Growing up in a small town in Northern Michigan, we didn’t really see a lot of sharks, or whales, or pretty much anything that couldn’t be found in the thick woodland areas that made our home such a prized destination for hunters and naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts in general. Yet for a significant portion of my childhood, I wanted to be a marine biologist and SeaWorld played a huge role in exposing me to that world.
Back when SeaWorld still had a park in Ohio, my family would take frequent trips to visit relatives in our neighboring state to the south and more often than not, we would take a day to visit SeaWorld Ohio where my cousins and I could sit for hours marveling at the Shark Encounter and learning about these fascinating, and often times dangerous creatures in that up close way that captures the attention of even the most hyperactive twelve year-olds and would leave us talking shark facts non-stop until our parents could recite every species of shark and their feeding habits no doubt in their sleep!
A few years later when they would move across the country and into a bigger house, my cousins even had their very own shark tank in their basement with live coral and the whole nine yards – a feat that I’m admittedly still quite a bit jealous about even to this day…
My point is simply that even some twenty years later when the Internet has rich multimedia available at our fingertips on nearly any topic that you can imagine, there’s something special about seeing these creatures up close and firsthand that can make the difference between a random, late night curiosity and discovering a budding career that might very well redefine the rest of your life. I’ve watched lots of YouTube videos about sharks and dolphins and killer whales, but nothing holds a candle to seeing these amazing animals swimming back and forth with only a few inches of plexiglass separating you from their worlds.
And it’s because of this that I still have to hand it to SeaWorld for making an honest effort to blur the lines between education and entertainment in their parks, particularly here in Central Florida where they’re literally surrounded by a dozen other attention-grabbing options that are no doubt just as equally eye catching, yet arguably not always with the same teachable opportunities paired with each of their shows and displays that they feature.
This is coming from a guy who would quite literally take a bullet for Walt Disney World in argument over its title of being The #1 Vacation Destination in the World … Disney has tried to come close with its own animal-themed park, a la Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but as far as I’m concerned SeaWorld still has a leg up on the Mouse with equal parts education and fun … it’s one of the few areas that I would argue, in fact, that Disney could still stand to learn a thing or two from its competition…
Of course, the big controversy that’s been plaguing SeaWorld in the spotlight once again the last couple of years with the misleading, slanderous release of the documentary Blackfish is the big question around whether killer whales and other animals should be kept in captivity at all, and my own perspective on it is pretty simple – I very strongly feel that the tradeoff is worth it, and I would suggest the same about zoos and even the circus that’s felt criticism for putting their iconic elephants on parade for crowds.
In particular for SeaWorld’s case…
Orcas are not currently an endangered species. In fact, scientists estimate a population size of roughly 50,000 globally.
SeaWorld has not captured orcas from the wild in over 35 years, both as a result of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 as well as the success of its own orca breeding program.
Its three parks across the country in total still continue to see an average of 10 million visitors each year, putting them in the position to be educational ambassadors for these unique species that most Americans would never otherwise have a chance to learn about and admire in such an engaging setting.
It’s no secret that people are more open to education when the subject matter is presented in an entertaining manner that allows each individual to connect on a personal level, whether it be getting their hands dirty for the first time on their Dad’s socket wrench in the garage or reaching out to touch a dolphin’s skin after watching them frolic and play. These types of connections can’t really be taught in the classroom, and yet SeaWorld offers its guests the chance to enrich their minds when they least expect it – when they’re on vacation, relaxing and having fun.
And it’s once that door is open that people’s curiosity is piqued to learn about all sorts of marine animals like manatees that here in Florida are frequently the victims of boat motors or sea turtles and dolphins that are threatened by fishing nets and pollutants left in the water by unsuspecting litterers. Simply being told not to throw things in the water because it’s dangerous to the wildlife is one thing, but listening to that story of the sea turtle that was rescued, but still lost a limb because it got tangled in a fisherman’s net … that’s the kind of story that sticks with a person and changes them.
So that’s why when I look at SeaWorld as both a guest and a supporter, I don’t only see controversy about whether orcas should be kept in captivity. I see incomparable educational opportunities for each and every guest that walks through the turnstiles, ready to spend a vacation day of entertainment and fun also poised to learn a thing or two in the process.
For that, I’m willing to compromise because we have to give and take on complex issues like this every single day as a society.
Life in captivity might not be equal to life in the wild for the 23 killer whales and all of the other marine animals currently residing at SeaWorld, but in exchange for the opportunity to educate millions about this entire world of incredible creatures under the sea that need our conscious help and good global citizenship in order to thrive – that’s the kind of spark that could very well breed the next generation of marine biologists who will go on to understand even more about these animals than we already know today.
It’s that potential to inspire and to educate the masses that makes the tradeoff personally ok for me.