had been on loan to Loro Parque after the zoo's president, Wolfgang Kiessling, publicly opposed the breeding ban. SeaWorld vaguely referenced the transfer in its
Nov. 7 financial report.
On Dec. 5, Loro Parque announced on its website that one of those orcas, Morgan, was pregnant, confirmed by an ultrasound "four weeks ago." Javier Almunia, director for environmental affairs of Loro Parque Foundation, confirmed to the Times on Wednesday that Morgan was impregnated by one of the two original SeaWorld males at the park.
SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor said the transfer decision was made "before anyone knew their orca was pregnant," but declined to answer when Morgan was bred and when the transfer was effective, whether this was a breach of the March 2016 policy change, or whether SeaWorld would support the proposed Florida bill.
Humane Society of the United States president Wayne Pacelle, who negotiated SeaWorld's breeding ban and announced the 2016 policy in a joint statement with the theme park, said Monday that the Loro Parque transfer "does appear to be a breach of this policy."
Pacelle said the policy held SeaWorld responsible for controlling the outcomes of their whales with lifetime care. Transferring ownership to an individual "who has a very different vision for how to care for animals," breaks that accord.
"This was the biggest threat," Pacelle said. "I think the Loro Parque circumstance is a cautionary tale, and SeaWorld should be in the forefront of supporting (the Florida legislation). I think there's a trust issue now."
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Public acceptance of keeping one of the most emotionally intelligent mammals in concrete tanks drastically shifted after the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which detailed the psychological and physical trauma of captivity. It chronicled the story of Tilikum, a SeaWorld orca that killed three people during its life. There is no documented case of an orca harming a human in the wild.
By December 2014, SeaWorld's stock price declined by 60 percent. The company faced an 84 percent drop in second-quarter income in 2015. Revenues this quarter fell to $437 million, down 10 percent from last year.
SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby acknowledged the changing attitudes in his 2016 announcement, also revealing a phase out of orca performances and replacement with an "orca experience" for visitors to view the animals in more natural presentations.
Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, said captivity even without a performance aspect has debilitating impacts on orcas, which have instincts to travel up to 100 miles a day and social bonds "that supersedes humans."
In the wild, orcas live in complex social structures revolving around a matriarch, many with offspring remaining with their mothers for life and sharing unique vocalizations within groups. In captivity, they are often separated from mothers early on, like SeaWorld's Keto, who was born at the Orlando park and moved three times before arriving at Loro Parque in 2006 at 10 years old.
MRI imaging of post-mortem brains shows killer whales have an extra lobe in the area associated with emotion not even present in humans, suggesting extraordinary capacity for processing emotions, thinking and self-awareness.
"They are animals with a level of social complexity that rivals our own culture," Marino said. "In these concrete tanks they just don't have the ability to exercise that most important part of their brains. They show all the classic signs of stress, extreme boredom and basically losing their minds."
There are 60 orcas in captivity across eight countries today, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. SeaWorld has 10 in San Diego, six in Orlando and five in San Antonio, Texas, parks. The only other orca in America is Lolita, a wild-born whale brought to Miami Seaquarium in 1970 that has lived alone in a tank only four-times the length of her body since 1980.
SeaWorld sent two males from Texas and two females from Florida to Loro Parque under a loan agreement in 2006 to help the zoo launch an exhibit. From the SeaWorld whales, the Spanish zoo bred Adan, who was born there in 2010. A second calf named Vicky died at 10 months old in June 2013.
Morgan was an injured wild orca rescued near the Netherlands and sent to Loro Parque by the Dutch government in 2011. SeaWorld claimed Morgan in an April 2013 SEC filing, when it declared "seven killer whales are presently on loan" to Loro Parque.
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As SeaWorld continues to struggle, Chinese investment firm Zhonghong Zhuoye Group acquired a 21 percent stake in the company in March, becoming the largest shareholder. Two Chinese executives now sit on SeaWorld's board, one as chairman.
It comes as China's aquarium industry is booming with 55 marine parks today and 27 under way, according to the China Cetacean Alliance.
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said that influential ownership makes codifying SeaWorld's breeding ban into law more critical. The proposed Florida bill would also prohibit the export of semen from orcas in the state and the export of Florida orcas to another country unless authorized by federal law.
"We will just wake up one morning and find (all the animals are) in China if people don't recognize that is a dire possibility," Rose said. "If in fact SeaWorld goes out of business and Zhonghong Zhuoye buys all the assets, there is nothing stopping them from shipping (animals) to China."
The law passed in California with no opposition from SeaWorld. But the path to pushing the legislation in Florida has already proven difficult.
State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, drafted the bill last year but didn't file it. Former Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, was interested in filing it in 2016 but changed her mind after meeting with SeaWorld officials, she confirmed.
Diamond, who has until Jan. 9 to file his bill, said SeaWorld has made the case to him that because it has changed its policy, there is no need for a law.
Larris, with Animal Legal Defense Fund, said that stance raises concern.
"The fact (SeaWorld) is in a state of turmoil and changing leadership, the fact they don't want to commit to this as a law, maybe tells us they are not in it for the long haul as a policy."
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As legal wrangling continues, an international group of experts is plotting a new chapter for captive whales and dolphins.
Because most captive whales cannot be reintroduced to the wild, the Whale Sanctuary Project is developing plans to build seaside sanctuaries in sites across Nova Scotia, Washington state and British Columbia.
The concept of ocean pens dozens of square acres long would require an estimated $20 million, exhaustive permitting and public buy-in. But Marino, who founded the project, predicts it could be realized within three years.
"It's an ethical question and it's one that has a foundation in science," Marino said. "It's not a question of 'Would I like to see animals in tanks or cages?' The data are in and they are all saying the same thing. They don't belong in these facilities."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.