Administrators at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School cancelled an annual spring field trip to SeaWorld last week after students and parents complained of unethical treatment of orca whales alleged at the park in the controversial new documentary “Blackfish.”
Although there are varying accounts of how the issue was initially presented to the school—namely, whether parents first brought it to the attention of Point Dume Principal Rebecca Johnson or if fifth-grade student Kirra Kotler originally presented the idea of cancelling the field trip to her classmates—Johnson said the cancellation came down to what was best for students.
“My decision was guided by what was the best thing for all my students,” Johnson said when asked about whether the documentary or its contents swayed the cancellation.
“Blackfish” tells the story of a massive orca whale named Tilikum, a male with a history of aggression that killed a trainer at the Orlando SeaWorld theme park in 2010. Prior to the 2010 incident, Tilikum had already been associated with the deaths of two other people.
After a survey of parents found that several students would not participate in the trip, which is typically scheduled for March, Johnson said she decided to cancel and instead search for a trip that would include every student.
Some parents are reportedly unhappy about the cancellation, which many consider a bonding experience for the class before it moves on to middle school. Principal Johnson estimated that the trip had been a yearly tradition for at least 10 years, and is booked up to a year in advance.
It seems that even the parents who opposed the trip are displeased with the way the cancellation was handled by school administrators.
Social media was abuzz with activity last week regarding whether the trip would be cancelled or not, as it seemed to some that the decision was being dragged out. Dianette Wells, whose three grown children attended Point Dume, was one of several community members who weighed in on the issue online. When it seemed that the trip would go through as planned, she proposed the idea of a petition against the field trip. Now that it is not, she expressed hope the trip would be discontinued.
“I am very proud that the school did the right thing,” Wells said. “I hope it’s not just a one-year, knee-jerk reaction. I hope they truly understand how wrong it is that these whales are in captivity, and none of us should be paying money to see that.”
The documentary, released in the United States on July 19, and first shown on CNN this October, claims that the tragic death of the SeaWorld trainer in Florida could have been avoided if SeaWorld had been more cautious and aware of the dangers present at the park. In addition, comments made in “Blackfish” suggest that the violent nature of Tilikum was induced by psychological and emotional trauma he suffered throughout his life at the hands of humans and through the more dominant whales in captivity with him.
While tracing the timeline from Tilikum’s capture through his life of confinement and violence, the documentary paints a picture of what the creators of the film, who include CNN, believe to be the animal abuse inherent in keeping animals as large and intelligent as orcas in captivity.
This is not a sentiment echoed by SeaWorld’s spokespeople. Communications Director David Koontz said in an email that the film “paints a distorted picture of SeaWorld” and should therefore not be billed as a documentary at all. According to Koontz, more than 15,000 children participate every year in overnight education programs at the San Diego SeaWorld alone—the type of trip the Pt. Dume fifth grade class customarily takes.
In fact, the spokesman claimed that PDMSS’s cancellation due to the issues raised by the documentary is unprecedented.
“This is the only instance of a camp cancellation that we’ve experienced,” wrote Koontz.
While Point Dume may be the first school group to cancel its SeaWorld weekend, it was preceded by many more high-profile cancellations: namely, big-name musical acts. In the past few weeks, Martina McBride, 38 Special, Barenaked Ladies, Heart, Willie Nelson, Cheap Trick and Trisha Yearwood have all cancelled scheduled performances at SeaWorld theme parks.
Although heat seems to be intensifying, SeaWorld remains unconcerned about more schools withdrawing their support. “There has been no need to change or adjust our educational programs,” said Koontz, before pointing out that the program follows science standards set by the state of California.
Currently, Principal Johnson and other staff at Pt. Dume are searching for suitable replacement field trips that will be universally satisfactory. Some parents are hopeful that a new tradition may be made for the benefit of students and the mission of the school. There is also a feeling that more could be done by the community here in Malibu to improve conditions at SeaWorld.