By NICK EL HAJJ
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The U.S. theme park chain SeaWorld, mired in controversy in recent years over its treatment of killer whales and other marine mammals, has opened a massive new aquatic life park in the United Arab Emirates, its first outside the United States.
The $1.2 billion venture with state-owned developer Miral features the world’s largest aquarium and a cylindrical LED screen. There are no orcas here, but the park houses animals like dolphins and seals, whose captivity and training for profit and entertainment purposes are also often criticized as unethical by animal rights advocacy groups.
The new facility, which opened to visitors last month, gives the Orlando, Florida-based company a foothold in a fast-growing international tourism destination and the opportunity to continue its rebranding after years of criticism and allegations of animal cruelty.
SeaWorld and Miral declined multiple interview requests from The Associated Press. They also did not answer written questions or grant AP journalists access to the park.
Scrutiny of SeaWorld reached a crescendo following the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” The documentary focused on the life of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau when he dragged her into a pool at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. The film implied that orcas become more aggressive in captivity.
The film caused visitor numbers to plummet across SeaWorld’s three parks in the United States. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. later agreed to pay $65 million to settle a lawsuit in which it was accused of misleading investors over the impact the documentary was having on its bottom line.
In the face of mounting criticism, SeaWorld halted its orca breeding program and live performances featuring the whales in 2016. That same year, it announced plans to build a park without orcas in Abu Dhabi in the UAE.
The company’s promotional materials say it is committed to rescuing and rehabilitating animals, and that a full-time staff of veterinarians ensures they are well cared for. Last year, its Orlando theme park opened a facility to care for Florida manatees that were dying from starvation in their natural habitat. The company says it has raised $17 million to support hundreds of research and conservation projects around the globe.
“By leveraging a fundamental SeaWorld design principle of putting animal well-being and care at the core of the design, SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is set to redefine the standards of excellence for marine life theme parks across the world,” the company’s chairman, Scott Ross, said in a statement.
The park is certified by the international brand of American Humane, which is behind the end-credit certifications that no animals were harmed in the making of films. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, widely seen as the gold standard for humane certifications, has certified SeaWorld’s U.S. facilities, but the Abu Dhabi park has not submitted an application for accreditation, according to Jennifer DiNenna, director of accreditation at the AZA.
Steps taken since the “Blackfish” controversy have yet to silence some of SeaWorld’s critics.
“SeaWorld is part of an industry built on the suffering of intelligent, social beings who are denied everything that’s natural and important to them,” said Jason Baker, senior vice president of international campaigns at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
“In nature, dolphins live in large, complex social groups and swim vast distances every day. In captivity, they can only swim in endless circles inside tanks that, to them, are the equivalent of bathtubs.”
During a scheduled inspection of SeaWorld Orlando last December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the company for animal welfare violations after discovering a dolphin “actively bleeding” from “many deep rake marks,” and excessive chlorine levels in the dolphin tanks.
There have been no reports of abuse at the newly opened Abu Dhabi park which did not answer questions about its treatment of dolphins.
“In the wild, if there is aggression between two animals, they can simply swim away into the open ocean,” said John Jett, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld Orlando who spoke out against it in “Blackfish.” “But in captivity, the animals are trapped, and what you find is dolphin-on-dolphin aggression that is manifested quite often in broken teeth and rakes up and down their bodies.”
At the same time, he says, such animals would be poor candidates for being released into the wild, as most are born in captivity and rely on humans to survive. Plans to release Lolita, a killer whale held captive at the Miami Seaquarium for more than a half-century, have raised fears among some of her former caregivers that she might not survive the ordeal.
For the United Arab Emirates, home to the futuristic city of Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the arrival of SeaWorld adds yet another major tourist attraction.
The partnership with Miral brings SeaWorld into a larger plan to transform Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island into a theme park hub to rival Orlando. The island already boasts a Formula 1 circuit, a water park and a Warner Bros. theme park, and celebrities like Kevin Hart and Jason Momoa have been enlisted to promote it.
“It’s a form of non-oil diversification and soft power,” said Christopher Davidson, a former professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in Britain. “Association with big brands like this serves as a ready-made import to the UAE and will automatically translate into increased tourist numbers.”
SeaWorld pays homage to Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage with a themed “realm” of traditional houses and sailboats evoking a simpler time before the discovery of oil, when the sparsely populated emirates largely relied on fishing and pearl-diving.
An in-house research facility will study aquatic life in the Persian Gulf and support the conservation of local species, including the manatee-like endangered dugong.
Jett, the former orca trainer, acknowledges that companies like SeaWorld have a role to play in conservation, saying they’ve done “really good work” on animal rescue and rehabilitation.
“I wish they would focus more of their energy, expertise, and finances on taking a lead role in moving global policy and helping animals in the wild, rather than figuring out ways to keep them alive in captivity,” he said.