SeaWorld debuts new educational orca show, replacing former controversial attraction

The killer whale program has courted controversy since "Blackfish."

May 30, 2017, 8:11 AM

— -- The much-anticipated, revamped killer whale show at SeaWorld San Diego debuted this weekend, replacing the previous attraction that had generated controversy for years from animal rights activists.

The new show, called "Orca Encounter," includes a film about the animals' behavior, and places a high emphasis learning more about the marine predators. While the orcas do splash the audience, the show is vastly different from the parks' long-running spectacle of the past, where the whales would perform tricks, and trainers would ride the wales and swim with them underwater.

Lindy Donahue, an animal behaviorist at SeaWorld, told ABC News that "the animals are happy," and the work the park has done in recent years to accommodate the animals "is absolutely enough."

Donahue added that she believed the whales at SeaWorld were living a happy, full life.

"People need to learn about the animals otherwise they won't learn to protect them," she added.

Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, echoed Donahue's sentiment that people need to see whales in order to understand why their conservation is important.

"We have to understand something, touch the heart to teach the mind," Hanna said today on "Good Morning America." "We have to understand what these whales are. No one can see a whale. If you see a whale, you fall in love with these animals, they’re beautiful."

Hanna called the film shown during "Orca Encounter" about orcas' behaviors "absolutely unbelievable." He also commended SeaWorld on how they treat the whales while conducting important research.

"These animals are born in a beautiful situation at SeaWorld," Hanna said. "They have every kind of care there is. They take care of these animals better than most people throughout the world. They’re happy animals."

He added, "SeaWorld will always be a repository of the ocean world and of whales. No one, after 50-something years of research, can ever top that."

So far, the new show has received mixed reviews, with people posting reactions on social media that range from "poignant" to "boring."

The park announced last year that it would no longer breed its orcas, following years of protests from animal rights activists.

The new orca show also comes after the park's revenue and attendance has suffered since the release of the 2013 documentary film, "Blackfish," which chronicled the life of an orca named Tilikum, who was responsible for the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. The film critically examined the treatment of whales in captivity, and led to boycott calls and protests of the marine park.

The film's director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, told ABC News that she believes SeaWorld has made some progress with its new show, but has not gone far enough.

"They are still in concrete tanks," Cowperthwaite said of the orcas' conditions at SeaWorld. "My overall hope would be that SeaWorld will embrace the opportunity to truly evolve and to retire these whales into seaside sanctuaries."

"They'd be in the ocean and still cared for by human beings, but it would be the best way that we could possibly approximate the natural environment for these whales," Cowperthwaite added, saying that option is "The best we can do as humans, and we can give them a dignified retirement."

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