About two dozen protesters gathered outside the entrance gates to SeaWorld in Mission Bay on Sunday morning (December 20), continuing a years-long campaign that's evolved to target not just the theme park's orca shows but its entire live-animal-based "edutainment" model.
"I've been organizing protests out here for years, once or twice a month all year long," said Ellen Ericksen, head of the lively band she said diminished in size from nearly 100 expected participants due to an unexpected road closure.
"I come out here every holiday weekend with activists when I think SeaWorld is going to be busy. This is historically a busy day for them, but we're finding that the numbers are dropping — they're not busy today," Ericksen continued as a roller coaster that may have been half occupied crested a peak behind her. "The people that are going, we're here to educate them — they've never watched Blackfish, they're not aware of the abuses the animals are subjected to."
By 11:30 in the morning, halfway through a planned three-hour protest, she said she’d had some success convincing potential visitors to turn away from the park.
"I've had several families decide not to go into SeaWorld today — they've left," Ericksen said. "I'm recommending that they go whale-watching — there are whales and dolphins readily observed off the coast. Take your family and have a truly educational experience; see the whales in their natural environment, out in the wild. I mean, I think that's why they're coming to SeaWorld, to see animals — why wouldn’t they want to see them in their natural habitat rather than locked up?"
In order to end picketing from the animal-rights activists (she's also handing out information on the benefits of a vegan lifestyle), Ericksen says park owners need to "change it up."
"They need to retire the animals. Not just the orcas, but all the animals here, because they're living in horrendous conditions."
With no fish, reptiles, or marine mammals on display, what would draw the crowds?
"I've seen some really interesting interactive 3-D films coming out of Japan, where they're using virtual orcas and other animals that are so lifelike," Ericksen said as cars passing by offered honks of approval, a few stopping to collect flyers from her group. "I think SeaWorld can turn their amusement park around, make it actually focus on education, rehabilitate their orcas for release into seaside pens."
She doesn't believe, however, that a much-trumpeted announcement that the park was planning to retire its trademark Shamu orca shows should be seen as progress.
"They're changing up the theatrics of their show, that's all. They're not retiring the orcas, who will continue to perform; nothing is changing. It's just media hype to draw in more business."
One thing Ericksen does seem excited about, however, is increased regulatory scrutiny, including possible sanctions that may be handed down next month as the result of the park's failure to abide by an Occupational Safety and Health Administration order prohibiting "water work," where trainers swim in the same pools as orcas.
"They're going to be in federal court this January for violating [the administraton] sanctions. Trainers have been in the water with the orcas, having physical contact with them, and they got caught. I'm sure there will be very hefty fines and penalties to pay."