By now you’ve likely heard about the controversy surrounding SeaWorld. As a result of the documentary film Blackfish, and its exposure of what animal rights advocates claim is mistreatment of the orcas used in SeaWorld shows, calls for a boycott of the marine mammal theme park chain have grown. The debate goes on: SeaWorld released an open letter stating that, among other things, their research on captive whales benefits those in the wild, but the Oceanic Preservation Society then rebutted the claims.
And there are signs that public opinion is turning against the theme parks. The company recently posted a 13 percent drop in attendance. If you the claims have gotten the better of your conscience and you’re looking for an alternative, here are seven places in North America where you see the same animals that you’ll find at SeaWorld, but in their natural habitats.
San Juan Islands, Washington
The San Juan Islands offer the best opportunity to see orcas (aka “killer whales) in their natural habitat in the continental United States. You can potentially spot these magnificent creatures year-round, but your best chance is from May through October. A number of whale watching companies operate in the area. Western Prince Whale and Wildlife Tours runs three- to four-hour tours on custom boats that fit up to 32 people. Their smaller “expedition-style” boats fit up to 15 people. In order to avoid interference with the mammals in their natural habitat, the company’s current guidelines state that they do not approach the whales within 200 yards in U.S. waters and 100 meters (about 109 yards) in Canadian waters.
Blue Spring State Park, Florida
Less than an hour’s drive from SeaWorld Orlando, Blue Spring State Park covers more than 2,600 acres, and includes the largest spring on the St. John’s River. The spring serves as the winter home for the growing number of West Indian Manatees that swim upriver to bask in the warmer waters. Blue Spring is a designated Manatee Refuge and the spring and spring run are closed during Manatee season, from mid-November through March 15. Swimming or diving with manatees is strictly forbidden.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of 14 marine protected areas that make up the National Marine Sanctuary System. The Sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of waters surrounding the Florida Keys, where the 1,700 islands provide a home to a wide variety of animals, including dolphins. Wild dolphin viewing tours are available through several different charter companies. Visit the Dolphin SMART website and check the updated operator list to select a tour that views dolphins in the wild in a responsible, environmentally friendly way.
La Jolla, San Diego and Pier 39, San Francisco
Just a 15-minute drive north of SeaWorld San Diego, you can find seals and a rapidly growing colony of sea lions basking on rocks and swimming in the waters of La Jolla Cove. Sadly, as the numbers of animals making their home on the beach has increased, so too have incidences of abuse. The Western Alliance for Nature have now installed a video camera to capture any acts of cruelty.
The sea lions of San Francisco’s Pier 39, on the other hand, have made a happy home around the marina for many years; free from predators and with a plentiful food supply from the San Francisco Bay. To learn more about the creatures, staff from Aquarium of the Bay are at K-Dock every afternoon to answer questions.
Auau Channel, Hawaii
From December to May, humpback whales, like many of us, are drawn to Hawaii’s warm, shallow waters. You can spot humpbacks across all of the Hawaiian Islands, but the best spot is the shallow Auau Channel between West Maui, Lanai, and Molokai. Lahaina Harbor, which was once the center of Hawaii’s whaling industry, is home to a number of whale watching tour operators, such as the Pacific Whale Foundation. All watercraft must stay a minimum of 100 yards from the whales.
On O’ahu, you can hike the relatively easy route to the 1909-built Makapu’u Lighthouse that sits on a 600-foot sea cliff overlooking Makapu’u Beach. From there you can usually spot humpback whales in the distance.
To see beluga whales in the wild, you’ll have to travel far north. Each summer, from mid-June to mid-August, thousands of these genial whales converge in the waters of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada. Tour options for seeing these playful (and noisy) whales include an all-inclusive seven-night itinerary with Churchill Nature Tours and a six-night educational tour with the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
Update, November 2015: SeaWorld is announcing that it will end the killer whale shows at its San Diego park by the end of 2016 to make way for a “new orca experience” that will debut the following year, USA Today reports. The California Coastal Commission recently refused to give SeaWorld Entertainment any permission to breed killer whales — a decision that would have impacted those shows.