Thoughts about SeaWorld never stray far from Dawn

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

No matter where my family and I went Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando, I thought about Dawn Brancheau.

In the morning, we stopped and gawked at a dozen or more dolphins swimming leisurely along in their open-air enclosure.

I thought of Dawn.

We watched a SeaWorld caretaker bottle feed a rescued baby manatee, who is destined to be released back into the wild.

I thought of Dawn.

We saw a 3D sea turtle film at the Turtle Trek exhibit, and we saw a rescued turtle with paralyzed rear flippers thriving in that environment, and we listened to (and approved of) SeaWorld Entertainment’s message to “be an everyday hero” when it comes to sharing the world with marine animals.

I thought of Dawn.

A SeaWorld trainer interacts with a killer whale at Shamu Stadium after the performance on Wednesday.

At Shark Encounter, I thought of her. At the Antarctica section of the park, even as we froze our toes in the penguin exhibit, Dawn was never far from my thoughts.

Occasionally, I checked my iPhone for updates on SeaWorld Entertainment’s tumbling stock, a result of a worse-than-expected second-quarter earnings report. I checked Twitter and other online channels and was not at all surprised to see anti-captivity activists revel in the apparent public rebuke of SeaWorld’s practices regarding the company’s trained killer whales and dolphins in Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego and other marine parks around the world.

I thought about Blackfish, the compelling documentary that attempts to indict SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas.

I thought about the passionate entreaties and the harsh vitriol I’ve read on Twitter and Facebook and at animal activist sites like the Dodo and PETA-backed SeaWorld of Hurt.

I thought about SeaWorld’s detailed online response to those claims, and I thought about how frustrating it must be to SeaWorld that its message of animal rescue and environmental conservation has been largely lost in the public discourse in the wake of Blackfish.

Shamu Stadium was packed for the Wednesday afternoon performance of One Ocean, SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale show.

Then we watched the orca show at Shamu Stadium, where the killer whales jumped out of the water while trainers danced and gestured and tossed fish into open orca mouths. The performing killer whales also used their tails to splash spectators in the first few rows.

The stadium was packed.

I kept looking for Tilikum, the 12,000-pound killer whale that killed Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010. I thought about Tilikum in his holding pen somewhere behind the main performing pool. I wondered if he was listening. I wondered if he was watching.

I thought about the three people whose deaths were attributed to interaction with Tilikum – Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes and Dawn Brancheau.

I mostly thought about Dawn, who died only yards away from the stadium where thousands of spectators cheered other killer whales jumping and splashing on Wednesday.

I thought about the arguments against keeping marine animals in captivity. I thought about how millions of people would never see these animals up close if not for SeaWorld, and how seeing these animals up close makes them real, and how proximity can engender empathy.

I thought about my sons, both of whom love animals.

After the show, a few handlers demonstrated to our group how the killer whales have been trained to respond to signals requesting that they provide urine and blood samples used to monitor their health. One trainer narrated, while a handful of others interacted with the orcas.

Later, I talked to Craig Thomas, a 28-year SeaWorld veteran who responded to the alarm the night Dawn died (click here for a transcript of my interview). He used to work with Tilikum. Now, Craig Thomas is the assistant curator of Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando.

The whole time I talked to Craig Thomas, I thought of Dawn.

I thought about how both sides in this controversy have interpreted Dawn’s legacy. SeaWorld Orlando named its education center after her and holds an annual 5K run/walk in her honor. The makers of Blackfish and the adherents to its message have turned Dawn’s death into a rallying point for the anti-captivity cause.

I thought about all the subpoenas and legislation and the political back and forth. The impassioned pleas and boycotts on one side. The defensive posturing by a corporate giant that has done what it does for 50 years, and only now has begun to acknowledge that things must change. Change means significantly larger killer whale enclosures in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, along with a $10 million matching donation for killer whale research.

I thought about all of that, and about Dawn, and about how parents can explain the issue to their kids.

Many might simply say SeaWorld is in the wrong, that it is morally reprehensible to use sentient creatures like dolphins and killer whales to make money by amusing the masses.

Others might say that the animal rescue efforts SeaWorld undertakes, and the message of conservation that SeaWorld advocates, are worth talking about, worth preserving. And that the way to bring attention to those efforts and that message is to expose as many people as possible to the beauty and intelligence of killer whales and dolphins – that the shows make it real for millions of people.

Opposing ideals, opposing ideologies. Both compelling, both important.

I prefer to think about Dawn, and to share the message of the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, which is “dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need.” I’ll think about Dawn’s family, which issued this statement about Blackfish. It reads, in part: “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

I’ll share the facts with our children, who are not too young to start thinking about the welfare of these wonderful animals we are so fortunate to see up close. I’ll let them know some people think it’s wrong to put animals in cages, while others believe that as long as the animals are properly cared for and treated with dignity, there is a place for zoos and marine parks in our society.

I’ll tell them about Dawn. And I hope when they think about all of this, they think about her, too.

SeaWorld

The memorial plaque at the Dawn Brancheau Education Center, SeaWorld Orlando.

Disclosure: I was invited to experience behind-the-scenes tours at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa for purposes of learning about SeaWorld Entertainment’s conservation, rescue and veterinary care programs, as well as the entertainment component of the park’s marine mammals and other animals. Opinions are solely those of the author.

 

Sea World Spooktacular: Get there early to beat the crowd

Sea World Spooktacular

Our boys very much enjoyed their first visit to Sea World. The Spooktacular Halloween event only made it more memorable. And more bubbly.

Our family was invited to Sea World this past Saturday to experience the first weekend of the annual Spooktacular Halloween event. It was our sons’ first trip to Sea World, and the first trip for Beth and me since summer 2005.

I’ll say this up front: Our boys, a 7-year-old second grader and a 5-year-old kindergartner, loved every minute. They already were asking when we’d be back before we left the parking lot on the way out.

That said, let me add: Bubbles! Holy Mother of Shamu, there were so many bubbles. So many.

Bubbles.

And I get it. The whole scene is supposed to be an undersea Halloween adventure. As they put it in the news release: “An ocean of Halloween fun.”

B.

U.

B.

B.

L.

E.

S.

There were more than a few. And you know what? Our kids loved those, too.

Sea World

Did I mention there were bubbles?

Before getting into the day’s highlights, I’ll bottom line the Sea World Spooktacular here. The event, which takes place weekends throughout October, is OK for all elementary school-age kids, but is probably best suited for kids between 4 and about 8 or an early 9. It’s included with park admission, which is a nice bonus considering how much extra other parks charge for their Halloween special events.

As I mentioned, our sons loved the event and the park, so I can definitely recommend it for families with younger elementary- or preschool-age kids.

We got to the park around noon, which was definitely the right time to arrive. The lines for trick-or-treating and animal interactions were still relatively short when we went through. Later in the day, as we passed back by the areas we’d already visited, the lines stretched down the walkway. So, get there early. It was extremely crowded the day we were there, and because we aren’t regular Sea World attendees, I don’t know if that’s the norm. If so, prepare yourself for slow progress from area to area.

Photo Highlights of Sea World’s Spooktacular Halloween Event:

Sea World Spooktacular

Spooktacular is good for kids 4-8. Just make sure you get there early enough to beat the long lines for trick-or-treating.

Sea World

The boys met a possum and a beautiful eagle.

Sea World

The early trick-or-treat lines were virtually non-existent. We went past this one a couple of hours later and the line stretched down the walkway. Get there early!

Sea World

Waiting for Shamu!

Sea World

Orca leaping. When asked later to name the highlight of the day, our 7-year-old didn’t hesitate: the whale show.

Sea World

There are paid games and free arts and crafts, as well as interaction with costumed undersea characters at Penelope’s Party Zone. Our boys enjoyed decorating the gigantic sugar cookies (this activity costs extra).

 

Sea World

The entrance to Antarctica illustrates how dense the crowd got at times. The wait for the Empire of the Penguin ride was an hour, so we gave it a pass this time around. Really, I can’t emphasize enough: Get there early!

Sea World

Did our boys enjoy their first visit to Sea World? Well, this photo was taken at the six-hour mark of our trip. They look pretty happy to me!

Disclosure: Our family was admitted to Sea World at no cost for one day in order to experience the Spooktacular event and the park itself for review purposes. All editorial content and opinions are those of the author.