Last year was a sad one for anyone who enjoyed "animal shows". Not only did we lose the Shamu shows but other similar acts such as those found in circuses shut down as well. Faced with this change in audience demands, SeaWorld - an organization that has always done great work with conservation and research - had a tough choice. On one hand, they had custody of these amazing animals that simply can not be safely returned to the wild after decades of domestication. On the other, they knew that the age of "animal entertainment shows" was over. Ultimately Orca Encounter isn't going to make the eco warriors happy, but I think it does a great job transforming the Shamu show into something more appropriate for today's audiences. Don't worry though - you still get to see jumps and if you sit in the first few rows, you will still get soaked!
Ultimately, this new incarnation is a very good show that is as educational as it is entertaining. I'm not going to pretend that it is as exciting as the Shamu show but if this was the first time you've seen orcas in real life it's pretty darn cool. Certainly more exciting than it is on a whale watching expedition where you'll be lucky to see more than the fin sticking out of the water. It's also a great opportunity to learn about all the great work that SeaWorld is doing to help Orcas and other marine mammals.
For anyone who has been to the previous shows at San Diego SeaWorld, you'll notice that the theater itself is generally the same - except that there is now a massive three story "Infinity Screen" behind the pool. Generally, the entire backdrop feels a lot more "natural" and a lot less "Vegas Show". The person from SeaWorld who introduced the opening was exactly correct - this is now an interactive documentary experience, instead of pure entertainment.
Don't worry though - while the dancing, diving, and singing trainers are gone forever, these talented orcas can still put on a great show. However, now each trick demonstration comes with a description of how it connects to behavior in the wild. For instance, a demonstration that resulted in a giant wave breaking over the edge of the tank was connected with behavior in the wild designed to knock seals off of rocks and into the water.
Just like how the jumps and other demonstrations have been preserved - so have the splashes. You will get wet if you sit in the first few rows!
The new Infinity Screen is used extremely well in the show as well. Throughout the experience, it alternates between being a backdrop that almost makes you feel as though you are watching the whales swim through fjords or through islands off the coast of British Columbia, but also able to illustrate educational tidbits. For instance, as large as these orcas are - look at how much bigger the blue whale is!
Ultimately, I'm happy with what SeaWorld has produced here. The show is still very entertaining and it is good for all ages. I'm a fan of activities where you can have fun while learning and this is absolutely one of them. While it won't satisfy everyone - such as the lady behind me as we walked out who exclaimed, "that was so boring!" it is still a great experience. She's right though, but we as a society are growing, maturing, and deciding that exploitation of animals isn't the right behavior. To anyone who saw this show for the first time - such as the hundreds of kids in the audience, I'm sure they are walking away inspired by both the animals as well as the caretakers. SeaWorld does a lot of great work with conservation and research and this show just feels like a logical extension of that to show people what they've learned and are doing to protect marine mammals around the world.
Sadly though, in another 30-40 years, even these shows will be phased out since SeaWorld has agreed to end it's orca breeding program. So, if you missed the Shamu shows - you better hurry out and see this one before it's too late!