Controversy-stricken SeaWorld opens first park outside of United States

The entrance of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi.
(Image credit: Nick ElHajj/AP Photo)

Amidst continuing controversy over its treatment of aquatic animals, the American amusement chain SeaWorld has opened a new park in the United Arab Emirates, its first outside of the United States.

SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, located in the UAE's capital city, is a $1.2 billion investment. While the park does not have any orcas, The Associated Press reported, there are large marine mammals such as dolphins and seals.

The new facility is part of a continuing push by the Orlando, Florida-based SeaWorld to improve its image "after years of criticism and allegations of animal cruelty," the AP reported. SeaWorld's choosing of Abu Dhabi is likely intentional — tourism in the city is increasing, with Abu Dhabi set to see 24 million visitors by the end of 2023, according to Emirati newspaper The National.

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The opening of the Abu Dhabi park comes 10 years after controversy over SeaWorld peaked following the release of the documentary film "Blackfish." The film examined the life of Tilikum, a captive 12,000-pound orca that was involved in three fatal attacks on humans.

"Blackfish" concluded that orcas become more aggressive in captivity, and that Tilikum's behavior was partially because he'd been captive almost his entire life. John Hargrove, a former Orca trainer, told National Geographic he "saw the psychological and physical trauma that results from captivity."

SeaWorld has denied these assertions, but the film caused "visitor numbers to plummet across SeaWorld's three parks in the United States," the AP reported. In 2020, SeaWorld paid $65 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the company of lying to investors about the impact the film had on the park's profits.

As criticism over its captive orcas continued, SeaWorld ended its orca breeding program in 2016. Requests by AP journalists to tour the Abu Dhabi park were reportedly denied.

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Justin Klawans

Justin Klawans is a staff writer at The Week. Based in Chicago, he was previously a breaking news reporter for Newsweek, writing breaking news and features for verticals including politics, U.S. and global affairs, business, crime, sports, and more. His reporting has been cited on many online platforms, in addition to CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

He is also passionate about entertainment and sports news, and has covered film, television, and casting news as a freelancer for outlets like Collider and United Press International, as well as Chicago sports news for Fansided.