In the Battle at SeaWorld, the Whales Have Won

SeaWorld, Breached
Score one for the cetaceans.
Photo: Tilikum, the orca linked to three violent deaths, at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010.

As charismatic megafauna go, Tilikum is one of the most charismatic, the most mega. He’s big (22 and a half feet long, approximately 12,000 pounds). He’s old (35, ancient for captivity). He’s potent (having sired a Ramses-worthy 14 calves). He’s a chowhound (tucking away 200 pounds of fish and about 80 pounds of gelatin every day). He has the mournful aspect of the exile and the orphan (call it anthropomorphizing, but he does). Netted in the waters off Iceland when he was two and separated from his family, shipped to a shabby marine park in western Canada and onward to SeaWorld in 1992, Tilikum has been in captivity for 33 years, and age and living conditions have taken their toll. Like other adult males in SeaWorld’s 29-killer-whale collection, he has the sad-looking collapsed dorsal fin and curled flukes that come, in part, from performing at the water’s surface (where gravity exerts its pull), broken teeth from gnawing on his unnatural concrete-and-steel habitat, and raked skin from the orca-on-orca aggression that ramps up when you mix whales from different pods in a confined space. “His life has been extraordinarily difficult,” says Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal biologist who has advocated against killer-whale captivity for more than 20 years. “He’s not a normal guy.”

Tilikum has an unsettling air of menace, for he is the deadliest orca in captivity (and actually, since there’s no documented case of a wild orca killing a human, on Earth). At Sealand of the Pacific, Tilikum was one of three orcas involved in the 1991 killing of Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old student and part-time trainer who slipped into the water and became the three animals’ screaming pool toy for ten minutes until she drowned (it took another two hours to recover her body). Eight years later, at SeaWorld Orlando, a 27-year-old drifter named Daniel Dukes, who somehow ended up in the park after hours, was found the next morning draped naked across Tilikum’s back, one of his testicles torn off.

Because of his lethal history, trainers were forbidden to be in the water with Tilikum. So on February 24, 2010, when 40-year-old veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau began a so-called relationship-building exercise with the whale after a show, she lay on a slide-out, a surface at the pool’s edge covered by three or four inches of water. But after her ponytail slid into the water, the whale clamped its mouth on either it or her arm (witnesses offered conflicting testimony) and pulled her in. Another trainer sounded an alarm, and staff rushed to the pool to try to corral Tilikum with nets. For at least a minute, as surveillance video recorded, Brancheau made efforts to escape, but within six minutes, her body appeared lifeless. It would take nearly half an hour for rescuers to extricate her from the whale’s mouth. Besides a broken jaw, broken ribs, and a dislocated knee and elbow, Brancheau had been scalped and her left arm had been torn off. The Orange County medical examiner found her to have died from “drowning and traumatic injuries.”

It is because of Brancheau’s death that Tilikum is also a movie star, the killer whale at the center of Blackfish, the hit 2013 documentary about SeaWorld and the problems of keeping orcas in captivity. Blackfish triggered a profound crisis for SeaWorld, which had built its brand on the backs of killer whales. Tilikum embodied the paradox of Shamu, the Ur-orca who came to represent all SeaWorld’s killer whales: the cuddly predator, the plushy-ready wild beast trained and monetized but never wholly tamed.

The documentary blew up at a time of broader societal soul-searching over the use and misuse of animals for our entertainment. Cirque du Soleil has found a huge audience that doesn’t want or need animals in its circuses. Hollywood is increasingly populating its films with animals generated using CGI technology. Facebook and Twitter have enabled insta-opprobrium toward the likes of that Minnesota dentist who arrowed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe and then had to close his practice for several weeks because of death threats. In the closest parallel to SeaWorld, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, after long resisting calls to drop elephants from the big top, announced last year that it would retire its remaining herd to sanctuaries.

Amid these sweeping changes, SeaWorld had become a pariah state, a benighted holdout in an increasingly humane country. When in early March the company revealed that Tilikum was ailing, it seemed to presage yet another wave of terrible press: The looming death of Tilikum would serve as a reminder of the company’s backwardness. Instead, ten days later, the company made an announcement that stunned even many of its most vehement critics: SeaWorld would stop breeding orcas. The current generation of killer whales would be its last.

In 1981, SeaWorld trainers in Orlando thought it was okay to let a child sit atop a killer whale. Photo: David Bagnall/REX/Shutterstock

Seaworld wasn’t America’s first marine-mammal park — that honor goes to a concrete lake in the concrete jungle: Sea Lion Park, opened in Coney Island in 1895 and closed seven years later — but when it debuted in San Diego on March 21, 1964, the brainchild of four frat brothers from UCLA, it was instantly the grandest. A postwar middle class had leisure time and disposable income and a new highway system to ease family road trips. Disneyland had opened in Anaheim nine years earlier.

The inhabitants of the ocean, in those days before Jacques Cousteau was a regular presence on U.S. television, were deeply mysterious, and marine-mammal parks promised a safe encounter with the watery wild. Dolphinariums, with their swim-with-dolphin programs, boomed. In 1965, a book could be published with the frankly innocent title Wonders of an Oceanarium: The Story of Marine Life in Captivity.

It was inevitable that America would want to supersize its marine-mammal entertainment. After Marineland of the Pacific acquired a pilot whale in the late ’50s, attendance soared. Orcas were larger still and, like their dolphin cousins, highly trainable. The first trained orca had been ­captured in 1965, and later that year SeaWorld bought the second for a reported $75,000, flying the 2,300-pound animal in by cargo plane from Puget Sound. She was called Shamu, a baby name for an apex predator and the start of an image makeover that would turn the “deadly killer whale” into America’s most bankable critter. Orcas became SeaWorld’s main attraction and profit center, enshrined even in the company logo, which showed a killer whale (and later two abstractly rendered orcas) breaching.

But from the start, there were signs that holding these majestic, intelligent animals in tanks might be problematic. In 1961, at Marineland of the Pacific, the first orca to be displayed in a marine-mammal park died after two days. At SeaWorld, Shamu had to be retired after biting a bikini-clad staffer riding on her back and not letting go until trainers pried her jaws open with a metal bar. She died four months later, after only six years in captivity.

The very awareness of and empathy for cetaceans that SeaWorld was instrumental in raising would ultimately turn on it in the form of opposition to their capture. An increasingly conservation-minded public supported the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. By then, SeaWorld was a juggernaut (it would eventually have four big parks in the U.S., though the Aurora, Ohio, location is now closed), and as it became more difficult to obtain wild orcas, the company moved to captive breeding. Still, its business model was based on an animal that an increasing number of people believed shouldn’t be part of anyone’s business model.

Dawn Brancheau’s death had drastic consequences for SeaWorld. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation into working conditions at the company’s marine parks, ultimately requiring it to eliminate all “waterwork,” the in-water trainer-whale interactions that had long been at the heart of its shows. SeaWorld appealed several times unsuccessfully.

Activists suddenly found traction. Naomi Rose, one of the most persistent and well-qualified critics of SeaWorld, had been hired by the Humane Society in 1993 expressly to target captive-orca programs. For 17 years, she labored on the lonely fringe. But with Brancheau’s death, everything changed. For the first time, she found herself holding the microphone. Rose was the protagonist of journalist David Kirby’s 2012 book Death at SeaWorld, which ably articulated a set of arguments that collectively amounted to a disturbing idea: Captivity had turned Tilikum into a psychotic killer. PETA filed suit against SeaWorld under the novel legal theory that the company was infringing on the constitutional rights of five wild-caught orcas, including Tilikum, by holding them as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment.

Still, SeaWorld didn’t yet face a broad public rejection of its practices. In 2010, the year Brancheau died, the company lost $45 million on revenues of $1.2 billion, but by 2011 it was making money again, and the company’s treatment of orcas hadn’t become a mainstream cultural issue. When the private-equity firm Blackstone took SeaWorld public in April 2013, says Barton Crockett, who as an investment banker at Lazard co-managed the stock offering, “this was nowhere on the radar screen.”

It was Blackfish, released three months after the IPO, that would galvanize a movement. The film argued that life for SeaWorld’s orcas was nasty, brutish, and short — that the animals were driven to boredom and aggression by claustrophobic tanks, forced mixing of pods, separations of mothers and calves, and other mistreatment, all of which SeaWorld disputes. Blackfish also used Brancheau’s death to harrowing effect, playing audio of a 911 call in which a panicked voice says, “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” CNN ran the film and reran it relentlessly, PETA promoted viewing parties, and social media amplified a handful of key activist demands, chief among them that SeaWorld cease captive breeding and stop using whales for entertainment. Between August and September of that year, SeaWorld stock lost nearly 20 percent of its value.

SeaWorld’s response to this turn of its fortunes was sputtering and ineffective. The company tried to head off the documentary by sending rebuttal letters to some 50 critics likely to review the film and registering domain names including,, and These efforts only roiled the waters, and a cascading number of celebrities, including Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, and the Beach Boys, withdrew from scheduled performances at the parks. Rather than reconsidering its combative approach, however, the company doubled down.

In 2010, trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled into the water and brutally killed by Tilikum during a relationship-building exercise. Photo: Red Huber/MCT/Getty Images

In July 2014, a few dozen orca enthusiasts came together on San Juan Island for Superpod 3, the third annual gathering to celebrate a summertime convergence of three different killer-whale pods off the coast of Washington State. Though not necessarily all activists, these were generally people who believed killer whales should be observed in the wild, not in a theme park. The orca community is a small one, and most knew one another or had been vouched for. One man, a stranger, had come alone. He said his name was Paul and deflected further inquiry. By day three, “the conspiracy-minded people were worried about him,” Rose says. Out on the whale-watching boat, he seemed to be listening in on people’s conversations. Back on shore in Friday Harbor, a group sat down for lunch at an outdoor restaurant, and “this dude comes up,” Rose says, asking if he could join them. “I swear to God, a woman in the group says, ‘Who are you?’ Aggressively.” He again responded vaguely.

What the whale watchers didn’t know was that the same man had been a suspicious instigator in the animal-rights community, literally inciting activists online to “grab your pitchforks and torches.” At the Rose Parade in Pasadena, he’d marched in a SEAWORLD HURTS ORCAS T-shirt and been handcuffed by police alongside other protesters, but he was nowhere to be seen when the arrestees were released. Though he told people at the parade that his name was Tom Jones, skeptical PETA activists later recorded his license-plate number and traced it to a man named Paul McComb, who’d worked for SeaWorld since at least 2008. PETA also traced one of the addresses McComb had given as his own to another man who was SeaWorld’s head of security for the San Diego park.

Had SeaWorld really sent an employee undercover to gather intelligence on the activists? It seemed absurd. And yet the company’s reaction to Blackfish had been roundly aggressive. “They beat us to a pulp in every way,” director Gabriela ­Cowperthwaite says. Besides sending letters to critics attacking the film, SeaWorld comically accused Cowperthwaite, a documentary filmmaker, of being motivated by greed. (“I didn’t make any profit off it,” Cowperthwaite says.) Though the film, probably the most-talked-about documentary of the year, was snubbed for an Academy Award nomination, Cowperthwaite is not among the conspiracists who saw dark SeaWorld-aligned forces at work behind the scenes. “I think the movie was less a work of art than art doing work,” she says. “I’m not trying to be self-deprecating. The movies that were up for nominations that year were pretty unbelievable movies.”

SeaWorld was now under siege. In 2014, legislators in New York, California, and Washington separately proposed legislative and regulatory actions to ban orca breeding, among other staples of the SeaWorld business model. Under pressure from a petition with more than 20,000 signatures, Taco Bell ended a SeaWorld promotion. Southwest Airlines dropped a 26-year marketing partnership. SeaWorld attendance was shrinking at an alarming rate, and the stock lost 33 percent of its value in one day. The following year, the company reported an 84 percent drop in second-quarter earnings.

SeaWorld didn’t do itself any favors, responding to critics as if channeling the spirit of another embattled Florida institution a few hours’ drive west on Interstate 4: “SeaWorld Steals a Page From the Scientology Playbook,” as a San Diego Free Press headline put it. When the Orlando Business Journal polled readers on the question “Has CNN’s Blackfish documentary changed your perception of SeaWorld?,” 99 percent of the 328 votes cast said no, but three days later the newspaper found that 54 percent of those votes had come from a single IP address that belonged to SeaWorld. After Cher tweeted critically about SeaWorld, Eric M. Davis, a SeaWorld-funded blogger, likened her to a monkey at a keyboard and approvingly quoted Donald Trump’s description of the singer as a “lonely loser.”

SeaWorld was roughest with John Hargrove, a trainer who had left the organization in 2012 and appears prominently in Blackfish. Hargrove’s participation in the film was a problem for the company, which otherwise could stick to the talking point that all of its ex-employee apostates had left long ago and things were different now. Hargrove had departed SeaWorld only months before and had 14 years’ experience training killer whales at two of the company’s three parks.

When he published a SeaWorld memoir called Beneath the Surface in March of last year, the company lashed out. First it sent letters to Hargrove and his publisher forcefully reminding him of his confidentiality agreement. Then it went after Hargrove personally. Eric Davis put up a website,, featuring Photoshopped images of Hargrove with a Pinocchio nose and Hargrove on the Say Anything movie poster, holding an orca over his head in the manner of John Cusack’s boom box, as well as “Disturbing Video of John Hargrove on Horrifying Racist Rant,” a cell-phone video of Hargrove repeatedly using a racial slur.

SeaWorld “tried to get every book signing canceled,” Hargrove says. In San Diego, a bookstore owner canceled a reading after seeing the video, and the store was picketed for dropping the event. At the other signings, a man who Hargrove claims was “a known paparazzi who moonlit as a private detective” would stand up with a cell phone and record Hargrove while asking him provocative questions. “Security dragged him out. He had a getaway car. It was crazy.” Hargrove believes he has been followed by private detectives in New York and that members of his family have also been tailed.

“It was a shock for me to watch it,” Hargrove told me over coffee in March, referring to the cell-phone video of him. “I was ashamed of myself.” The video had been recorded five years before its release by a fellow trainer and then-friend of Hargrove’s, who had captured him drunkenly using the racial slur as he tried to goad another trainer to repeat a story in which that language had been used. After Blackfish came out, she’d provided the video to SeaWorld (because of jealousy, Hargrove says). Hargrove spent the first two weeks of his press tour apologizing; “It hurt me to watch myself say it so nonchalantly like it was funny,” he told me. Hargrove was wearing sweatpants, a plaid shirt, and a red Yankees cap, with big headphones slung around his neck. He had moved to New York soon after leaving SeaWorld and last year relocated from the East Village to Queens, because of an incident involving an animal and a too-small environment. His dog, Beowulf, had behaved aggressively with a phobic neighbor, and his landlord, fearing potential liability, had apologetically asked him to leave. Hargrove moved to Kew Gardens to give Beowulf more space.

None of the agitprop had helped SeaWorld. The smear campaign against Hargrove drove sales of his book and hardened him in his opposition to the company. And for the first time, a previously wide-eyed public was thinking about Shamu and Black Ops in the same sentence, and it was entirely because of SeaWorld’s own actions.

Protesters outside SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby’s home in April 2015. Photo: Courtesy of PETA

When Joel Manby arrived as the new CEO at SeaWorld last spring, he went in thinking he was going to fight. He had watched Blackfish and says he thought it “didn’t accurately portray the situation.” He believed that SeaWorld’s opposition was limited to a strident minority and that the company just needed to do a better job of getting the facts out. Moreover, the company had already embarked on a $10 million ad campaign that highlighted, among other things, a SeaWorld initiative to donate $10 million to the study of orcas in the wild.

Manby soon got a taste of life in the crosshairs when PETA protested outside his house in Alpharetta, Georgia, treating his suburban neighbors to placards with slogans like JOEL MANBY RUNS ORCA PRISONS. He was prepared for this sort of thing, but “I will say, when you get inside, it’s pretty relentless, it does get frustrating, because I know how good these people are, and it’s frustrating to be cast that way, honestly. But I also don’t doubt that PETA loves animals as well, and in their misguided way they think they’re doing the right thing.”

We were sitting in a nondescript conference room in a one-story administrative building away from the tourist paths of SeaWorld Orlando. Manby wore a navy suit and brown wingtips and an open-collar shirt; his salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back. Manby had grown up on a farm in Michigan, earned an M.B.A. from Harvard, and before joining SeaWorld spent 13 years as CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, a southern chain of theme parks with assets including Dollywood and the Harlem Globetrotters. While at Herschend, Manby had appeared on Undercover Boss and written a Christian-oriented management self-help book called Love Works.

Manby had been determined to move SeaWorld beyond its Blackfish problem. He wanted to refocus the public on the conservation and rescue work that SeaWorld did. All that had been forgotten amid the furor over orcas, which had so hijacked the conversation about the company that they were an impediment to SeaWorld saying pretty much anything else about itself.

When Manby learned last July that at least one SeaWorld employee had been running a false-flag operation against PETA, he says he stopped it immediately, told his board, and hired a law firm to do an internal investigation and ex–FBI director Louis Freeh’s security firm to institute policies to prevent a reoccurrence. “It wasn’t acceptable,” says Manby, who first publicly acknowledged the spying in an investors’ call earlier this year. “It was in response to some very credible threats” — someone in senior leadership had received explicit death threats — “that doesn’t excuse it, but I think people were scared.” Freeh’s firm will continue to audit the company to guard against relapse. “There was nothing illegal done,” Manby told me. “It was just poor judgment.”

More broadly, he and his board contemplated three courses of action for SeaWorld going forward. One was to keep doing what it was doing, countering misinformation with facts, arguing, for instance, that SeaWorld’s killer whales now live as long as those in the wild and that their multimillion-gallon habitats are among the largest in the world. But that was a path the company had already tried without success. Another was to end the orca shows, transitioning them to more educational orca “encounters.” A third, and the most radical, was to change the shows and also end captive breeding, which would eventually mean the end of orcas at SeaWorld. This was the nuclear option, or so they could be forgiven for thinking: After all, killer whales had been the parks’ biggest draw for decades. Would a SeaWorld without orcas still be SeaWorld?

So Manby decided to do some research, thinking it might confirm his belief that the opposition to SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas was relatively isolated. “We wanted to know how the vast middle felt and wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a few people, basically animal-rights groups, making a lot of noise,” he says.

What they discovered, to their great surprise, was that the existential battle they had been so desperately fighting was over something that people didn’t even want anymore. In a survey of 3,402 people across the country, the company found that 83 percent, asked to contemplate a SeaWorld announcement that it was phasing out orca breeding and shows, agreed that it “shows that SeaWorld is a good company that cares about its animals and generally tries to do what’s right.” Another survey, of 2,400 people across the country, found that between 5 and 17 percent more people would consider visiting an orca-less SeaWorld, and that SeaWorld’s favorability score would rise 11 to 27 points. It became clear to Manby that killer whales under human care had become “a concern for the mass middle audience.” The company calculated that if it pursued the radical option, it would have to spend $15 million less over the next three to five years on defending its reputation, while attendance numbers were likely to increase by at least 380,000 and as much as 940,000, with commensurate gains in revenues and profits.

Furthermore, SeaWorld was looking at potential legislative battles if it tried to stay the course. Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat whose congressional district includes a number of celebrity-dense neighborhoods in Los Angeles, introduced the orca Act to compel the phasing out of killer-whale entertainment. “It was a combination of hearing from constituents who are very passionate about orcas and very concerned with the nature of continued captive breeding at SeaWorld,” Schiff told me, “and the documentary Blackfish, which I found very powerful.” The drift toward anti-SeaWorld legislation “really was the tipper to me,” Manby says. “That showed me that it was becoming mainstream, because politicians only do something if their electorate is going to elect them for it.”

Last June, Manby began the process that would eventually lead to the company’s recent announcement that it would end its orca-breeding program. He didn’t think the antipathy was fair, but he knew SeaWorld had lost the public’s trust. “I mean, we can say that what Blackfish was saying is not true, and we have facts to back it up, but if we’re the only ones saying it, we’re not going to have the credibility to win that.”

He knew he was going to have to win over SeaWorld’s critics, and one of the biggest was the Humane Society of the United States. For 15 years, ever since Free Willy, the film about the original celebrity killer whale, Keiko, the animal-rights organization had been a vocal critic of SeaWorld, advocating for the release of its orcas, while SeaWorld had accused it of “sloppy science.” Now John Campbell, a former congressman from California who had owned a Saab dealership when Manby was head of Saab North America, and who had also been the co-chair of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus (through which he knew Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle), acted as a mutually trusted go-between. “We both were hesitant to take the meeting,” Manby says. “We have been complete adversaries for at least 25 years, with completely negative monologue about them from us, and from them about us.”

The three men conference-called that June, and the relationship developed after Manby, at Pacelle’s urging, had SeaWorld withdraw from a plan to borrow wild-caught beluga whales for breeding purposes. “We had done a Virgin pledge” — the Virgin Group’s effort to stop the capture of cetaceans for tourism — “where we agreed not to take any animal from the wild,” Manby says. “And so to me it was duplicitous. If those animals were taken from the wild, and then we get them on a breeding loan, it looks like we’re playing the system.” Still, Manby was trying to hold on to the orca program. SeaWorld was moving forward with a planned Blue World Project that would have nearly doubled the size of its killer whales’ habitats, to 10 million gallons, but it hit a regulatory wall in October, when the California Coastal Commission approved the project while requiring that SeaWorld end captive breeding.

As the viable options narrowed and Manby saw consensus coalescing within the SeaWorld board and his inner executive circle, he stepped up the conversations with Pacelle. In November, the two men, along with Campbell, met for dinner in Washington. “I felt if we were going to do this, we really needed someone like the Humane Society to be a voice of reason,” Manby says, “and frankly, they have credibility in the market that we didn’t have.”

Manby and Pacelle found common ground in three areas: ending captive breeding, phasing out circuslike killer-whale shows, and serving sustainable seafood and other humanely raised meat in SeaWorld’s parks. SeaWorld would also pledge $50 million to causes including the abolition of commercial whaling and shark-finning. In early March, as a deal looked close, Pacelle visited SeaWorld for the first time in his life, touring the Orlando park with Manby and a small handful of his top executives and keeping a low profile. Few at SeaWorld had any idea of the imminent deal with its longtime foe. Pacelle was satisfied enough that the deal could go forward. “I think this is the start of an important process,” he told me later. “Someone needs to stand up and say, ‘This is progress.’ ”

There remained one awkward matter between Pacelle and Manby. Pacelle had a book coming out this spring, The Humane Economy, that savaged SeaWorld and its “sophistry.” “The chapter on SeaWorld is not positive,” Manby says. “His feeling is his feeling, and it is what it is.” But the night before the announcement, Pacelle told Manby, he wrote a postscript that he still had time to get into the book, in which he lauded SeaWorld for its shift and for joining the humane economy.

Late on Wednesday, the night before the announcement, the company told its trainers, who would be most directly affected by the change, what was happening. On Thursday, Manby and Pacelle did a day of TV interviews in New York, then Manby flew to all three SeaWorld locations, bringing his wife, Marki, with him as moral support. After general meetings with employees, he met with trainers in a small room. “It was incredibly emotional,” Manby told me. “I get emotional even thinking about it.” He paused. “It was taking something very big from them.”

Until now, everything SeaWorld had done had been half-measures, tweaks to the animals’ living conditions and halfhearted efforts at rebranding: Trainers wouldn’t swim with the whales anymore; they’d introduce nature sounds to replace the techno music; they’d throw the word conservation around more; Tilikum would get a treadmill. Even the Blue World Project had been seen by critics as little more than window-dressing. This, though, was a massive pivot, a Hail Mary that might just keep SeaWorld on parents’ travel plans.

Following the announcement, SeaWorld stock popped, and a number of Wall Street analysts upgraded their ratings. When I spoke with Cowperthwaite on the day of the announcement, she said it was “seminal” and a “pivotal change.” Rose, who had been working for this for 23 years, told me she was “gobsmacked,” and Hargrove has since thanked Manby, calling it “a courageous decision.” Even PETA gloated that “this win is big … really big.”

But a contingent of activists is not satisfied: Why phase out the shows instead of ending them immediately? Why keep the whales until their deaths, some 40 years hence, instead of releasing them right away? Manby pointed to the case of Keiko, the Free Willy whale, whose return to the wild was “a failure by anyone’s standard.” (Orca activists say Keiko’s five-year post-captivity survival is, to the contrary, proof of success.) “I know it sounds wonderful to free the whales, and a 9-year-old girl might read that and feel emotional. I understand that,” Manby said. “But it’s not the right thing to do.”

Still, SeaWorld’s fans worry, and ­animal-rights activists hope, that the orca phaseout is just the beginning. It’s already possible to glimpse what SeaWorld might look like a few years from now. Manby says that in the educational, post-theatrical orca “encounters,” the animals won’t do anything that’s an unnatural behavior; there will be no more moments where two whales appear to kiss each other, for instance. They will, however, continue certain existing behaviors that might seem like tricks but actually echo wild behaviors, the way that slideouts mimic how wild whales beach themselves to eat sea lions.

Longer term, orcas will become less and less important to the company’s business. The first SeaWorld without killer whales is already in the works: Manby says it will likely be located in the Middle East. The company is also moving toward building more destination rides, including the shark-themed Mako roller coaster, which will be the tallest, longest, and fastest coaster in the Orlando market when it opens this summer. And with its orca issue theoretically fading, the company is trying to emphasize its conservation and rescue roles; Manby told me the company aspires to become the largest rescue organization in the world.

Tilikum will likely soon be the first of the final generation to die. If history is a guide, there will be no public ceremony to mark his passing, beyond a corporate statement and perhaps a tweet. “A necropsy is performed,” Hargrove says of the usual procedure. “But unlike a human autopsy where they can be stitched up and a viewing can occur, there is nothing left of an orca after a necropsy. The head is chopped off, the skull opened, the dorsal fin cut off. There are no parts left that are identifiable, much like Tilikum did to Dawn. She was unrecognizable and they only knew it was a trainer because of her wet suit. Then it’s all incinerated as biohazard.”

It’s the beginning of the end of a 50-year experiment in whale-human interaction. “For so long, people had been telling themselves this story they could live with, of a happy, thriving Shamu,” says Cowperthwaite. “Nobody wants to go to work on a daily basis thinking they’re doing something inhumane to animals they love. And the trainers do love them. But at the end of the day, this 50-year experiment did not work. The most important thing we learned was they don’t belong in captivity.”

*This article appears in the May 2, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.