A group of 80-100 protesters stood just outside SeaWorld California on Easter, April 20, lining the edges of the sidewalk from the lights directing the cars to a distance stretching farther than a SeaWorld tank could ever hope to reach. The bushes just outside the chain-link fences of the park were littered with plastic bags and discarded trash. A few protesters looked at the filth in disgust. A few others, just joining the group, walked over with a red light glaring above them to grab a sign, hoping the words would awaken passersby. As the light changed to green, cars whizzed on by, obeying the command.
And suddenly traffic came to a halt, the red light ordering the cars to stop. Liz Jacobelly, a San Diego resident and long-time protester, dashed to the first car in line with leaflets in hand. The window of the car slowly opened and a hand reached out to grab the dangling piece of paper. The person gave his thanks and rolled the window back up, but his curiosity was aroused.
Jacobelly moved to the next car in line. The light remained red, though the sun slightly dimmed its color. Again the leaflet was taken. The person, though curious, still remained silent and rolled up the window.
The cycle repeated again. The cars in the first two lanes moved forward and drove into the entrance of SeaWorld. A scream resonated from the park as people dropped from the top of Journey to Atlantis, then faded into silence as they splashed down to the ground.
Every now and then, a honk or two would sound over the roaring cars, someone understanding what lay behind the chain-link fence. After half an hour had passed, the number of honks grew, as if more people had become awake. Protesters of all ages continued to file in.
Jazmin Vasquez, age 11, and her sister Alexis, age 9, drove down from Temecula after watching Blackfish and telling their parents about the protest. Jazmin is writing a report for her school, Santa Rosa Academy, that states killer whales and their smaller cousins are locked up when they “deserve to be in the wild.”
She also is writing a letter to SeaWorld, describing how much she enjoyed the park at the time, how she loved the grace and beauty of the dolphins performing until she realized what lay behind the once-opaque curtain.
A few years passed after the family’s last visit to SeaWorld until Jazmin was in third or fourth grade. The next time she asked to visit the park, her mother said “no,” explaining that she had just watched The Cove, a documentary exposing the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. Not understanding what the movie was about, Jazmin pushed it aside. But in the fifth grade, her curiosity peaked and she looked up the documentary on the internet, finding out the truth.
From September through March, dolphins are driven into a small cove. Trainers fly into Taiji to select dolphins best suited for captivity, while the rest are left behind and slaughtered. The methods used are illegal even by Japanese law, despite recent modifications after the release of The Cove.
“I had no idea anything this bad could be in?icted on innocent beings,” Jazmin said. The documentary increased both her and her sister’s awareness on the cruelties behind the captive industry. SeaWorld took dolphins from Taiji until 1991 when it was made illegal in the United States, and has since remained silent about the slaughter. Jazmin and Alexis canceled their annual passes to SeaWorld and vowed never to return.
Before coming to the protest, Alexis created a petition for her school, demanding that holding orcas in captivity for entertainment be made illegal according to AB 2140, a bill recently put on interim study after a hearing in Sacramento. The bill would end the use of orcas for entertainment, SeaWorld’s breeding program, and release all orcas into sea pens or the wild if possible.
50 students from Santa Rosa Academy signed the petition. Alexis also asked her principal if she could place signs around the school, reading, “Don’t go to SeaWorld, captivity kills!”
After the words flew passionately from her mouth, Alexis and Jazmin joined the protest again. Cars continued to whiz by, only catching a glimpse of the orca crammed into a fishbowl on Alexis’s sign.
According to the NOAA, killer whales are held in tanks one ten-thousandth the 45.3 billion gallons of water, or 80 miles, they traverse a day in the wild. Orcas live far shorter in captivity than they do in the wild, rarely living over the age of 15. They are trapped in a small, confined environment facing extreme stress.
To counter this, they are fed Tagamet – a pill used to treat stress and ulcers – with their daily diet. In addition, it was recently revealed from court documents that orcas are given benzodiazepine as a sedative drug. According to the Daily Mail, it has been proven to cause “panic attack[s], out-of-body experiences, and muscle spasms” in humans. SeaWorld continues to argue that their whales are healthy and happy. In the wild, no cetacean needs a drug to be healthy.
It is no wonder these magnificent creatures, who have only attacked a human once in the wild, have attacked their trainers in over 110 instances as well as their tank-mates. They are psychologically distressed.
After seeing captive cetaceans at SeaWorld in 1980, Lindsy Van Gelder, a resident in Hillcrest, spent time kayaking with dolphins in the wild. She noticed that seeing them in captivity failed to compare with their grace and beauty in the ocean.
“How would you feel if you were locked up inside a cage?” Van Gelder said, frustrated.
Orkid, one of the captive-born orcas at SeaWorld San Diego, has attacked trainers on multiple occasions. According to the Vindicator, a newspaper in Liberty, Texas, she had to watch her mother, Kandu V, bleed to death 24 years ago when she was less than a year old. Kandu attempted to rake Corky II and fractured her jaw, severing several arteries. Kandu and Corky were both captured from different geographical locations and behaved poorly towards each other.
According to Dr. Naomi Rose, one of the top orca biologists, and John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer, “these incidents [orcas attacking trainers] occur not because captive orcas are crazed killers, but because captivity puts trainers in unnatural proximity to the ocean’s top predator, in circumstances where these intelligent animals become frustrated and bored.”
For weeks after her mother’s death, Orkid circled around the pool, calling out and vocalizing in distress. Yet in shows after the incident the crowd clapped and cheered as she performed without her mother, as if her death was completely forgotten. But Orkid, one of the smartest cetaceans currently held in captivity (in terms of learning trained behaviors), still remembers.
52 of SeaWorld’s orcas have died, not a single one due to natural causes. When another orca is born, they are given the stage name Shamu, covering up the death of their predecessors. As a SeaWorld trainer put it when Kandu died, “The best thing we can think of to do is to get back into some sort of normal routine.”
Despite these efforts throughout SeaWorld’s history to restore order, many have turned against the park before Blackfish came out, even before Orkid was born. Ellen Ericksen, organizer of the protest on Sunday and life-long activist for both human and animal rights, said that for the past 30-40 years people have been knocking on SeaWorld’s door.
“The animals need us,” Ericksen said, saddened. “There’s no one to help them. They can’t speak for themselves. I think we were put on this planet to be their voices and that’s why we have a voice and they don’t – and because we have a voice, we need to use it for them.”
Initially, Ericksen’s mission was to shut SeaWorld down, but experience taught her that realistically that is not going to happen. They have a right to run a business, significantly contribute to local rescue and release, and help the local economy.
However, Ericksen adamantly believes the marine park should change its business model, ending the use of captive orcas – and all cetaceans – for entertainment and releasing those currently held captive into sea pens. SeaWorld, according to Ericksen, can still provide an educational environment for children that actually portrays the animals in their natural habitat, instead of performing tricks for a crowd.
“I think most people come to SeaWorld because they love the animals,” Ericksen said. “They’re not thinking, ‘Oh, let’s go to SeaWorld and see animals who are being abused.’”
Instead of this abuse, SeaWorld could display IMAXs, have trips to the tide pools, have their own whale watching boat for visitors, and still keep their rides and benefit the city from their sales and minimum rent of $10 million each year. They could become a true leader in rescue and rehabilitation, and finally speak out against the slaughter in Taiji, instead of remaining silent.
“It’s time for them to change,” Ericksen said, angered and restless.
“They [people visiting SeaWorld] don’t get it,” Deborah Stone, who lobbied for AB 2140 in Sacramento, observed.
As cars continued to pass by, a group of 42 protesters separated from the main group and marched to the parking entrance of SeaWorld. As protesters brushed against the chain-link fence, people returning to their cars stared as chants resonated throughout the parking lot.
“Don’t believe SeaWorld’s lies!” Amy Love shouted, leading the chants. A SeaWorld security car crept along as protesters replied, “Watch Blackfish, open your eyes!”
After waiting for the red light to turn green, the protesters crossed the street. A concrete barrier separated the outside world from SeaWorld. According to a detective from the San Diego Police Department, everything on and behind the wall is SeaWorld property.
Protesters stood right up to the cold, clammy surface of the concrete to resume their chants. The top of Shamu Stadium could be seen, towering above the buildings and trees. The orcas held prisoner were less than 100 yards away.
Kalia, a nine-year-old daughter of Kasatka, is halfway into a pregnancy according to a recent ultrasound video. Ulises is rumored to be the father. In the wild, orcas do not mate until an age of approximately 14 or 15. But in captivity, they are artificially inseminated when they are only half that age. Lora Parque, along with their close affiliates at SeaWorld, is also attempting to get Morgan, a killer whale who was rescued and supposed to be released, pregnant. And she’s only 7.
“SeaWorld’s breeding program is cruel and selfish,” Jacobelly said. “It’s just so they can make a profit. It is also forced rape. They masturbate the male orcas so they can artificially inseminate the females. They have complete control over the breeding process. It’s disgusting.”
The animals are also inbred, according to Dr. Rose.
“At least one captive son mated with his mother, producing an inbred daughter/sister,” she wrote in a blog post. “This abhorrent incest happened because the social mechanisms that keep inbreeding from occurring in nature [orcas only mate with members outside their own pod] break down in the abnormal environment of captivity.”
Stephanie Anne, another organizer of the protest, raised her fist in anger and frustration. “Shame, shame, shame on you!” She chanted on the bullhorn, a finger pointing at the marine park. One of the security guards chuckled, as if raping a sentient being was amusing.
Chants continued for another half hour until the protest approached its end. “Every single month, your jobs are doing nothing [to deter us],” Amy Nicole shouted passionately on the bullhorn. “We are growing in numbers, and we will never stop until all the animals here are released to the wild, or at least to sea pens. This is a freak show! This is a joke! This is a sea prison! There is nothing right about this! Times have changed!”
With that, Nicole turned off the bullhorn and the group slowly walked back to the intersection. The sun, overpowering the red glare of the light, slowly fell from its zenith.
The protest received coverage from NBC and ABC, and even reached the LA Times.
Chants will ring again outside SeaWorld twice in May, on the 10th and 24th. We will never go away until AB 2140 is passed and SeaWorld stops its cruelty.
Zach Affolter, an 11th grade high school student from San Diego, has been an animal activist for over four years and vegetarian his whole life. Both a video producer and writer, he is currently working on novels about Angel, an albino dolphin who was captured in Taiji, and a captured orca named Lolita. Zach is the junior activist captain of Earthrace Conservation Society’s Junior Activist Club and helps run a local organization, Protest SeaWorld.
Photo Credit: Alison Banks