By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO (Reuters) - SeaWorld Orlando has ended a popular program for visitors to hand-feed its dolphins, ending what conservationists believe was the last such large-scale program in the United States.
Until the attraction was quietly stopped last month, big groups of guests bought $7 trays of fish and fed the dolphins. The opportunity drew visitors to the dolphin pool at meal times.
The park is replacing the program on March 2 with a $15, reservation-only package that allows small groups to spend several minutes touching and interacting with dolphins but not feeding them.
"Dolphin Cove will continue to provide areas where all guests are able to view dolphins up close, and interact with animals that choose to interact with them," said spokeswoman Becca Bides in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
Conservationists hailed the move as an incremental improvement in the treatment of captive marine mammals, saying the feeding pools are dangerous.
"It’s out of date, out of style and it’s full of risk," said Courtney Vail, campaign and program manager for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
Vail said dolphins have been harmed in large feeding programs fighting over food and by guests dropping objects into the pools, not washing their hands and touching the dolphins’ eyes or blowholes. Guests occasionally are bitten, she said.
Vail said feeding programs encourage people to feed dolphins in the wild, leading to dolphin-boat collisions and teaching dolphins to beg rather than forage.
Vail said most aquariums other than SeaWorld ended feeding programs years ago.
Feeding of dolphins will remain a part of SeaWorld’s sister park in Orlando, Discovery Cove, where a limited number of guests touch, feed and swim with dolphins.
SeaWorld San Diego ended its large group feeding program in 2012, followed by the San Antonio park in 2013, according to Bides. Those parks still allow guests in small group interaction programs to feed dolphins.
Attendance at SeaWorld Orlando park took a hit after a 2013 documentary focused on its captive killer whale program, and in particular on Tilikum, formerly a performing a killer whale that drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Her death led a federal administrative judge to order the theme park to maintain barriers between trainers and the whales.
In August, the company announced a planned expansion of the whale pools, and a $10 million contribution to killer whale research.
(Editing by David Adams and Cynthia Osterman)