Well, that didn’t take long at all. Just yesterday I wrote about the rather vaguely worded announcement from SeaWorld indicating that they would be ending their live killer whale shows at their parks. It engendered a bit of a debate in our comments section over how well off the beasts were in their tanks, but the fact that the company has been under a lot of pressure is clear. What was going to happen to the whales is a different question, and as soon as I heard the news I had immediate suspicions.

What the new “informative Orca experience” is going to be they’re not saying, but I assume it’s not having the killer whales jumping over sticks in a pool and splashing tourists…

Of course, if they don’t plan on releasing the whales I’m not sure how much better off they’re going to be, but perhaps if they can’t run these big circus shows with them they’ll eventually cut them loose. The sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.

Those suspicions, based on the rather ambiguous wording of the announcement, were well founded. Slate did some checking with representatives of SeaWorld and it sounds like not all that much is changing after all.

Some outlets greeted this news by declaring that SeaWorld was “ending” its killer whale shows. That’s really not the case…

[CEO Joel] Manby said that even if SeaWorld wins its challenge, it still might not proceed with Blue World, and that he believes the company can improve the whales’ conditions “for a lot less money.” The new orca extravaganza appears to be part of that effort.

What exactly will the more “natural” show entail? For starters, don’t expect to see a true-to-life replica of the Pacific Northwest or Arctic. They’ll take place in the same watery blue prisons the whales are presently swimming around in (in fact, Manby says the park has already tried versions of these more “educational” programs at night). Any capital expenditures to spruce up the tanks will be “minimal,” Manby said. Aside from that, the shows probably won’t involve whales lifting their trainers into the air on their muzzles. But there will be whale dancing. Just naturalistic whale dancing.

The CEO is also giving hints that they won’t be changing the whale shows notably at their facilities in Texas or Florida. In those parks they’ve run into far fewer protests than in San Diego, so it may just be business as usual. And as for the whales in California, it doesn’t sound like they’re going to be cut loose.

But could they be released at all? One reader claimed that they would just die in the wild anyway, but marine biology isn’t my background so I had to do some checking. The answer seems to be… it’s complicated. One animal protection group tracked the story of the actual Orca behind Free Willy and found that the animals can be returned to the wild sometimes, but it’s not as simple as just opening a gate to the Pacific.

After Free Willy, a powerful public campaign was established to return Keiko to the wild. Through the collaboration of environmental groups, the filmmakers and a private benefactor, Keiko was transferred to a huge sea pen in his native waters in Iceland in 1998. There, Keiko was returned to health, adapted to his new environment and taken out on ‘ocean walks’, where he was equipped with a satellite tag to track his movements as he followed a research boat. In July 2002, after some contact with wild orcas, Keiko began a five-week journey, alone, across the Atlantic, eventually arriving in Norway in good health. Although he never joined a wild orca pod, at his death in December 2003, Keiko was a free whale.

So it’s definitely possible, but there are many complicating factors which include how long the animal was in captivity and how much their natural skills have atrophied. Some need to learn to hunt for and consume wild fish if they were only hand fed their entire lives. They may also be too trusting of humans which can lead to all sorts of problems ranging from injury caused by encountering boat props to getting “too frisky” with humans on paddle boards who have no idea that it’s a “domesticated” killer whale knocking them into the bay.

It’s a tough call. If the whales can’t make it on the outside then I guess they may as well stay with SeaWorld and get a free meal. Still seems like a cramped and lousy environment for a huge ocean going creature, though.