The theme park company SeaWorld has announced it will end orca shows at its San Diego site in 2017. SeaWorld is the world’s biggest holder of captive orcas, or killer whales, with 24 orcas across its three sites. The others are in Orlando, Florida and San Antonio, Texas. This decision applies only to San Diego, which holds 11 orcas.

Orca whale at SeaWorld, San Diego.

Orca whale at SeaWorld, San Diego. Image by Glen Scarborough / CC BY-SA 2.0

SeaWorld claims the focus of its orca exhibit will move from entertainment to education. Instead of performing tricks, as orcas have done at SeaWorld for decades, the orcas will swim in an enlarged pool landscaped to simulate a more natural setting.

Several animal rights organisations, who have long opposed SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas, gave the announcement a qualified thumbs up. PETA insists the company must address the bigger issue of captivity

A wild orca can swim up to 160 kilometres (or 100 miles) in a day, but the area of the San Diego enclosure in which 11 orcas are currently kept is the equivalent of nine  Olympic-sized swimming pools.

SeaWorld's controversial Shamu show.

SeaWorld’s controversial Shamu show. Image by Josh Hallett / CC BY 2.0

After opening in San Diego in the early 1960s to huge success, SeaWorld’s story has been a more troubled one in recent years. In 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando, Dawn Brancheau, an orca trainer, was killed by a captive orca who had previously attacked two other humans.

In 2013 – the same year 37% of the company was listed on the stock market – a feature documentary called Blackfish criticised SeaWorld’s orca program, arguing that orca captivity causes violence, mental illness and shortened life expectancy. Although SeaWorld protested that the film’s criticisms were unfair, the backlash has seen visitor numbers to the San Diego site – as well as company revenue – plummet.

See also: SeaWorld launches new brand campaign as visitors fall post Blackfish