Well here is the part of vacation that went sour for me. Horrible confession: I went to SeaWorld. It was part of the discount package, and sadly my money contributed to everything I despise about it. Before you bash me for being a hypocrite about going to SeaWorld, let me tell you how I took the opportunity to do some investigative reporting and see the damage for myself.
Almost 13 years ago SeaWorld had no rides. It was just an aquarium. I guess to compete with the other Orlando theme parks SeaWorld added four roller coasters to their attraction; Manta, Kraken, Journey to Atlantis, and the new coaster Mako. Alondra was a baby last time I visited the aquarium version of SeaWorld so she has no memories to compare anything to this new experience for her. The only reason I consented myself to SeaWorld was because Alondra has a love for marine biology and seeing a whale in person became the top task on her bucket list. I would have preferred she experienced the orcas in their natural habitat, but those chances are slim while living in the city.
The first thing we did at SeaWorld was visit the flamingos and ride Manta. The waiting area in Manta included a huge tank full of stingrays and sharks. I am terrified of sharks so Gil guided me to the ride while I kept my eyes closed. There was a moment of failed courage as I attempted to confront my fear and opened my eyes, but a huge Tiger shark made me regret that immediately (hey, I tried). We also visited a small aquarium full of tropical sea creatures like starfish, octopi, blue tangs, and sea dragons.
After Manta, Alondra wanted to see the new Shamu show “One Ocean.” A few weeks after the CNN documentary “Blackfish” premiered, SeaWorld received a lot of heat for the treatment of their orcas and other marine mammals. My stomach churned as we approached Shamu Stadium. I knew what I was about to witness wouldn’t be pretty. Just from looking at the stage itself I concluded the space was small. Gil and I observed the interactions between the orcas and their trainers. Ever since Tilikum killed Dawn Branchaeu back in 2011, SeaWorld no longer allows the trainers to be in the water with the orcas. That much was noticeable.
The trainers had the orcas do silly performances and leaps. Alondra, Helen, and Ivonne watched the show in awe, but Gil and I felt sick. Why put those whales through that humiliation? These beautiful mammals are fierce hunters in the wild and amazing swimmers. Yet, all the poor orcas had were collapsed dorsal fins, bad teeth due to scraping against concrete, and a bucket of frozen fish as a reward for a stupid trick. Orcas are intelligent and there are other ways their intellect can be shown besides what I would call circus tricks. I was on the look out for Tilikum himself and sure enough he came, but towards the end of the show… as a splasher. His only job was to soak the audience. My heart broke for him as he took a bow and swam back to wherever SeaWorld has him confined. El pobrecito can’t even be with other whales due to what was his third kill in 2011.
Gil had squeezed my hand in support for the entire show. I assumed the worst was over until we got to the whale observation tank a few yards from Shamu Stadium. How dare SeaWorld state the orcas have enough space to swim in? You all can judge for yourselves with the photos I took. An orca appeared after a short wait time and just floated in the tank. She did one roll over and then planted herself by the door. I had to walk away from this. It was too much for me.
Once we left the whale tank, Antarctica was our next stop. A simulation representing a helicopter ride through the arctic was shown before we could see the three main animals on display; the walrus, seals, and beluga whales. These whales also did not have much room to swim in and kept going in a circle. SeaWorld did their best to replicate the arctic environment for them but I could see the whales did not fall for that illusion.
Alondra had a good time seeing and petting the baby sharks after we rode Mako. I had no interest in facing my fear again so Gil and I sat by a scenic view of the “ocean” in a food court. The things I was seeing at SeaWorld was taking an emotional toll on me. We ate lunch and continued with our day. Kraken was another crazy roller coaster and afterwards we got to see five different species of penguins in “Empire of the Penguins.” It was Gil’s first time ever seeing a penguin up close. He loved it, but also acknowledged they were in captivity. We asked an employee if the penguins ever jumped out of the tanks and she said yes. Due to the intense cold needed for the penguin’s environment we left to go on Journey to Atlantis.
The day was coming to a close so we made our way towards the exit. To Helen and Ivonne’s surprise we had come to the dolphin observation. There were about ten to twelve bottlenose dolphins within this enclosure all moving in a circle. A calf was with its mother and both acknowledged Alondra, who of course was overjoyed by the experience. Me on the other hand, I just watched them swim in the circular pattern given to them.
From the dolphins we moved on to the manatees and sea turtles. The manatee was eating a ball of lettuce with her calf. We learned the story of a turtle named Bella from a SeaWorld employee. Her shell was impacted by a propeller from a boat and it left her bottom legs paralyzed. Bella has been at SeaWorld since 1991. She is not able to return to the ocean due to low chances of survival with her disability. SeaWorld does have a rescue organization, but I question how many of those animals do they really release back into the wild?
Our final stop was the stingray pool where Alondra, Gil, and I touched them. It was a my second time touching a stingray. My first experience was in the Camden aquarium in New Jersey.
After leaving the stingrays I knew I would never return to SeaWorld again. The vibe was negative for me and although my sister had a great time learning about all those aquatic animals, I hope one day she sees them in their natural habitat. Most of the sea mammals in SeaWorld were born in captivity and cannot be free in the ocean, but can be transported to sanctuaries. SeaWorld will no longer have their whales performing after this summer, and promised to create a better environment for the whales. Lets see if it keeps its promises. As for Tilikum, recent news states that he is unfortunately dying of a lung infection. I hope Tilikum gets to experience the ocean one last time before he passes away.
Photos by: Rosa Elena Burgos
Update: Tilikum passed away on January 6, 2017. He never got to return to the ocean.