Kelly Slater to SeaWorld: Free the Orcas

Credit: Luke Marsden / Newspix / Getty Images

On Wednesday June 10, Kelly Slater joined forces with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in an attempt to confront SeaWorld about their treatment of orcas. The 11-Time World Surfing Champ issued a letter calling out SeaWorld for imprisoning "highly intelligent, emotionally complex, social animals in tiny, barren concrete tanks, which leads to aggression and disease."

Slater challenged SeaWorld to retire the 29 whales currently held across its three parks in San Diego, Calif., San Antonio, Tex., and Orlando, Fla., to a seaside sanctuary. "By righting the wrongs you have committed in the name of corporate profit for so many years, you may actually be able to recoup some of the respect that has been lost in the eyes of the public and work toward an end to the problem of animal suffering," Slater wrote. 

Slater took up the cause of orcas after watching the 2013 documentary, Blackfish, which tells the story of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca that’s lived in captivity for over 30 years, and was involved in the death of three people, most recently SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. 

The film, through harrowing footage of captive orcas in distress from boredom, claustrophobia, and bullying from other whales, along with interviews with former trainers expressing shame and regret over Tilikum’s care, makes a compelling case that orca whales suffer physically and mentally from confinement. In the words of one of the film’s interviewees, orcas can be driven to "psychotic" behavior by their captivity. SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film.

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Slater has since been advocating for orca freedom, voicing his opinion on social media and painting his entire quiver for the 2014 Triple Crown with orca-inspired art. Other celebrity activists, including Matt Damon, Russell Brand, Olivia Wilde, and Steve-O, have also taken up the cause. In May, former Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model Marissa Miller posed nude and pregnant in an empty bathtub to draw attention to SeaWorld’s alleged practice of separating mother orcas from their calves, which are shipped off to other parks and ultimately confined to tanks.

The result is a rapidly growing movement against the use of orcas for entertainment. Attendance at SeaWorld is down, decreasing by 1 million visitors between 2013 and 2014. Dozens of companies, including Southwest Airlines, Panama Jack, and Mattel have recently ended partnerships with SeaWorld. The new book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, by John Hargrove, who spent most of his 14-year career as an orca trainer at SeaWorld, is already a New York Times Best Seller. In May, the Canadian province of Ontario enacted legislation banning the acquisition and breeding of orcas in captivity, period.

So far, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. isn’t budging. Last year, the corporation successfully lobbied against a bill in California that would have required it to retire the orcas at its San Diego park. In a press release, SeaWorld stated that it is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that it rescues, rehabilitates, and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that it commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research. Slater contends that SeaWorld could focus on animal rescue, conservation, and academic research without imprisoning orcas. "These mammals are strictly used to make money and sell tickets," Slater said. "If people want to be exposed to these creatures badly enough, they should go see them in the wild where they're happy and don't attack or kill people."