I enjoyed my trip to Sea World yesterday, but I can’t attribute that to the park’s efforts. I went with my family – parents and little kids — and had a good time because we were together, experiencing new things (at least the pre-K’ers were). But the shows lacked the vigor I remember from my last visit in 2002. What’s changed? Is it me or the park itself?
Sea World is still located on Sea World Drive on the edge of sparklingly beautiful Mission Bay, in San Diego, California. It still has a killer whale show, a dolphin show, and a penguin exhibit where you can admire penguins above and below water from a motorized walkway. Now there are even non-sea animals: a porcupine, a monitor lizard, and a five-banded armadillo. Still, it felt different–as though Sea World was talking quickly, avoiding a difficult truth.
The dolphin show was the biggest letdown. Dolphins featured in only 10 minutes of the 25-minute show. Trainer/acrobats cavorted through the air, dove from high dives, and overall put on a show reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil: bright, active and arty. Where were the dolphins? Dolphins did show up from time to time, leaping and tail walking and spinning in circles. While the dolphin show of ten years ago focused on providing information about dolphins — this one told the audience nothing about the real-life animals. The show’s fairy tale premise was the story of a girl who became friends with a dolphin and a parrot/acrobat, and later, I think, a man who appeared from the midst of waterfall. The girl swam and conversed with her animal and human friends off and on, sometimes stood back and watched in awe as other humans dangled from trapeze-like structures suspended over the pool, and other times swam hand in flipper with her dolphin buddy. If you loved dolphins already, you were free to identify with this girl and imagine what it would be like to have a dolphin that picked you — you alone — to swim with. It was not enough for me.
A few trainers did ride the dolphins – which looked like a difficult feat. As they rounded curves holding a bridle, a leg on the back of each dolphin, they looked fair likely to fall off, but amazingly kept their balance. But the dolphins – the amazing animals I know — were absent. These were circus performers: coordinated, strong, agile. These were not the intelligent, humorous, sometimes recalcitrant beings I have grown to love — these were cardboard facsimiles.
Is Sea World in denial? Is this an attempt at rehabilitating the faltering image of dolphins as fairy tale creatures? It would seem they are avoiding addressing the truth of dolphin behavior in the wild, and sometimes even in captivity. The Sea World lawyers are aware that dolphins are not quite as harmless as they are purported to be — just a few months ago a video appeared on YouTube showing a dolphin biting the hand of a 9-year-old girl. It bit by mistake, but the girl still required stitches… and the dolphin petting pool at Sea World San Diego was no longer offering dolphin food (anchovies in a french fry tray) for sale when I visited yesterday. And it will be hard for the Sea World killer whales to soon lose the stigma of last year’s killing of a trainer by their huge male orca, Tillikum. The death wasn’t a simple knock to the head, or even death by drowning, but a long, drawn-out savagery of the dedicated and charismatic female trainer.
Killer Whale Rewarded for Good Behavior