Virgin Holidays, a U.K.-based travel company and part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, will no longer promote or sell tickets to SeaWorld Orlando, Discovery Cove or any other parks that showcase captive whales and dolphins. 

Branson wrote in a blog post that the move is part of “a five-year journey to drive positive change in the tourism industry.” Two years ago, Virgin Holidays had announced it would not add any new attractions featuring captive whales and dolphins to its services. Now, Branson feels the time has come for animals born in captivity to be moved into larger coastal sanctuaries. 

“I feel strongly now that sanctuaries are the best solution to improve the situation of current captive populations, while changing the way tourists interact with whales and dolphins for good,” Branson wrote. “Today’s announcement thus comes at the right time and will hopefully give a fresh boost to these efforts.” 

Another U.K. travel agency, Thomas Cook, made a similar move last July. 

In response to Virgin’s announcement, SeaWorld defended its record of animal care, including its marine animal rescue programs. 

“It is disappointing to see Virgin Holidays succumb to pressure from animal activists who mislead and manipulate marine mammal science to advance their agendas,” said Chris Dold, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld. “Virgin’s own corporate mission is having a measurable purpose that positively impacts communities and the environment. SeaWorld is the epitome of that mission.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which is responsible for evaluating public animal exhibits, also criticized Virgin’s decision, saying its accreditation process “assures the well-being of the animals” always comes first among its member facilities. 

“Each year, the many animal encounter programs allow millions of children and families to experience and connect with animals and ecosystems they would likely never otherwise have the opportunity to see,” AZA president and CEO Dan Ashe said in a statement. “Ending these opportunities would mean that only the economically elite have the opportunity to encounter and be inspired by these amazing animals.”

After years of declining business after the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” criticized SeaWorld’s use of captive whales, the Orlando-based park chain has rebounded over the past year, with attendance and revenue increasing over the past five quarters. 

That hasn’t stopped animal rights groups from continuing to target the park with protests and public criticism, especially when whales under SeaWorld’s care have died

“Captive cetaceans cannot thrive in concrete boxes,” Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, told Orlando Rising in a statement. “The public has become increasingly aware of these inhumane conditions as the body of science on captive cetacean welfare grows. All tourism companies should follow Virgin’s pioneering lead.”

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One Response

  1. JM

    I agree all this is a bit dumb. SeaWorld isn’t a fly-by-night company. They take their precautions seriously. Surely, they have had faults, but they have also worked very hard to correct these faults, and they are listening to complaints and concerns carefully.

    I do however feel that some of this is self-inflicted. SeaWorld made the decision to stop the captive breeding program and to phase out the killer whale shows altogether, largely succumbing to public pressure. The message they have sent is clear: criticize us enough and we will give in. 4 years ago, when they did this, I predicted the animal rights groups would not stop there. They would be coming back, and would likely come for the dolphins next. This has happened.

    When you give in to these people, they will expect more and more. While I think there are certainly improvements that could be made, and I myself am not concerned with the loss of captive breeding and whale shows, I fear SeaWorld set itself up for more harm in the long run here. It’s going to be constant defensive posturing from here on until the animals rights groups get their way – which is the removal of ALL marine animals from the park.

    That is where this ends, folks. You can’t have it both way.