SeaWorld Orlando Ends Public Dolphin Feedings

ORLANDO, Fla. (Orlando Sentinel/TNS) -

The tradition of feeding dolphins at a petting area has ended at SeaWorld Orlando.

People have gathered for years at Dolphin Cove to pet the creatures and spend a few dollars on fish for them. Now, SeaWorld has revamped the pool. Visitors can still pet dolphins, but may not feed them.

Instead, guests can purchase packages that include touching the dolphins and having their photos taken with them under a trainer’s supervision. Those 10-minute packages — starting at $15 per person — will not include feeding. Visitors can sign up in advance online, beginning March 2. Each session can include five groups of up to 10 people each.

Visitors who don’t want to pay can still try to touch the dolphins for free. They just can’t lure them with food, which had cost $7 previously.

Asked why it changed the system, SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides said in an email the new program is similar to popular ones in SeaWorld’s San Diego and San Antonio parks.

“I think it’s evolving,” said Eric Davis, a blogger who writes about SeaWorld and ocean life. “You look at some of the criticisms that have come and the potential for harm to an animal by guests having unrestricted access to any animal, I think in the end this is best for everyone.”

There have been a few reported incidents over the years of children bitten while petting or feeding the dolphins.

A petition on calling for an end to the feedings has more than 23,000 signatures. “Most animal theme parks have discontinued dolphin-feeding programs because of the risks to the dolphins and the untrained public, making SeaWorld one of the last parks to follow suit,” it says.

On Monday afternoon at the park in Orlando, the dolphins still approached about two dozen visitors clustered around the cove area. Some delighted guests had an opportunity to pet their rostrums and flippers. One even lay across a ledge allowing people to touch it. The dolphins made clicking noises and splashed water as two staffers looked on.

“I wouldn’t particularly like feeding them. Just touching them is enough,” said Jerry Montes of Apopka, Fla.

Still, Richard Kincade of Jacksonville, Fla., had hoped to let his 5-year-old niece feed the dolphins and was disappointed when he learned she could not.

“She keeps trying to pet it and they’re not coming up her,” he said.

The timing is unfortunate, said Scott Smith, assistant hospitality instructor at the University of South Carolina.

SeaWorld has had a run of bad news.

The company’s park attendance and stock value have both declined as it has battled controversy over its captive killer whales, fueled by the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” Last week, a beluga whale died at the Orlando park after being treated for an infection associated with a jaw injury.

In December, SeaWorld Entertainment laid off more than 300 employees — including three popular performing mimes. SeaWorld’s decision to get rid of the mimes upset many guests. Now another popular tradition goes by the wayside.

“That’s one of the SeaWorld traditions in Orlando, being able to … buy the food and feed the dolphins,” Smith said. “Now you’re taking away that tradition that’s been around since they opened, so that’s always tough to do. You have what’s called the entitlement effect. The longer something goes on as a tradition, the more negative reaction you get from the customers (when it ends).”

But Kathleen Dezio, Executive Director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, said many attractions have evolved dolphin interactions.

Programs like SeaWorld’s “helped facilities realize people really enjoyed them and wanted even more time to interact with the animals, and to do so in ways other than just feeding them,” Dezio said in an email. “That realization in turn led to the many innovations we’ve seen in these programs over the years at many facilities to make them more interactive, educational and personal.”

SeaWorld has a swim-with-dolphins program at its more exclusive sister park Discovery Cove. People can feed dolphins there.