Carl Lum began as SeaWorld San Antonio’s new president just weeks before the company announced it would stop breeding killer whales and end its signature Shamu orca shows, following years of public pressure and falling revenue.
“It was a very tough decision to make, but public perceptions have changed about having killer whales in theatrical shows,” says Lum. “We’ve changed, we’ve made those announcements that go with that. It’s been 8 to 1 positive in our polling where the public has perceived ‘that was a really good decision and we’re glad you’re moving that way.’”
SeaWorld San Antonio is retooling for an orca-free future with more roller coasters and a focus on conservation. Lum says more educational programs will replace Hollywood-style orca shows in the next three years. A fourth roller coaster is in development.
“Starting in spring, we’re going to open Wave Breaker, which is a coaster,” says Lum. “But as part of the ride on the coaster, it tells the story to the guest about our sea rescue brand.”
Lum says the new SeaWorld will tell guests more about the company’s efforts to protect animals in the wild. And the park will continue to expand experiences that have nothing to do with marine mammals—like Halloween and Christmas programming. But as long as captive killer whales are on display at the park, pressure from animal rights group isn’t going away.
"The scariest thing this Halloween at Sea World is their cruel treatment of orcas,” says Matt Bruce, a campaigner with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—standing beside 38 cardboard tombstones just outside of the SeaWorld San Antonio entrance.
“Each one of these grave stones represents an orca who died a premature death--and many in very gruesome ways,” says Bruce. “So we’re encouraging people to continue their boycott of Sea World until they retire these orcas to seaside sanctuaries.”
PETA is one of several groups protesting Sea World, especially since the death of an orca trainer in 2010 and the release of the documentary film Blackfish in 2013. Local activist Jim Graham, who is not a member of PETA, has been regularly protesting outside of SeaWorld San Antonio.
“We appreciate them stopping the orca shows,” says Graham. “We appreciate them stopping the breeding. But it is so wrong to keep these magnificent animals in captivity that stay together for life in a pod as a family. They can swim 30 to 40 miles a day. They can dive 100 feet a day. Here, they’re contained in a cement pond and that is their life.”
Inside San Antonio’s Shamu Stadium, trainers are feeding the park’s 5 killer whales. Assistant curator Julie Sigman says the whales here were all born in captivity—and couldn’t survive out in the ocean.
“The care that we have given them and continue to give them hasn’t changed the entire time that I’ve been here,” Sigman says. “Yes, public outcry seems to have stemmed from the 2013 release of Blackfish, but we haven’t changed at all in terms of how we feel about these animals, how we want to always, always, always do better for them.”
Sigman will be a part of planning the new, more “natural” and “respectful” orca show to appease park guests, but she and fellow trainers won’t change much else.
“What type of presentation we end up doing for the guest doesn’t change how we care for the animals.”
One of those killer whales, Takara, is pregnant and due in April. That means San Antonio will be home to the final orca calf born under Sea World’s care.